Refugees and the Good Samaritan: on being a neighbour

When confronted with refugees and asylum seekers living in our communities—let alone those being processed offshore—it can be hard to know what to do. How can we help these people? Should we help these people?

One place we can go in the Christian scriptures to find out how we should respond is the famous story Jesus tells about the Good Samaritan. It’s a story Jesus tells to show us what kind of people God’s people should be. It begins with a teacher of the law asking Jesus ‘who is my neighbour?’ (Luke 10:29.) He’s trying to work out who he really has to love. By the end of the story, Jesus has turned the question around, asking: ‘Who proved to be a neighbour?’ (Luke 10:36.) Jesus wants us to think about who we are, and what that means for how we treat others.

For those who follow the Lord Jesus, the question ‘Are they worthy?’ is an invalid question: we are to love them nonetheless.

We can apply this teaching about what a neighbour looks like to the care of refugees and asylum seekers living in our communities. Let’s pick up the story at Luke 10:30.

“A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho and fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him, beat him up, and fled, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down that road. When he saw him, he passed by on the other side. In the same way, a Levite, when he arrived at the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan on his journey came up to him, and when he saw the man…”

We all remember what happens next, of course, but it’s worth reading it in full anyway:

When he saw the man, he stopped, and began to wonder what he should do. He could probably help out a bit, but he was already running late. He didn’t know the man. He looked Jewish. For all he knew he might be a pretty rotten guy. He might even have been injured in the act of committing a crime! So the Samaritan stooped down and roused the man from his unconscious state, saying to him: “Who are you? What happened?” The man, with blood, tears and sweat in his eyes, gasping for breath, said: “Thieves, robbers…” 

Not being able to verify the man’s story, the Samaritan searches the man’s possessions for identity papers. Finding them to be up to date, he conceded that he was probably an okay guy, the Samaritan put him on his donkey and took him to an inn. When they arrived, the Samaritan ran inside and said to the innkeeper: “Sir, I’m running really late, and I’m not coming back this way. Here’s fifty dollars to cover a room for a few hours. If he comes too and can’t pay, call the police.”

‘But wait!’ I hear you say, ‘That’s not what I was taught in Sunday School!’ Of course, you’re right: that’s not at all how the Samaritan treats the man. This mis-telling of the story draws our attention to both what the Samaritan does do and what he does not do. Here’s the way Jesus’ story actually reads:

“[The Samaritan], when he saw the man, he had compassion. He went over to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on olive oil and wine. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out coins worth about two days’ wages, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him. When I come back I’ll reimburse you for whatever extra you spend.’”

This is what it looks like when someone is a neighbour to someone else.

There are five things we should note from Jesus about what it means for us to be neighbours. Each of them have implications for how we should relate to refugees in our communities.

1. A neighbour loves personally.

The Samaritan doesn’t phone a friend. He rolls up his sleeves and gets involved. We have plenty of excellent welfare and social services in Australia – praise God that our government, more than most, looks after us. But we can’t use that as an excuse to not get involved. If we are going to be a neighbour, we’ll need to get personally involved.

Perhaps the challenge for we Christians, seeking to be neighbours, to go beyond the practical need for food, clothing and accommodation to the need for relationship.

2. A neighbour’s love is not based on worthiness.

The Samaritan doesn’t stop to consider whether or not this is a good guy. His love is not contingent on the man’s moral worthiness. He sees someone in need, and without a second thought, acting as a neighbour, he gets in and helps. The full significance of this is seen in that the man of whom Jesus approves is a Samaritan. In the first century, Samaritans were not on good terms with Jews; a Jew would not have been likely to assist a Samaritan, and Jesus’ Jewish hearers would have been shocked to hear about a Samaritan helping a Jew! Despite this difference, the Samaritan in Jesus’ story asks nothing about the man in the road, but simply goes to his aid.

The vast majority of the refugees in our communities are normal people, not criminals; many of them are likely to be outstanding members of any community they are a part of. But even if their history is sketchy, a tapestry of darkness and light, we are still called to be a neighbour to them. For those who follow the Lord Jesus, the question ‘Are they worthy?’ is an invalid question: we are to love them nonetheless.

3. A neighbour’s love is risky.

The Samaritan doesn’t stop to worry about whether or not the man presents a threat or whether he might also be in danger of being mugged. All love is like this, really; to love someone is to make yourself vulnerable to manipulation, to rejection, or to hurt of various kinds. Our love might not be reciprocated, but if we aren’t willing to take that risk then it isn’t really love at all.

Some refugees in our community (almost certainly a tiny minority) may even turn out to be criminals who abuse our love. So be it; our responsibility to love them is not diminished by this risk.

4. A neighbour’s love is costly.

The Samaritan leaves a substantial sum of money and promises to pay any extra expenses. Likewise, if we are to prove to be neighbours to the refugees in our communities, we must not let the expense of money or time limit the love we show.

5. A neighbour’s love is comprehensive.

The Samaritan doesn’t only treat the man’s wounds, or only give him money, or only find him accommodation. Notice also that he isn’t satisfied with meeting the immediate needs only, but agrees to return to check on him. A neighbour will tackle needs from multiple angles and will recognise needs as ongoing.

There are a number of excellent organisations that seek to meet refugees’ needs in a comprehensive, holistic manner. Simple Love supports the work of the Asylum Seekers Centre and House of Welcome, organisations who support refugees in Sydney in multiple ways from multiple angles. Simple Love helps churches to be a part of this holistic care through providing food.

Perhaps the challenge for we Christians, seeking to be neighbours, to go beyond the practical need for food, clothing and accommodation to the need for relationship. I think we can characterise the neighbourliness of the Samaritan as friendship; he proves to be a friend to the man in the road. Refugees and asylum seekers desperately need friends. They need help to get around and to find their feet; they need communities to plug in to. How might we befriend the refugees among us and enfold them into communities of neighbours? Organisations like Simple Love, the Asylum Seekers Centre and House of Welcome can help us to find ways to be neighbours in a more comprehensive way.

Loving as We’ve Been Loved

This is the kind of neighbourly love we are called to as followers of the Lord Jesus. He calls us to enter into relationships marked by personal, generous, risky, costly and comprehensive love.

This makes perfect sense when we think about the love Jesus himself has shown to us. “But God proves His own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). He loved us even at the cost of his own life. He has loved us as a neighbour, putting our needs before his own. We are called to love in this same way:

“Love one another,” Jesus commands his disciples. “Just as I have loved you, you must also love one another. By this all people will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35). The Apostle Paul says: “as we have opportunity, we must work for the good of all” (Galatians 6:10). Our love for one another and for all those whom we meet is an expression of our love for our God, who loved us first in Jesus Christ.

The Christian response to refugees living in our midst is simple. Love. But because it’s simple doesn’t mean it’s easy; neighbourly love is a hard and a high calling—but Jesus has already shown us the way. Let’s follow and honour his love for us by being neighbours to the refugees in our communities.

Richard is a student at Moore Theological College. He and his wife Alison attend Cottage Church, part of St. Stephen’s Anglican Newtown.