Who is my neighbor?
This is one of the most familiar stories in all of Christian tradition. In American civic life at least, it has almost been boiled to a bit of a cliché.
As if it’s about decent etiquette.
As if Jesus’ focus was being nice.
Matthew Skinner writes, “The parable of the Good Samaritan often gets reduced to something like a medieval morality play.”
But the truth is that the context is Jesus walking on the road toward his own death. Just before this parable, we read in Luke 9:51 that Jesus had “set his face to Jerusalem,” which meant the beginning of the end. Tension was likely high. If these were the final chapters, there’s little time.
And on this journey to Jerusalem, he meets a lawyer who asks him what to some was and is a most important question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
As if to say, sum it all up for me? How can I experience heaven? This kingdom of heaven you say is at hand, what must I do to feel it?
And as is Jesus style, he answers a question with a question and not just one, but two. What is written in the law? What do you read there?
The lawyer is good and knows his stuff. But still, this is an easy one. The Great Commandment, the foundation of the whole enterprise: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”
Jesus is quick to affirm the lawyer’s response. “You have given the right answer” he says.
Perhaps it is simply my personality type, but that would be just about all I needed to hear from the Master Teacher. You answered right. You got it right.
But then Jesus goes on to say something that could be easily missed.
After Jesus says, “You have given the right answer” He says, “Do this, and you will live.”
Notice that he doesn’t say think and pray about this. Does he ever mention thoughts and prayers? You would think that was written in the Bible for how many times it is used in public discourse!
Jesus doesn’t say believe this. He doesn’t say understand this. He doesn’t say colonize the world to share this. Jesus says. Do. This! Do this and you will live.
But this doesn’t quite satisfy the good lawyer so he presents Jesus with another question. “Who is my neighbor?”
Jesus is one of those people where one might think twice before asking him anything, like do we actually have enough time?
Jesus of course goes on to tell of a man getting robbed and being left in a ditch to die. Then he reveals that even the ones lifted up as the righteous, the ones with status, the religious leaders, the priest, even those from the right background, the right neighborhood, even they get it wrong. The thing we miss now beyond this first century context is that the one Jesus is lifting up with this story, the one who gets it right, the Samaritan, is the one they all hate.
As poet and theologian Debie Thomas writes, “By the time Jesus told this story, the enmity between the Jews and the Samaritans was ancient, entrenched, and bitter. The two groups disagreed about everything that mattered: how to honor God, how to interpret the Scriptures, and where to worship. They practiced their faith in separate temples, read different versions of the Torah, and avoided social contact with each other whenever possible. Truth be told, they hated each other's guts. Though we're inclined to love the Good Samaritan, Jesus's choice to make him the hero of his story was nothing less than shocking to first century ears.”1
In order to make this teaching come alive for us now, we must expand our sense of where we might put ourselves in the narrative.
The easy and aspirational place to situate, is the “good Samaritan.” We each hope that would be us- that we would be the one to do what is hard, socially awkward or inconvenient. But Debie Thomas goes on, “If we too easily and comfortably identify with the Good Samaritan in this parable, maybe we're missing the point. Maybe the whole point of the Samaritan is that he is not us.”
We are the ones who pass by hurry and with indifference. As you heard from part of Elie Wiesel’s speech earlier, indifference is the death of hope. Elie Wiesel was just 15 when he was sent to Auschwitz and later Buchenwald during the Holocaust where his mother and younger sister perished.He said, “The opposite of love is not hate, it's indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it's indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it's indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it's indifference.” “to be indifferent to that suffering is what makes the human being inhuman. Indifference, after all, is more dangerous than anger and hatred. Anger can at times be creative….But indifference is never creative.”2
“The opposite of love is not hate, it's indifference.”
We are not the hero, instead the hero is the one we loathe… The one whose view we cannot stand. That one is the one who gets it right.
Part of the genius of Jesus’ teachings, not unlike others in Wisdom Traditions, is that he moves the order, changes the roles, reverses the expected location of power. What then are we to make of it?
Do you notice the only character in the story who isn’t labeled with any categories of culture or creed or class?
That’s right. It’s the one in need of help.
That’s the universal.
That’s all of us. Maybe we are the one on the edge, holding on for dear life. Because at some point if we haven’t already, we will find ourselves in a ditch of despair, where it seems our lives are broken beyond repair. Each of us, at some point, will need to be pulled up.
And at those moments, in those seasons, we are forced to unravel the myth of radical individualism… In times like that, our ability to get out of those holes, requires help. Our own healing becomes tied up with another…
And yet, indifference has infected our culture and our lives and I suspect that this has helped to build the walls between us. But “The opposite of faith is not heresy, it's indifference.”
So who is my neighbor? Who is your neighbor?
In the epic film Gandhi starring Ben Kingsley, the powerful and painful story of the struggle for Independence, shows worst and best of human beings.
Throughout the process, Gandhi engages in fasts, offers teach-ins and gives his leadership, love and prayers for the movement. British soldiers took the lives of innocents at sacred spaces, Indians in the countryside starved, as British viceroys thrived. Toward the end of the film, divisions between Hindus and Muslims where brought to the streets with swords and rioting, where children, women, and men of all ages were killed. The scene we enter now is after some of the most intense violence. A group of fighters comes to Gandhi as his health declines from fasting. He has fasted in an attempt to stop the killing. The fighters come to plead with him to eat again.
[Shown: Clip of Gandhi, the movie, Directed by Richard Attenborough and written John Briley]
The word neighbor in Greek is plesion, or near. So maybe part of what Jesus is saying is a neighbor is all who are near, anyone and everyone with whom are lives are bound. Our neighbor is even the one we loathe, even the Samaritan. Because even he can show us what is right and surprise the world with light. So maybe the question for us is whether we would be open?
Indifference is how this story begins, but it ends with extravagant hospitality, with abundant grace, with needs met and generosity and mercy made known.
“What must I do to inherit eternal life?” I know a way out of hell, out of the ditch of despair and it is love, it is mercy beyond whatever is known right then and there. Love like this. Receive love like this. You will live heaven. Go and Do…
May it be so. Amen.
1 Go and Do Likewise by Debie Thomas https://www.journeywithjesus.net/essays/1023-go-and-do-likewise