Texts: Deuteronomy 30:9-14; Colossians 1:1-14; Luke 10:25-37
Perhaps he wanted to know the limits of what he was required to do; in other words, where to draw the line between “neighbor” and “stranger,” between those who require love, and those who need only benign neglect. Or maybe he wanted further affirmation from Jesus that was already loving the right people. Either way, it is the answer to his second question that is most difficult.
Loving one’s neighbor is an easy enough thing to do—if one gets to choose one’s own neighbors. People who look like us and think like us, people who come from the same backgrounds and have the same values, people who have similar ideas about religion and politics and money, these are the people we have little to no problem loving.
It’s when new folks start moving into the neighborhood that things get messy. What about our neighbor who parrots back crazy conspiracy theories from radical fringe groups? What about the neighbor who comes from another country and can’t even speak the language? What about those neighbors who worship different gods and call us infidels? Those neighbors are harder to love. We may try; we may even welcome them into the neighborhood and be the first to extend a hand of friendship, but sometimes the differences are just too much and we find it hard or even impossible to “go and do likewise.”
You probably already know that Jews and Samaritans hate each other, so the fact that the Samaritan is the hero is intended to surprise us. You may also already know that the priest and the Levite, probably on their way to the temple in Jerusalem, avoided the man because they thought he might be dead. Touching a dead body would have made them unclean and unable to enter the temple, so they passed by. That is actually false. Jewish law places the care of persons—even dead ones—far above the need to remain clean: according to Jewish law, if a traveling priest came across a dead body, he was obligated to bury it.**
In reality, the reason why the priest and the Levite don’t stop to help is irrelevant. It’s a parable, not an anecdote. These aren’t real people, and this story didn’t happen. The point is that the people we would expect to stop—the people who actually were neighbors to the man who was attacked: who shared his ethnicity, his language, his religion and his nationality—didn’t; the one who did stop was the true neighbor in spite of the fact that he shared none of those neighborly characteristics with the man in the ditch. What makes one person neighbor to another is not where they live or what language they speak or what religion they are, but simply having compassion and showing mercy to one another. That neighborly bond crosses even barriers like the animosity between Jews and Samaritans.
So there you have it: a neighbor is anyone who shows mercy. Go and do likewise: go and be good neighbors to the neighbors God has given you. Have compassion, show mercy, inherit eternal life. It’s as easy as that, right?
In reading this parable more closely, I find it very entertaining that this it has come to be our standard take-away from the story. It’s a good reading, and something we should all strive for, but the fact that we can hear this story and come away from it having gained only a sense of obligation is both humorous and depressing at the same time. It speaks to our underlying faith in laws and rules to save us. We talk the talk of being saved by grace through faith, but ultimately we turn to laws and rules and “what must I do” when we want to know how we might come to inherit eternal life.
Perhaps somewhere deep inside, we simply can’t believe that people like us—even doing the best we can—could really be worthy of God’s grace, of inheriting eternal life. Maybe that’s why we find it so hard to love our neighbors as ourselves; those neighbors annoy and confound and sometimes even harm us, and far more often than compassion, we find ourselves feeling incredulity, disgust and even rage towards them. How could God feel any differently towards us? When we look at those infuriating neighbors of ours, we maybe we subconsciously see ourselves as we think God must see us.
I think it is our own self-hatred and self-doubt that keep us from being able to love our difficult neighbors. We turn to rules and guidelines to keep ourselves in line because we trust them more than we trust ourselves. Whereas we are so fickle, so prone to prejudice and implicit bias, the law is equally applicable to everyone. It is the only impartial arbiter. The law gives us a standard we can live up to and a way to measure our progress.
That’s what is depressing to me about coming away from this parable with only “go and do likewise:” it is a commentary on how little we think we are worth in God’s eyes and a profession of our faith in the ability of following rules to save us. What is humorous to me is that the parable says exactly the opposite.
You may have noticed that the lawyer’s question is “who is my neighbor;” meaning, “to whom must I be a neighbor?” But Jesus’ counter question to the lawyer is not “who was a neighbor to the Samaritan,” but rather “who was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” The neighbor isn’t the one who is helped, but the one who helps. After reading the parable, instead of asking to whom we might better show mercy, perhaps we ought to be asking ourselves who is the one who has shown us mercy.
In Jesus’ parable, the neighbor—the one who helps, who shows mercy—is an outsider, despised and rejected by the other four characters in the story. And yet, in spite of that rejection and hatred, he took it upon himself to care for the man who, under other circumstances, probably would have wanted nothing to do with him. He set aside his own journey, his own destination, and allowed himself to be diverted for the welfare of one who hated him. He not only provided for the man’s care at his own expense, but also promised to return and see that whatever else was needed would be provided. Who has given his life for us? Who has promised to return to make sure that we are provided for? Who else has been a good neighbor to us but Jesus?
If we read this parable and come away asking only “Who is my neighbor? Who must I love?” we place ourselves in the Samaritan’s position; but perhaps we might better hear the parable from the perspective of the person in the ditch. Humanity is slowly dying, ravaged by those malicious and greedy tendencies within our own selves. Those things we would expect to save us—things like our own adherence to the law or our conscience telling us right from wrong—pass by impotently on the other side of the road; it is only the Compassionate Stranger who comes among us, the Stranger whom we rejected on the cross, who stops to aid us. Why? Because we deserve it? Because we have somehow earned it? No; only because God is compassionate. That’s grace: we are saved not by our own goodness, but by God’s. We have inherited eternal life only because God has compassion on us poor, dying creatures and stoops to bandage our wounds and carry us to the inn.
Perhaps if we truly comprehended the grace of God, if we really believed that God actually has such boundless compassion for us, we might find that caring for our neighbors is not a chore after all, but a joyful privilege. If we really felt that incredible love that God has for us and believed it to be true, we might actually begin to see even the most troublesome and frightening of neighbors not as Samaritans, but as poor, hapless travelers along the same road as us, fellow victims of the anger, the distrust and the despair that left us half-dead before God stepped in to rescue us. Seeing these neighbors of ours in that light, and remembering our own rescue by the Compassionate Stranger, we might gladly find ourselves the innkeepers in Jesus’ parable, eagerly caring and providing for those others whose lives Jesus’ has saved alongside our own. Having been given life, we have now also been given the opportunity to share that gift of life with others in need.
If we don’t see each of our neighbors with this compassion already, it can only be because we really do love our neighbors as ourselves; but it is ourselves that we find hardest to love. We are are secretly afraid that God is not truly compassionate, but actually demands something of us in return for our lives—something we do not have, and so demand of our suffering neighbors. Perhaps the good news we need to hear most in this parable is that the Compassionate Stranger, having already given himself to our aid, having already given us his flesh and blood to heal and nourish us, promises to return and give whatever else might yet be required.
It is in the confident hope of that promise that we step out upon the road once again, knowing that whatever our compassion might cost us—money, security, freedom, even our very lives themselves—Christ himself has promised to repay.