Who is my neighbor?


With a beloved parable like the Good Samaritan we easily neglect the stories’ context: “A legal expert stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,’ he said, ‘what must I do to gain eternal life?’ Jesus replied, ‘What is written in the law? How do you interpret it?’ He responded, ‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.’ Jesus said to him, ‘You have answered correctly. Do this and you will live.’ But the legal expert wanted to prove that he was right, so he said to Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’”


Amy Jill Levine says that the Greek word for “test” means to test, tempt, or entrap. Why do our conversations so easily drift into attempts to check for buzzwords, win points, and amplify differences?  Jesus deftly answers the testor’s question with two questions: “What is written in the law? How do you interpret it?”   Jesus acknowledges the role of interpretation and Jesus and the testor agree that eternal life is found by loving God and loving your neighbor as you love yourself!  However, Jesus adds one thing: “Do this and you will live.” 


Why do we want to define our neighbor? Is it because if we nail down a definition of neighbor we can compartmentalize our duty to love all people? With walls marking our neighborhood do we stop loving at our personal borders? 


Did you notice that Jesus refuses to give us of a legal definition of neighbor! Jesus calls upon truths deeper than legal definitions. “What is written kills, but the Spirit gives life.” (2 Corinthians 3:6) The letter can always find a way to evade God’s love. Jesus does theology not with a legal definition but with a story. Our feel in our spiritual gut, the common humanity inside a stranger’s story, can guide us into the truth our minds more slowly embrace.  


Prayer: Oh Lord, in love, you left heaven’s perfect neighborhood to live around us. We did not receive you with love.   Teach us to welcome others as you welcome us. Amen. 


A man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho. A solo traveler left Jerusalem heading down towards the Jordan River Valley and Jericho, the city of palms. The 2,000 foot descent winds down into fertile fields of wheat, row crops, and citrus. Mountain streams and vast networks of irrigation channels feed lemon, pear, orange, olive, almond, and date trees. Amidst the beauty, a solo travel risked danger. There was no highway patrol or cell phones.  Despite swift Roman justice gangs of robbers hid in abandoned shepherd huts, craggy rock outcrops and thick groves of palm trees. 


Jesus tells us our solo traveler encountered thieves who stripped him naked, beat him up, and left him near death. Now these violent robbers may have only stole the victims’ clothing, as most people in the ancient world did not own an extra set of clothes. Even used clothing was worth stealing. No matter, this is a violent crime. The traveler is near death.  

Any crime scene raises our tension and fear: fight or flight. Perhaps, we might exercise some compassion on the priest and Levite who hustle past.  Jesus is not seeking to assign blame, but teach us how to love neighbors as ourselves. . 


Jesus tells us, “Now it just so happened that a priest was also going down the same road. When he saw the injured man, he crossed over to the other side of the road and went on his way.” This parable surely calls out legalistic living, still some Christian sermons push it a bit too far, by telling us how the laws of Leviticus prohibited Jewish priests from touching a dead body or blood. As to interpretation, scholars tell us that even zealous Pharisees, taking on the strictest vows of a Nazarite, were expected to make every effort to save a life. The priest was not worried about being made unclean. “The Lord is full of mercy and compassion.” (Psalm 111) So perhaps our priest was just afraid. It would be a shock. Have the robbers left the area? If they could so abuse that young man, what will happen to me? This is a busy road. Perhaps, a Roman soldier or a caravan might come along.  


 Likewise, a Levite came by that spot, saw the injured man, and crossed over to the other side of the road and went on his way.  Did they imagine that fellow in the ditch was a sex-worker, an opioid addict, a drug mule, or a gang member?  If they are not a neighbor, then can we ease along with less guilt?     


Now with the two unsympathetic characters off stage, please pause the story and imagine the worst kind of person you can think of!  Don’t think of the old BIblical rivalry! Who are the people who set you on edge? Make them your Samaritan. Does your Samaritan wear a Mexican Flag, a rainbow tunic, or the hijab? Could they wear that red MAGA hat?  Will we feel Jesus’ parables’ bitter burn every time our Samaritan makes the right move?  


The Samaritan is on a journey.  The parable tells us they carry at least two days wages and have plenty more.  They are making rounds and will be back in a few days. I imagine the Samaritan is a merchant, trading the olive oil and wine.   


Jesus tells us that “When the samaritan came to where the victim lay, they were moved with compassion. Compassion changes everything. Jesus came preaching, “Change your hearts and lives, join in the kingdom of heaven!” (Matthew 4:17) 


 The Samaritan does not see a category, a stereotype, or a definition that eases them off the hook. They see a person!  Moved by compassion, the Samaritan risks lingering robbers. Without latex gloves They step into a crime scene. The Samaritan kneels beside someone you love rendering aid with reassurance and compassion.  They rip their tunic to make bandages. 


They reach into the saddle bags and take out wine, perhaps that they just purchased in Jerusalem and planned to sell in Jericho. They clean dirt from your kindred’s wounds. They offer gentle whispers of hope and make up a batch of ancient Tylenol. Your kindred now rests against a  palm tree. 

 Surely some of Jesus’ listeners scoffed at the scene, unable to imagine that a Samaritan might save the day. Indeed, if they turned the corner they might call the police assuming that the Samaritan committed the crime. 


Moved by compassion, the Samaritan unloads the saddle bags of wine and olive oil and fashion a makeshift backpack. They tenderly help your loved one to their feet and with a grunt lift your no longer dying friend onto the fabricated saddle. Then they carry the mule’s load onto their own back  and they lead the make-shift ambulance towards the nearest inn. Inns were the hospitals of the ancient world; Jesus was born in one! 


 I imagine the Samaritan stayed up most of the night watching over your loved one, bringing them water and helping them to the toilet at 2 am.  Did the Samaritan rise at sunrise and wash and lay out some clothes for your once naked and dying love one? The Samaritan heads to the innkeeper and authorizing two days wages instructing, “Take care of our friend, and when I return, I will pay you back for any additional costs.” 


Tired, poorer, and a day behind, that Samaritan repacks the mule’s saddle bags, whistling with the joy. Do they whistle with the joy of not needing to carry the bundle of goods or is it something deeper?  I dream that the Samaritan goes back inside for one last check. The fitful night behind them, your loved one gently snoozes away- safe. “Peace be with you, friend.” 


Should the story end with your fully recovered loved one riding up to the Temple for prayers, clasping hands with the Good Samaritan?  Could we end the scene with the once dying traveler sitting in the Inn telling everyone how a Samaritan saved their life? I like to imagine the Samaritan just walking off, with the mule carrying the load of trade goods.  He is tired, but whistling with the joy of compassion actualized by action.   


What do you think? 

Which one of these three was a neighbor to the one who encountered thieves?

Which of these three do you want to be? 


“The one who demonstrated mercy!”  Go and do likewise. Do this and you will live! Amen.

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