Who Is My Neighbor?

Panorama of the Judean Wilderness(Creative Commons image by Ian W. Scott on Flickr)

Dear Working Preacher,

This passage is so familiar it’s almost dangerous. I mean, we all know the moral of Jesus’ famous story “The Good Samaritan”: love your enemies. After all, that’s what happens here. A man is traveling on a dangerous road when he’s attacked by bandits, robbed, and left for dead. Two people come by who we believe should care for this man, but don’t. Then one comes who shouldn’t care, but does. Clean and simple, right?

Maybe, but then again, maybe there’s also something more.

One the one hand, I don’t see anything wrong with preaching the classic “moral of the story” – God expects us not only to care for our neighbor, but to see as neighbor anyone who is in need. In many ways, that’s the issue at hand here: the priest and Levite don’t see the man in the ditch as a neighbor, but as a burden, as something that will delay them from accomplishing whatever task or duty has put them on this road in the first place. The Samaritan, however, wherever he may be going or whatever time pressures he may feel, sees this man in need as a person, as a child of God, as someone who inherently deserves his time and attention.

For this reason, I think we would do well to invite our people to wonder whom we see as neighbor and whom we overlook. In many ways, we are as clan-oriented as those in Jesus’ original audience. Most often, we look out first for our immediate and then extended family, and then close friends, and then those who are most like us or share our values or associations. Like the priest and Levite, we tend to overlook and avoid those who are different from us.

But God calls us to more. God created all people in the image of God. Not only that, but Christ died for all people. Both God’s acts of creation and redemption signal that at the heart of the Christian faith is the belief that all people have inherent worth and dignity. Period.

That would be a valuable message to hear as our communities, schools, nations, and world are increasingly diverse and we are more likely than ever to run into people who look different, or believe differently, or observe different cultural customs than we do.

At the same time, I think there’s something more going on. One part of this story, you see, keeps bugging me: the part, right at the end, where it seems like Jesus shifts the terms of the discussion he’s been having with this lawyer.

Notice that the lawyer asks, “Who is my neighbor?” That is, who counts, whom am I responsible for, who falls into the purview of God’s command to care for neighbor. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised by this question. That’s what lawyers do, after all: they parse, qualify, and define elements of the law with great precision and care. And I suspect that rather than assume the lawyer is out to “get” Jesus he is rather, as Luke says, “justifying himself” in the sense that he wants to know precisely what is required for the sake of justice in light of God’s commandment. And, as we’ve already seen, Jesus responds by telling a story that redefines neighbor not in terms of race, religion, or proximity, but in terms of vulnerability; that is, whoever is in need is your neighbor.

But then Jesus goes and does something different, right at the end. He doesn’t ask who was the Samaritan’s neighbor; rather, he asks, who acted like a neighbor. The answer, of course, is obvious to the lawyer and to us: it is the Samaritan, the one who went out of his way to help another. But do you notice how this changes things? Suddenly the neighbor isn’t simply the one in need, but rather the one who provides for our need, the one who takes care of us.

Which raises an interesting – and often uncomfortable – question: who has been our neighbor by caring for us of late? This is uncomfortable because we spend so much of our time, energy, and money trying to be invulnerable, trying precisely to need as little as possible from those around us. Perhaps it’s a fear of being a burden, or a concern about “owing” others, or that we are just afraid of being vulnerable because if we show our need that need may not be met. Whatever the reason, however, so many of us are absolutely mortified by the idea of showing our deepest needs to others and have a hard time receiving a compliment let alone serious aid or help.

Yet if I’m reading this parable right, it seems that according to Jesus, being neighbor involves not only giving help but also being willing to receive it, even and especially to and from those we don’t normally see as “like us.” So perhaps the call this week isn’t only to invite us to imagine those we should be helping, but those who might help us … if we gave them a chance.

Ultimately, I don’t think these two readings are all that far apart. Truth be told, I think they are intimately related to each other. Because perhaps the only way we can see ourselves as the Samaritan – the one called to give help and healing to those in need – is first to recognize how often we have been the traveler left for dead. Once you’ve been encountered by radical grace and love, that is, it’s hard to look at anything … or anyone … quite the same.

So perhaps this week, Working Preacher, we are invited to think about what kind of community we want to be. Certainly many of our congregations are communities that have been formed and nurtured by a shared faith, shared ethnicity and experience, and shared traditions. And there is nothing wrong with that.

But we are also invited, I believe, to be a community that is also bound together by our shared need, by an awareness of our common vulnerability, by a sense that God has worked through so many people to care for us, wants still to meet our needs through others (and sometimes through those we would least expect or want to help us), and also invites us to look around and care for those similarly in need.

Might we see ourselves, that is, as those who, having recognized ourselves as the traveler left for dead in a ditch by the road, can now arise to reach out to others in need? By God’s grace – and in part through your preaching – I believe we can. Thanks be to God.

Yours in Christ,