This week's lectionary text is perhaps one of the most well-known stories in all of the Bible. The parable of the Good Samaritan has etched itself into the cultural zeitgeist through comedy, film, visual art, and music since the time of Jesus.
In the gospel of Luke, the author tells the story of a lawyer or Hebrew scholar who approaches Jesus with a question concerning how he can experience eternal life. Naturally, Jesus responds by asking the same question back to the man. The lawyer directly replies to Jesus, “Love the Eternal One your God with everything you have: all your heart, all your soul, all your strength, and all your mind. And love your neighbor as yourself.”
By all accounts, the lawyer is correct.
His knowledge and belief are completely in order.
But, wanting to press Jesus, he continues, "Ah, but who is my neighbor?" You can imagine the gleam in his eye as he awaits Jesus' response. However, Jesus' response is not what the abiding lawyer anticipates.
Jesus tells a story of a man who had been robbed and left for dead in a ditch. First, a priest passed by the man helpless lying by the road and did nothing. A little while later, a temple assistant passed by the man as well, offering no help. Next, a despised Samaritan came along and saw the struggling man and the Samaritan had compassion for him. The Samaritan's compassion led him to care for the wounded man through the night and even paid an innkeeper for his housing.
Jesus concludes not by answering the lawyer's question, but rather by asking him which of the three men proved to be a "neighbor." Jesus flips the Hebrew lawyer's question around by requiring him to abandon conventional Hebrew ethic that would require a priest and a temple assistant to keep their distance from an unclean person in order to remain a "neighbor." In addition, through the parable, Jesus forces the lawyer to imagine a scenario in which a person from a despised people group is actually more ethical. Finally, Jesus essentially says to him, "Go and behave like the person you despise."
As people of a religious system, we tend to respond to cultural issues involving acts of neighborliness with some version of "Well, God's Word says..." In many ways, we have been instilled by Christian culture to treat the Bible like one of those textbooks with the answers in the back. In doing so, we would rather quibble about who exactly neighbors are than actually be neighbors with selfless compassion and love for everyone without distinction.
May we have the courage to follow Jesus' command to actually feed, clothe, house, redeem, and love as "neighbor" to all.