“Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said, “Go and do likewise.” — Luke 10:36-37, NRSV
This story, often called “The Parable of the Good Samaritan,” is one of the chief parables in the Christian faith. It is about kindness that reaches across social, ethnic, and even religious boundaries. It also showcases one of the best turn-arounds Jesus has ever pulled on someone, and the result is a message that is sorely needed in our world today.
You can find the whole story here, and you will notice that after a lawyer asks Jesus about the necessary qualifications for entering eternal life, and Jesus answers rather bluntly, we get a new question that sounds familiar to anyone who knows this story. “And who is my neighbor?” From there Jesus enters into an unexpected narrative with an even less-expected result.
Now, for those of us unfamiliar with the parable, don’t feel bad, as the most familiar interpretations and lessons on this parable tend to miss a major point. Jesus never answers the lawyer’s question.
The odd interpretation most come to is that one’s neighbors are the people who are merciful toward you, so go and be like them, which one has to admit, sounds weird. It is seldom noted that Jesus doesn’t tell the lawyer who his neighbors are, that he may concentrate his efforts on them. Instead, Jesus teaches the lawyer how to be a neighbor to even one’s most despised enemy (as the Samaritan is to the Jew in this parable).
We as humans always look for the minimum. We want to know how much we really have to achieve, and we strive to fulfill that while still trying to get everything else we want. When it comes to religion, this tendency is more pronounced. We always ask what we can get away with. Not in those words, but we ask things like, “Will I go to hell if…?” or “What does the Bible specifically say about me wanting to…?” We seek technicalities, or, like the lawyer, we want to know who we are allowed to mistreat. He didn’t ask that… but he did.
The lawyer already noted that the Law teaches us to love our neighbors as ourselves in verse 27. Therefore, his question (“Who is my neighbor?”) is really kind of wrong. He is asking who he needs to love as himself. He is exhibiting an action we do all too often in our world today. There are people who are more inherently worthy of our love and respect than others. We don’t want to treat our enemies civilly, much less with love, as Jesus teaches in Luke 6:27-36, found here. We want to love who we feel deserves it, but we also want to be free to hate (or “strongly dislike” as every minimal Christian puts it) those we feel have earned it.
With this in mind, we often will be found asking the lawyer’s question every time we come to this story. Now, luckily, we are mostly given the right answer, that everyone is to be our neighbor, treated with love. Jesus, however, doesn’t even bother to answer the lawyer’s question with that. Instead, Jesus asks (and answers) his own question.
Notice, after the parable, Jesus asks, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” His advice is to go and show the same mercy to others. His question and answer are not concerned with who our neighbors are so much as whether or not we are being merciful neighbors to everyone.
Jesus tells us to stop looking for the minimum requirements and to start focusing on being disciples, day in and day out. It’s not important who our neighbors are! It is, however, important to know whether or not we are being neighbors to others. This is an essential teaching for today, when we seem to be more than happy to retreat back to our segregated, isolationist way of surrounding ourselves with similarity and calling that Christian love. It is an essential teaching in my country, where we Christians want to know the minimum we have to religiously adhere to while remaining free to ultimately do what we want.
Our future as a planet depends on our ability to accept this teaching. It will take the help of God every day, but I guarantee that if we wake up determined to be a neighbor to everyone (as opposed to finding worthy neighbors to love), things will start to look different. God is always at work, but when we open the door to our hearts and our lives in this way, real changes will start to happen. I personally think real change is something we desperately need if we want to survive as a species!
I hope this little talk has proved helpful for you. I hope you are, like me, pondering this story anew. Most of all, I hope you will join me today in a journey of discipleship, determined to be a neighbor, exhibiting God’s love to all. It takes practice, but it is totally worth it.
Peace be with you!