Who Is My Neighbor?

Photo by Flickr/Beat Küng (CC BY-NC 2.0) https://www.flickr.com/photos/beatkueng/375644517/

“Love thy neighbor as thyself” is a familiar biblical teaching, found in the prelude to the parable of the Good Samaritan, Luke 10:25–37. Closer examination of that account shows it is not Jesus who said this but a Jewish Torah scholar (lawyer) who was testing him.

Lawyer’s question: “Teacher (Rabbi), what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

Jesus’s question: “What is written in the Torah?”

Lawyer’s response: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”

Jesus’s affirmation: “You have given the right answer; do this and you will live.”

Lawyer’s question: “And who is my neighbor?”

The instruction to love God and neighbor is certainly not limited to Jewish and Christian traditions. Jesus’s parable, however, offers a very challenging example for those who want to be known as his followers. The lawyer asks Jesus to define the limits of his neighborly responsibilities, and the parable breaks through his boundaries.

Three men separately come upon a traveler who has been left beaten and robbed on the road between Jerusalem and Jericho, a steep descent through barren twisting ravines. A priest and a Levite, both well-educated religious leaders and colleagues of the Torah lawyer, pass by on the other side, perhaps to avoid being attacked themselves or to avoid the ritual impurity they would get by contact with a wounded or dead person. A Samaritan, however, dismounts, goes to the injured Jewish man, administers first aid, and takes him to an inn to recover at the Samaritan’s own expense.

When Jesus asked the lawyer to interpret the parable—“which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”—the lawyer could not even say the word “Samaritan,” but replied “the one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said, “Go and do likewise.”

Who was this good model? To the Torah lawyer, a Samaritan was the Other, someone claiming to worship the same God of Israel but whose ancestry, beliefs, practices, and sanctuary over the border all qualified him to be a hated heretic and enemy. For Jesus to hold him up as one who shows love of God through merciful behavior was shocking, unthinkable. This parable may be less about helping victims and more about opening the Torah lawyer’s self-protective legalistic boundaries to include respect for people not like him, whom he does not like. He is not asked to approve of the Samaritan’s culture or religious practices but to acknowledge and endorse, even imitate, his generous actions.

Jesus never directly answers the question “Who is my neighbor?” I can easily see how someone who insultingly disrespects women, immigrants, Muslims, the disabled, and anyone who disagrees with him should be chastened by the story, as the lawyer was.

Perhaps I should ask myself as well: Who is outside my borders of respect? Apparently, the 2016 U.S. election tapped into the pain of people I don’t know—non-college-educated white men; people whose livelihoods in manufacturing, agriculture, natural resources, and carbon energy are diminished by globalization and concerns for climate. Some who even voted twice for Obama’s promised change grasped at Trump’s message (and how much did Congress impede Obama’s programs for them?). Have I been as good a neighbor to them as I have to Muslims, LGBTQ folks, Hispanic and African Americans?

Can I reject unacceptable actions and still find ways to touch those neighbors in pain?

Ripping off the veneer of political correctness reveals decades-old resentments of real and perceived injuries and losses that are now being acted out in ways reminiscent of nearly 60 years ago. How may they be truly healed?

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