WHO IS MY NEIGHBOR?
By Tierce Green
The Parable of the Good Samaritan is a familiar story. Even to those who don’t follow Jesus, the idea of going out of our way to help others, missional living and social justice are things that many people will rally around and lock arms with others to make a measurable difference in the world. But the context of this parable is important, especially to those who claim to follow Jesus. The Parable of the Sower and how Jesus used it is found in Luke 10:25-37.
Sometimes Jesus would answer a question with a question. Other times he would explain a principle with a story, a parable. On this occasion, Jesus used both to reveal the truth about eternal matters, to describe what it looks like to love God and others, and to paint a picture of a person who truly follows him.
Someone who was quite familiar with the Scriptures—a man described as “an expert in the law”—asked Jesus a very direct question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Jesus responded to his question with two questions: “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?”
Affirmation, respect, an invitation to an open and honest discussion—all of this was communicated in those two questions. “I know you know a lot about the Scriptures, so how do you see it? Let’s get to the essence of the Law, the heart of it, what it really means.” We need more conversations like this, conversations free from legalistic agendas or political posturing where we can all discover the truth.
He answered, “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, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.”
“You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.” (Luke 10:27, NIV)
If the goal was to make a list and check some boxes, that would have been the end of the story. But we all come to these conversations with different perspectives and preferences, various filters we have adopted from our experiences. That’s why it’s not uncommon to see a wide variance or disconnect between biblical principles and practical applications even among the most religious and seemingly intelligent people. This “expert in the law” wanted to justify his actions and support his perspective, so he asked Jesus a question that hints of legalism, self-righteousness and racial prejudice:
“…so he asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29, NIV)
Jesus answered this question with a story. A man was traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him, beat him, and left him half-dead on the side of the road. Two very religious men—a priest and a Levite—passed by at different times. Either one of these men could have been the hero, but the Scriptures specifically say that each of them “passed by on the other side” (Luke 10:31-32, NIV). They were probably on their way to church and couldn’t get their hands dirty. It would have interfered with their worship plans and interrupted their religious activities.
I wonder how many times we pass by on the other side. How many times do we look over the crowd without seeing the people? How many times do we not hear because we are too busy talking? How often does our passion for a cause deplete our compassion for people?
Jesus made the hero of the story a Samaritan. Here is where it is important to understand the context of the parable. Samaritans were considered to be half-breads, a less-than race of people in the minds of the Jews. The Samaritans grew out of the tribes of Manasseh and Ephraim after their deportation into Assyria around 723 BC where they intermarried with pagans during this period of captivity. Interaction with them was intentionally avoided. So, the question “Who is is my neighbor?” was clearly colored with Samaritans in mind in the hopes that they would be in a different category, any category other than “my neighbor”.
The Samaritan in this story saw a man who needed help and sprang into action. He had compassion on the man and bandaged his wounds. He put him on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and cared for him. The next day he gave the innkeeper some money and said, “Look after him … and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.” (Luke 10:35, NIV) This Samaritan is going way above and beyond what was expected!
The clincher comes at the end of the story with another question from Jesus. The answer is too obvious to ignore. We don’t know if the expert in the law liked it or even tried to apply it, but he could not deny it.
“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”
The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”
Jesus told him (and he tells us today), “Go and do likewise.” (Luke 10:36-37, NIV)
Chances are, our roster of neighbors is comprised of people who look like us. We typically default to safe homogenous environments. Our comfort zone is constructed of those who are similar in appearance and opinions. If we are not careful, our Christian communities can become an isolated sub-culture. We need to get out more! Jesus was described as a friend of sinners. He hung out with people who weren’t like him, people the religious leaders thought he should avoid. Would people describe YOU that way? Who is YOUR Neighbor?