June 7, 2019
A Neighbor Within (Part 2)
We all know the parable. While on a journey a man falls victim to robbers who beat him, take his money, and leave him for dead. As he lies beside the road, three other men come along, one after another.
The first two are religious sorts, perhaps on their way to a Presbytery meeting or an important church service. They pass by the injured fellow, carefully averting their eyes. Perhaps they are afraid this is a set-up, a trap laid by a gang. Or maybe they’re like I am sometimes, stopped at any intersection where a person is begging for spare change, and I pretend to be fiddling with my radio. Why they pass by we don’t know. Bottom-line these two upright citizens pass by the injured man without helping.
But there was a third man who came along, and he took the risk and the trouble to show compassion. We don’t know much about him, except that his tribe, the people of Samaria, had long been suspected of religious syncretism, maybe even idolatry, by mainline Judaism, though (frankly) the Samaritans have laid that charge at the door of Judaism too, to this day. (And, Yes, there are still Samaritans living to this day.)
The “good” Samaritan’s ancestors had remained in the land of Israel, you see, when all the other Jewish people (Jesus’ ancestors) were taken into Babylonian captivity. While these Samaritans viewed themselves as the true adherents of pure ancient Hebrew religion, holding to the Samaritan Pentateuch and worshiping the Lord on their sacred mountain, Jews like Jesus, whose ancestors had endured foreign exile, tended to look upon the Samaritans with suspicion, believing that they had mixed the true faith with elements of other regional religions.
In fact, of course, as we well know, there’s not a faith in the world that hasn’t picked up elements of other faiths and world-views, and most have been enriched by these foreign additions. Surely Samaritans picked up elements of worship that differed from the Jews who were sent into exile. But so did the Jews in exile who arrived in Babylon with only the sketchiest beliefs in the afterlife and returned to Israel with heaven and hell and all sorts of apocalyptic thinking. (And before we get to thinking that we Christians are immune to syncretism, we would do well to look up the origins of all those bunnies hopping around at Easter and the Christmas trees and mistletoe, just for a start. Every faith borrows.)
But, back to our point.
The differences between Samaritans and the Jewish folks to whom Jesus usually spoke were especially useful for Jesus in telling this parable. The Samaritan we call “good” makes an ideal foil to well-respected Jewish religious leaders. A man whom many Jews would quite naturally look down upon for religious and cultural reasons, was the only one who stopped to help the fellow who had fallen among robbers and lay bleeding beside the road.
The story is compelling. However, we often miss the most compelling point Jesus makes with his story because we follow the logic of the lawyer to whom Jesus is telling his story in the gospels. This lawyer asks the question, “Who is my neighbor?” And that’s the question we usually ask. But, notice, it isn’t the question Jesus asks.
Jesus has just told the lawyer that the heart of true faith is to love the Lord our God with our whole heart, mind and strength and to love our neighbors as ourselves.” The lawyer wants Jesus to tell him who his neighbors are.
We don’t know this man’s heart. We don’t know if he was trying to justify himself or not. (And neither did St. Luke.) But, frankly, the lawyer asks the very same question most all of us have asked at one time or the other. I wouldn’t want to judge the fellow’s motives. He does seem to be genuinely interested in Jesus’ message. But, while he follows the strict statement of the law and asks, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus responds to him with a question that turns everything (including the law and tradition) upside down.
Jesus asks: “Which of the these three was a neighbor to the man who was robbed?”
“Who is my neighbor?” applies criteria to the various people we meet so we can put them into categories: neighbors/ non-neighbors.
“Which of these three was a neighbor to the man who was robbed?,” the question asked by Jesus, requires us to examine ourselves to determine if we are being the neighbor to others.
The implications are clear and challenging.
The neighborhood of Jesus Christ goes with us wherever we go. There’s no limit to it. There are no boundaries to it. Our calling is to be “the neighbor” to whomever we meet. The whole world is God’s neighborhood.