Luke 10:25-37: But wanting to justify himself, the lawyer asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
He thought he was being clever, that lawyer. He wanted the teacher to explain to him the limitations of his obligation to others. So then Jesus told a story, as he was wont to do.
He chose his characters to shock, but not directly provoke—if he had wanted to do that, he would have made the two righteous passersby a judge and a lawyer. But Jesus wasn’t just speaking to the lawyer—he was speaking before a rapt crowd, and he had a point to make about the obligations that bind any community together. However, it was still shocking—the idea that a Samaritan, an outsider, one whose heritage and religion were impure in the eyes of good Jews—could also be “good” and do the compassionate and righteous thing.
We hear this story today and we don’t hear that tension in what was then the oxymoronic term of “Good Samaritan.” “Samaritan” in our understanding has become shorthand for a “do-gooder.” We fail to appreciate the risk the Samaritan took in caring for someone who, if conscious, might have treated him with contempt, merely because of a 700-year-old-feud.
The poet e.e. cummings captures the emotion from the perspective of the Samaritan in his wonderful poem, “a man who had fallen among thieves,” which brings the story forward. He imagines a dozen “staunch and leal” citizens scurrying away from the man laying by the roadside, appalled by the gore of the scene—and their unvoiced contempt for the victim. But the narrator is moved to pity, despite himself, and acts to carry the man to safety:
Brushing from whom the stiffened puke
i put him all into my arms
and staggered banged with terror through
a million billion trillion stars.
As we hear the parable of the Good Samaritan today, though, we can look around and see the work of those who understand the universality of the definition of “neighbor” that Jesus is demanding of us. We see it every time bystanders leap into action against these episodes of gun violence that are more common than muggings on the road to Jericho. We unfortunately saw it on Monday, when “neighbors” identified and took care of the toddler left screaming in the streets of Highland Park, Illinois, a child orphaned in an instant when his parents died in yet another mass shooting. We see it in those who tried to shield others or help them get to safety as shots rang out to terrorize an entire community and an entire nation yet again—and on a day in which we celebrate our mutual connection as one nation, one community. Those who help each other in these times of extreme crisis don’t pause and think about the calculus of whether those who need aid are worthy or not, or members of our own community. They see a desperate need, they acknowledge their mutual obligation to confront suffering, and they respond, regardless.
Due to our uniquely American obsession with guns and violence, the question at the heart of Jesus’s 2,000 year-old parable is posed to each of us, daily, tragically. One can even wonder if the failure to ask ourselves the same question, and our failure to view each other through the lenses of mercy and compassion, lies at the heart of what makes these horrific events so commonplace. We speak easily of rights, but shy away from mutuality or concepts of obligation that lie at the heart of community. The gospel is centered on this challenge to us.
Jesus makes it clear. Who is my neighbor?