But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?" —Luke 10:29
The Good Samaritan.
If one were to pick the most famous, most familiar parable that Jesus told, this would most likely be it.
We name hospitals after this parable.
We name laws after this parable.
We complement kind people by calling them this.
There is probably a temptation to say ”Ah, this story,” when the passage is read.
Time to zone out; check email or scores on the phone.
We know what this one means.
In fact it’s easy to think that we’ve over-mined it for meaning.
Weeks ago when I saw this was the passage for this week, I jokingly thought for a moment about what it would be like to stand in the pulpit, repeat Jesus’s last line—“Go and do likewise”—and sit back down.
That thought did not last long, and it certainly cannot stand when there is blood running in the streets.
Honestly, blood runs daily.
But this last week in particular.
500 dead or injured in Baghdad as ISIS bombed a shopping district full of people celebrating the end of Ramadan—and the bombing of the Istanbul airport three days before that.
And closer to home—two African American men—Alton Stirling in Louisiana and Philando Castile in Minnesota—shot to death by police within a 24 hour period. Their last moments of life caught on video and broadcast to the world. The videos are harrowing to watch. The spread of blood; the last gasps of breath.
And then Thursday night. 12 people were shot at the end of a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest, by a sniper who was particulary targeting police officers. Officers Brent Thompson, Patrick Zamarripa, Michael Krol, Michael Smith, and Lorne Ahrens died in that attack as they tried to protect protestors, making it the most deadly day for law enforcement since 9/11/2001.
I am personally haunted by the image of a Dallas police sergeant being comforted by a doctor or a nurse at Baylor University’s hospital. The sergeant is African-American, probably over 6 feet tall, crying, being hugged by a petite white woman. When I see those stripes on his arm, I see my own father, who wore those same stripes for so many years before being promoted.
All of this stands out from a level of background violence that should shock, but it does not seem to anymore.
Issue the ‘thoughts and prayers’ and we move on.
And wait for the next shooting.
May God forgive me for even for a moment thinking that there was nothing left to say on these of Jesus’s words.
Because, like the lawyer before Jesus, so often we ask who our neighbors are in the hope that we might find some exception.
Let us look again.
Maybe we can see something new.
But maybe we should start somewhere else.
The parable of the Good Samaritan comes in the tenth chapter of Luke.
But let’s look at chapter 9 for a minute.
In Chapter 9(:51-56), Jesus is heading to Jerusalem for the final week of his life. Along the way, he and his disciples pass a Samaritan village. When they inquire about staying at the village, the village refuses. This is not all that surprising. Jesus and the disciples were Jews, and the Jews and Samaritans hated each other. Feeling the sting of the village’s refusal, the disciples James and John ask Jesus if he wants them to call down fire from heaven to consume the village. Jesus gives that request a firm ‘no’ and rebukes the disciples. I wonder what he said there.
I mention this so that when we talk about the Good Samaritan, we can keep in mind that this wasn’t simply some polite rivalry, or disagreeable cold shoulder that the Jews and Samaritans mutually give to each other. These disciples of Jesus were ready to lay waste to an entire village of Samaritans—men, women, and children. That is the level of hatred we have to keep in mind when we read about Jesus talking about Samaritans around his people.
The fact that, at the end of the story, the lawyer could not bring himself to say the word Samaritan bears witness to this hatred. When he has been trapped into admitting that a Samaritan was more kind than the religious leaders of his own group, all he says is “the one who showed kindness” through clenched teeth.
But all week as I read this passage I kept coming back to the exchange before Jesus tells the story—and the motives behind the lawyer’s question.
But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?"
He wanted to justify himself.
How often are we doing the same?
“I may have sinned this much, but this other person is worse.”
“This other person is wrong.”
How often do we grasp for something that says we are righteous compared to others?
More correct compared to others?
How much do we long to find ourselves deemed okay?
Approved by others or our ideologies?
Well-adjusted to our living situations?
In terms of our existence, we know that there is much wrong with the world.
What do we grasp at to give us some assurance that everything will be okay at the end?
"Am I right with God?"
"Can I know that separate from being able to name those who are not?"
"Do I have purpose?"
"Can that purpose help me determine who does not have purpose?"
"If I am not greater, am I lesser?"
This existential anxiety is—I think—at the root of the lawyer’s question.
It is a sense of not knowing what to trust to take us to paradise—on earth or elsewhere—and so we either search for what will guarantee our reward—or we seek to create and control it here.
But we are also finite beings.
We have limited energy, limited knowledge, limited intelligence, limited resources, limited abilities, limited perspective.
Overcoming any of these takes time—which is also limited.
In the face of our finitude, we wonder if we have done enough.
"Did I hustle enough to make it to the next payday?"
"Did I save enough for retirement?"
"Will that medical bill end me?"
"Will my children be successful?"
"Will I coast on fumes into the Kingdom of Heaven?"
"If we have done all we could with what we have, Oh God, please let it be enough."
And how do we know we’ve done enough?
How do we know we didn’t misuse our precious limited time on something that didn’t count?
"Jesus, will helping this particular person be on my final exam, or can I skip over them?"
So, wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?"
If love of neighbor is the way to eternal life, then, the lawyer asks, how do I set the brackets around those who are my neighbors?
How do I categorize people correctly so that I do not waste my time helping the wrong people?
Who is within the realm of my care, and who can I ignore?
This leads to one of the most liberating but frankly aggravating aspects of the Gospels.
Time and again, Jesus gets asked for a checklist for heaven.
“Tell us what to do,” people say.
Am I in or out?
Have I filled in enough boxes?
Did I prove myself good enough.
“I fed 15 hungry people today, so now I get my heavenly coupon book stamped."
"756 more good deeds to go, and I’m done.”
Jesus always frustrated that type of thinking, because the goal was never simply about how much we do. It’s about who we are called to be.
Time and again, Jesus refused to quantify the practice of goodness. He simply notes that goodness and perfection are our destiny as we conform to the image and likeness of God, and asks us to trust that the faithful seeking of these is sufficient.
Almost always, the questions Jesus got assumed that there is a minimum that has to be done.
“Jesus, what is the minimum we have to do to earn your favor?”
That is one way of putting the lawyer’s question.
And when Jesus asks the lawyer to name which character was a neighbor to the man who fell among thieves, Jesus reorients their conversation away from the lawyer’s question about limiting one’s responsibility. The lawyer wants to define who deserves his love, but Jesus suggests that love seeks out neighbors to receive compassion and care, even when established boundaries and prejudices conspire against it.
There is no minimum we can do for a predetermined set of people we define as worthy. God’s own perfect love is not like that, thanks be to God. Instead God asks us to trust that we can be empowered to fight against our own programming, our anxieties, our prejudices, to show forth God’s love and care.
All of that seems well and good. There’s no new ground broken here. I don’t think I’m out on a limb in this interpretation.
But we wish Jesus had been reasonable all the same.
Theoretically we can get behind the idea that everyone is our neighbor. But how do we actually practice this? Our finiteness—our limitedness—keeps pushing us to set those brackets around those who will receive are care. More importantly those brackets define whose is outside of our care.
“We can’t do it all!” we cry out.
So we set our brackets.
We hear or we say:
“Don’t send money overseas, we have poor people here.”
“Why are they adopting from Africa, we have orphans here.”
“These workers do not deserve a living wage because these other workers do not have a living wage either, and we value the latter more.”
“We feel bad for all of the shootings, but we need to shut down our media intake and remain silent until we have all of the facts.”
“Police are part of a systemically racist oppressive regime and cannot be trusted at all.”
“Black Lives Matter is a racist over-reactionary movement fomenting anarchy and violence and cannot be trusted at all.”
These brackets we set on our care help us categorize our own sets of ‘us’ vs. ‘thems.’
These brackets become our short hand classification of who we love in reality while we try to maintain an illusion of loving everyone theoretically.
So, how deep is our love?
Who consistently benefits from our silence about the injury of our neighbors?
Who consistently find themselves outside of our caring, because we just don’t have the bandwidth to deal with the situation?
Who consistently has their issues filed under the heading “not our problem?”
Once we identify those who consistently fall outside of our care, we expose the reality of our brackets of care—
Those same brackets Jesus calls us to expose and obliterate through life in the Holy Spirit.
What do we do next?
There are many things to be done.
Educating ourselves on the scope of the problem of racism within our society and the criminal justice system is important.
But even though study is important, Jesus didn’t tell us to form a humanities club to debate another’s oppression.
So here is something more tangible.
Go to your neighbors.
Your white neighbors.
Your black neighbors.
Your latinx neighbors.
Your native neighbors.
Your police neighbors.
Ask them what concerns them, given the world we share.
Listen to hear, not to debate.
Listen for the pain.
Listen for the fear.
Listen to the officer who wants to make sure he makes it home to his 4-month old child tonight.
Listen to the police supervisor who prays that this not be the night he has to tell his officer’s wife he died in the line of duty.
Listen to the black mother whose 13 year old son is about the get the talk—
the talk about how his responsibility is to make sure he gets home that night regardless of the disrespect a cop shows him.
Listen to the black man who thought one night he would die in his own front yard, his keys in his front door, when a cop drew down on him because the cop thought the pager in his pocket was a gun.
Listen to the anguish of the father of a biracial child whose skin is dark enough to change every encounter he has with people different from him.
Listen to the Native American talk about the high number deaths in her community at the hands of police that never make it on the news.
Be vulnerable enough to name your own fear, to God and neighbor.
You may be surprised to hear the fear you are carrying if you dared to speak of it aloud.
The commonality of fear that maintains our brackets will only crumble when we let go of these fears.
To name these fears is to rob them of power.
To pray for your neighbor’s fears is to put them under God’s power and care—and perfect love casts out all fear.
Ask your neighbors to pray for you.
The better world we long for will come when we are willing to show we want to truly break down the brackets we use to define ‘neighbor.’ If we cannot deal openly with the fear and hatred our legacies of oppression have left us as inheritances, we will never get beyond a power struggle that leaves history littered with winners and losers. Our children will inherit that power struggle. Might we try something different this time?
We should continue the story begun in Luke chapter 9 with John and James ready to destroy a Samaritan village. After their journey with Jesus on Earth, and after their being given the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, in Acts chapter 8, Peter and John go to Samaritan villages to love and work among them, which was only possible after setting aside old dividing lines.
Let us go and do likewise.
 Matthew Skinner in David Lyon Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor’s Feasting On The Word (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008) 243.
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