Who is my neighbor?” This is the question that prompted that great story we know as the Good Samaritan. You can read it in Luke chapter 10. This is how it came about:
On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 26 “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”27 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’[c]; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”28 “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”29 But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
I love Luke’s commentary in verse 29. He makes a point of telling his readers that the motivation behind the law expert’s follow-up question was to justify himself. How like an expert of the law to try to find a loophole in the great commandment. And how like our Lord to answer a question of geography with a story of behavior. Because, as this parable shows us, love is, after all, a verb. Jesus turned the word neighbor from a noun dealing with location to a verb dealing with action rooted in value. You see the Samaritan made a value decision when he decided to actively show kindness to the man who was robbed. He decided this man had great worth. He decided his neighbor was sacred. Jews had no dealings with Samaritans. This was due to a complicated history of abuse and oppression that caused each group to severely dislike and distrust each other. The road to Samaria was full of thieves, many of whom were most likely Samaritans. It was not unusual for a lonely traveler to fall the victim to crime. The man in this instance should really not have been traveling alone. That’s probably what the priest and the Levite who passed on the other side thought. Today we see it as a lack of compassion, they probably saw it as a sign of wisdom.
If while traveling a dangerous road you come upon a victim of crime, you are left with little doubt that this is indeed a dangerous place and it is best to make good speed and get out of there fast! These two religious leaders were simply responding from the basic human instinct of self-preservation. Can we really blame them for that? Would we do any differently? Do we today?
That is why the Samaritan’s behavior is so mind blowing. He does that exact opposite. He does not protect himself. On the contrary, he puts himself in danger in several ways. First, he places himself at risk by helping a Jew whose fallen victim to his own countrymen. Isn’t he siding with the enemy? Is he really thinking through what this could mean for him within his own cultural group? We think it sweet that the Samaritan showed kindness to the enemy of his people. Would his own people view it the same way?
He also places his life in peril by taking this unconscious, naked Jew, putting him on his own donkey and taking him to an inn. What is to stop anyone he encounters along the way from thinking he is the criminal in this case? Here is the man on his donkey, in his possession. Think of the exact situation today. What would happen if an Israeli soldier came upon a fellow countryman naked, beaten, and unconscious in a Palestinian’s car? Would he thank the Palestinian or shoot him? Seen in this light, it seems the Samaritan could use some of the wisdom of the Levite and the priest. His actions really do not make sense. Why would he engage in such dangerous behavior?
Obviously he values the life of this stranger, not just as much as his own, but more than his own. And that sounds just like the kind of point Jesus would make. After all he did say, “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. (John 15:13)” The amazing truth here is that this man lays his life down, not for his friend, but literally for his enemy. This is so the kind of standard Jesus espouses, a truly insane--way beyond basic human instinct, reason, or common sense--definition of love. It is not the way of this world, but of our Father’s kingdom, modeled by our Lord himself. “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8). The son laid down his life for his Father’s enemies. Are his followers to do less?
Please hear me. What Jesus says to this expert in the law is more than a legal reply. He is not talking about how to meet conditions or standards. He is not sharing pretty platitudes regarding how we use our time and our need to make room for interruptions. He is saying to this man, to his hearers, to Luke’s readers, and to us today, that love is not a matter of geography and thus convenience. It is a matter of value resulting in dangerous, crazy actions. Of course, the parallels to our modern cross-cultural, cross-racial relationship are hard to miss.
Today, in our country and our world, believers are tempted to huddle in groups under the banner of wisdom and self-preservation. We have our own histories that have resulted in dislike and distrust between neighbors and countrymen. But we are enticed to distance ourselves from them, to label them as other, and thus free from our compassion, kindness, understanding, or relationship. The world tells us to put aside our differences and tolerate each other, learn to live together. Our Lord asks us to lay down our lives and risk misunderstanding, repercussions, and even death to be a neighbor.
YES, doing so will get us labeled and rejected by both our group and others. It will also put us in great company with Jesus himself. We can do no less when once we realize our neighbor is sacred.