“Who Is My Neighbor?”
The following is an adapted excerpt of a sermon I shared at my church in Three Hills.
Luke 10:25-37 is a passage very familiar to us. It is contains that story of the Good Samaritan, which is a story within the greater story of Jesus’ conversation with a teacher of the law.
In the first scene, a teacher of the law approaches Jesus and attempts to test him by saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” This question is interesting, as we do not know whether the Lawyer was a Pharisee or a Sadducee and at this point both groups spent considerable time debating about whether or not there was a resurrection or afterlife. The lawyer’s question is a sneaky one that can trap Jesus in the camp of either the Sadducees or Pharisees, something that Jesus would rather avoid. Rather than allowing the lawyer to manipulate him, however, Jesus answers him with a question, “What does the law say? How does it read to you?”
The lawyer replies, “You shall 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 your neighbor as yourself.” Now, to give some background, there is a story told about a rabbi who was once approached by a gentile who challenged him, “If you can recite the entire Jewish law while standing on one foot, I will convert!” The rabbi stood on one foot and then said, “You shall 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 your neighbor as yourself.” The gentile was so impressed that he converted! Now Lawyer’s response, which is profoundly true, is actually a little bland coming from the sneaky Lawyer’s mouth, demonstrating what every teacher of the law would say. Jesus hears the Lawyer’s response and says, “You have answered correctly, do this and you will live.” The lawyer, at this point, seems a little embarrassed at losing the “high ground,” and seeks to justify himself by asking another tricky question, “And who is my neighbor?”
As a Jew within an ethnically diverse land which is occupied by invasive Roman rulers, Jesus understands the complexity of this question. “Obviously other Jews are probably our neighbors, but certainly not some of those other people who don’t belong here!” is a likely subscript beneath the lawyer’s words. Certainly the Jewish people watching would think the same thing as the lawyer. Once again, Jesus sees the potential reactivity of the question, and flips the question inside out, telling the story of the Good Samaritan. At the end, Jesus answers the lawyer by asking a question, “Which of the three men do you think proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell into the robber’s hands?”
The lawyer replied, “The one who showed mercy toward him.” Then Jesus said to him, “Go and do the same.”
Jesus cuts through the Lawyer’s pretense of holiness and shows us that “who is my neighbor?” is not a righteous question. The lawyer’s question stems from a few wrong assumptions. First, it assumes that the lawyer has the authority to delineate between those who are and are not his neighbor. The command that the lawyer quoted simply said “love your neighbor as yourself,” and we are to told to follow this command out of respect God’s authoritative word. Second, the question assumes that there are qualifications regarding who does or does not “make it” into the neighbor category. The question, “Who is my neighbor?” assumes that some people are not, as though some others just might not meet the right criterion to receive mercy and compassion. Thirdly, the question does not grasp the most important feature of mercy, that it is always a gift, always undeserved.
Also, by framing his question using the Good Samaritan story, Jesus pushes his hearers to observe the question through the eyes of the beaten man. Rather than asking “Who is my neighbor” from a position of strength and ability, the Good Samaritan story positions us to ask “Who is my neighbor?” through the eyes of a hurt, vulnerable person. Jesus’ story pushes his people to see others through empathetic eyes, understanding our common human weakness. We are reminded that God’s people are called to be righteous and are given the authority to protect the powerless, the fatherless, the vulnerable and that we all fall into these categories multiple times during our life cycle.
Jesus shows that righteousness and life comes from obeying and loving God with all we are, thus resulting in a Spirit-filled response of empathy, compassion and mercy toward all people, without trying to create rules for who is deserving or not. Rather than occupying ourselves with attempts at power, like Amaziah did, we are called to compassion. We are called to a Spirit-filled, counter cultural response to God’s commands, which will increase our love, and to pursue deeper knowledge of God in order to continue the growth cycle that Colossians 1:1-14 describes: knowledge of God, obedience to God, Spirit-filled response of Love, Knowledge of God, obedience to God, Spirit-filled response of Love….
Our ability to live as God’s people requires our willful compliance with His commands for our lives, and a process of deepening trust in Him.
My final thought is a quote from Works of Love, by Soren Kierkegaard, which echoed in my mind as I meditated on this passage. Kierkegaard writes,
With respect to love we speak continually about perfection and the perfect person. With respect to love Christianity also speaks continually about perfection and the perfect person. Alas, but we men talk about finding the perfect person in order to love him. Christianity speaks about being the perfect person who limitlessly loves the person he sees.
Hannah Directs the Explore Program at PBI. This summer she took her first trip to Europe, and appreciated the wealth of history and variance of culture Europe had to offer. She threw a coin into the Trevi Fountain and hopes to go back one day!