A twenty-something young man from the highlands of Scotland had recently moved to New York City. He lived in a mid-rise with paper thin walls. After a month, his mother called to see how he was getting on. The man replied (in a Scottish brogue I can’t mimic), “It’s okay, I suppose, but the neighbors are a bit daft. The woman on one side of me screams and cries all night, and the man on the other side keeps banging his head against the wall.
“Never you mind,” said his mother, “Don’t you let them get to you. Just ignore them.”
“Aye, that I do,” the young man replied, “I just keep on playing my bagpipes.”[i]
Neighbors. The great novelist and theologian G.K. Chesterton famously said, “The Bible tells us to love our neighbors, and also to love our enemies; probably because they are generally the same people.”
Today’s Gospel passage from Luke begins with Jesus’ “Great Commandment,” that upon which all the law and the prophets hangs. A lawyer asks Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus responds by directing the man back to God’s truth in Judaism, “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 you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Both Matthew and Mark offer versions of this account as well. In Matthew’s version, the account ends right there. In Mark’s version, Jesus effusively congratulates his conversation partner, and then the account ends. Neither Matthew nor Mark ring true to me. It seems unlikely that Jesus would let his questioner off the hook at that point, just as it seems unlikely that the inquirer would be satisfied with what is a vague, even though profound, commandment.
Not so in Luke, but then again, of all the Gospels Luke’s is the most earthy and real. Today, after Jesus hearkens back to the Jewish proclamation of faith, the inquiring lawyer pursues, “But just who is my neighbor?”
This is the pivot point of the conversation, and we mustn’t be fooled. The lawyer is not asking this second question because he has interest in seeking out his neighbor and extending holy and sacred love. No. The lawyer is setting limits, parameters. He’s trying to establish the fence line, so that he knows just how far past his own property he must love without going one step farther. The lawyer asks the question in order not to discern who he should love but to know who he can exclude. He hopes Jesus might answer like the leaders of the religious establishment and say, “Your neighbor is your brother Jew,” limiting the lawyer’s obligation to the religiously observant males of his caste.
Or, Jesus might say, “Your neighbor includes the widow and orphan,” which would put Jesus in the tradition of the Hebrew prophets. Even that answer wouldn’t surprise the lawyer or give him too many fits.
But Jesus turns the tables. He doesn’t answer the question at all, not the question the lawyer asks, anyway. Instead, Jesus tells a story, the parable we have come to know as the Good Samaritan:
“A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw the man, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while travelling came near him; and when he saw the man, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day the Samaritan took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of this man; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’”
Usually when this parable is read and preached, the take-away is that we are to be like the Samaritan, to reach out to the person in need, rather than walking by on the other side of the road. The person right in front of us, wherever we find ourselves, is our neighbor. That’s a good message, a Gospel message. Indeed, laws encouraging citizens to provide such aid are called “Good Samaritan laws.” But that is actually the secondary message Jesus is conveying. What is the primary message?
Jesus is a Jew speaking to a lawyer who is also a Jew. And who is the Jew in the parable? None other than the man “going down from Jerusalem to Jericho,” the man who is beaten and thrown into the roadside ditch. In other words, we are not first to identify with the Samaritan who provides care; we are to identify with the man stripped naked and left vulnerable, who is at the mercy of whoever might pass by on the road.
You see, before Jesus can answer the lawyer’s question, the lawyer has to open his eyes to what he himself needs in order both to become and recognize a neighbor. The lawyer must be stripped of his pretension. He must give up the quest to set rigid and protective boundaries that shield him from danger. He must quit his attempt to figure out who he can exclude. He must recognize that he—that all of us—are vulnerable. We are but one encounter away from having our world stripped from us and finding ourselves in desperate need. Only once we realize this can we begin to grasp that love of neighbor is characterized by solidarity with neighbor, by a willingness to receive grace and care wherever and by whomever it is extended, which only then transforms us into people who desire to give that same grace and care to all those we meet, without boundaries.
Let me put it this way: Jesus sets up his parable to ask, “If we found ourselves in the ditch, bleeding and alone, from whom would we be willing to receive care?” And Jesus chooses the most provocative character possible in order to drive home his point. After the priest and the Levite (socially-acceptable neighbors both) walk away from our plaintive cries, the Samaritan approaches us without hesitation.
For a first-century Jew, the Samaritan is the worst of the worst. He is a heretic. In a culture that prized ethnic purity, he is the interracial product of Jews who intermarried with pagan foreigners. He has been on the opposite side of grudges and wars. He is, to present-day Jews, the Palestinian. He is, to Southerners not so long ago (and maybe still today for some) the New England Yankee. To the conservative Republican, he is the MoveOn.org Democrat. Or to the liberal Democrat, he is the Tea Party Republican. To the Jewish lawyer to whom Jesus tells this parable, the Samaritan is worthless.
And yet, it is from the Samaritan that the man in the ditch must receive aid, if he is to receive it at all. He must receive the Samaritan’s tender touch, the Samaritan’s balm to soothe his cuts and bruises, the Samaritan’s money to pay for his lodging. Would you be willing to receive your life back from the person you most loathed, the person you most disdained? Would you be vulnerable enough to accept that grace and mercy?
These are the questions Jesus is posing, and it is only when we grapple with them and respond with a humble “yes” that we begin truly to grasp the scope of what Jesus means—what God means—when he tells us to love our neighbors. When we have recognized our human frailty, when we have acknowledged our vulnerability, when we have imagined ourselves at the mercy of those of whom we are most suspicious, then we begin to understand both the risk and the grace of what it means to be loved and to love.
Would you be willing to receive your life back from the person you most loathed, the person you most disdained?
Being a neighbor is not about putting up fences and stingily deciding to whom to open the gate. Being a neighbor is about stripping down fences and all other defenses and seeing as neighbor even those most different from us. Loving the neighbor is receiving his grace and extending it back to him. And lest we forget, loving the neighbor is tantamount to loving God.
[i] From the internet.