My nephew went through a phase of temper tantrums when he was two. As he calmed himself after one of these fitful tantrums, he sighed, and apologized saying, “I’m sorry, mommy. I just get so angry sometimes. And I don’t like people!” Don’t we all feel that way sometimes? We encounter a lawyer who expresses a similar sentiment in Luke 10.
In the story, a lawyer asks Jesus how he can inherit eternal life. Jesus turns the question around on him, and the lawyer answers, “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.” Jesus validates the lawyer’s answer, but the lawyer follows up by asking “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus responds by sharing the story of the Good Samaritan.
If you haven’t heard the Parable of the Good Samaritan, here’s an overview: Some robbers attacked a Jewish man, stripped him and robbed him, and left him for dead. A priest and a Levite both wander to the other side of the street as they pass by the man. A Samaritan then sees the man and chooses to tend to his wounds, to put him on his own animal, to take him to an inn, and to pay the innkeeper to care for the man (Luke 10:25-37).
Growing up, I learned that this story was a parable about how I should treat others. Namely, in contrast to the Priest and the Levite, I should behave like the Good Samaritan when I encounter those in need; in that way, I could become everyone’s neighbor. With a bit more study I realized that’s actually the opposite of how we’re meant to read the text.
In the context of the story, Jesus is telling a Jewish man a story of another Jewish man who fell into the hands of robbers. This tells us that within the narrative, we are not the priest or the Levite or the Samaritan–we’re the man laying on the side of the road. The priest and the Levite, in their avoiding the suffering man, choose to not behave as neighbors; the Samaritan instead becomes the neighbor.
To understand the story more deeply, we need to emphasize two things. First, Israel was broken into 3 groups: priests, Levites, and Israelites. The priests and Levites typically had high standards for their behavior. The second thing we need to comprehend is how tumultuous the relationship between Israelites and Samaritans really was. A.J. Levine’s most recent book, Short Stories by Jesus, has greatly influenced my readings of the parables in general, and especially my reading of the Good Samaritan. (You can and should add it to your library here). She points out in her book that we could compare the Jews’ understanding of Samaritans to Americans’ feelings toward Osama bin Laden (it’s true–check it out here). And yet Jesus frames the Samaritan as the true neighbor in his parable.
Later in my education, I heard some people using the Parable of the Good Samaritan as a way of stating that everyone is our neighbor. Essentially, they argued that if Jews and Samaritans hated each other so much, the parable tells us to get over our prejudices of all people and to accept everyone as our neighbor. The issue with this reading is that it assumes that everyone wants to be our neighbor.
Jesus doesn’t say that the Samaritan becomes the neighbor just because he’s a Samaritan. In reality, the Samaritan could have crossed the road just as the priest and the Levite did, or he even could have harmed the man further, and all of that would be par for the course; however, if that ocurred, the man would not have become the neighbor. It was in his helping, sacrificing, and caring for the man that the Samaritan became the neighbor. His actions changed his relationship with the man on the side of the road.
So when Jesus answers the question, “Who is my neighbor?,” I hear him respond, “The one who acts lovingly toward you, and the one to whom you extend love.” This can be anyone–literally, it could even be your worst enemy. At the end of the day, your neighbor is the one who, when you have nothing left, is willing to pick you up, clean your wounds, give you safety, and bring you back to life.
So who are your neighbors? To whom are you a neighbor? And how does this change the way we interact with God, with others, and with ourselves?