It’s important to know who my neighbor is, the one I’m to love, because my life depends on it, and yours does, too. Having life, the abundant life that was the whole purpose of Jesus’ life and teaching, the more and better life than anyone ever dreamed of (John 10:10 The Message), depends on two things: loving God with all my heart, soul, strength, and mind; and loving my neighbor as myself. (See Luke 10:25-37, esp. vv. 25-28.)
The school where that kind of love is learned is a school of grueling self examination. Take the course in loving your neighbor, for example. Loving a person has nothing to do with how you feel toward that person. To love someone in the Christian sense is to value that person. It’s to recognize that person as having an essential role to play in what God is doing in creation. It’s to understand that without that person, my own life and all of creation would be essentially diminished. And it is to act toward that person accordingly. Christian love always moves toward an ethic of behavior.
So the lawyer’s question – “And who is my neighbor” (v. 29) – is an essential question to ask if I want to satisfy this commandment to love. Are there some who fit the definition of “neighbor” and others who don’t? Who are the ones I must be sure to love, and who are the others I don’t need to love? Who are the ones I must treat as I want to be treated, and who are different enough that I can treat them differently?
For instance, there’s the reclusive neighbor on the corner whose property is so poorly maintained, it threatens to reduce property values for all of us. Wouldn’t we be better off without him? Do I value him? Some think we’d be better off without other kinds of people: without certain immigrants, for example, or without people of a certain color, people with certain religious affiliations, LGBTQ folks. Then there are drug addicts and dealers, child pornographers, street walkers, people whose political opinions violate the principles of community and government that we hold dear. Do I value them?
Yes, the lawyer who stood up to test Jesus had a good question. And Jesus had a good response – not an answer as much as a story. It was a story that would force the lawyer to answer his own question. And in providing his own answer, he would reveal for himself whether or not he would have the life he wanted.
You’ve learned the point of the story. Do what the Samaritan did; love as the Samaritan loved. The way to have the more and better life Jesus talked about is to love the least loveable person I know. It’s to put my journey on hold, cross the street, get into the ditch with the victim, put myself at risk, and spend my time and resources to make him whole. If I don’t lift him into fullness of life, I’m never going to get there myself. We’re all in this together; if there’s one among us who doesn’t have fullness of life, none of us will have it.
But there’s another point to the story that’s maybe more important, and it takes a very careful reading to see it. The lawyer wants to know, who is my neighbor (v. 29)? And Jesus asks, who is the victim’s neighbor (v. 36)? Whom is the lawyer to love? Whom is the victim to love? The point is, we’re all victims, we’re all wounded and broken, and we have no power to help ourselves. We all need help to regain wholeness and fullness of life. And the one who has the power to heal us is the one we’ve rejected, the one we despise the most, the Samaritan. The ones we cast aside as worthless, the ones we reject, are precisely the ones who have the power to make us whole again.
That’s why Jesus said, “Love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer, for then you are working out of your true, God-created selves. . . . If all you do is love the loveable, do you expect a reward? Anybody can do that. If you say hello only to those who greet you, do you expect a medal? Any sinner does that. Grow up. You’re subjects of God’s kingdom. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you” (Matt. 5:43-48 The Message, alt.).
It’s no challenge to value people who are like us. But to value the ones we despise and reject, knowing that they’re the ones who have the power to make us whole – that’s the doorway into a quality of life so good you can’t even begin to imagine it.
Questions for reflection
- What did the lawyer have in mind by the term “eternal life”? What did Jesus have in mind by saying, “you will live”? What is the difference, if any, between what the lawyer seeks and what Jesus says he will attain? When will the lawyer live? At some time in the future? If so, when? Or as soon as he begins to act on the commandments he quoted?
- Would either of the two commandments quoted be sufficient in itself for attaining life? If so, which one? Why, then, the other commandment?
- Why does the lawyer ask, “And who is my neighbor?” What would the Jews of that time believe is meant by the term “neighbor”? What do you think Jesus meant by “neighbor”? That is, whom should you love “as yourself”?
- Considering the mutual hatred between Jews and Samaritans of that time, why do you think Jesus chose a Samaritan for the “neighbor” in the story? Why did he choose two Jewish religious leaders for those who passed by?
- What truth did Jesus wish to teach through this story? Why did he not answer plainly and directly instead of using a parable?
- Notice the parallel between a) Who is the lawyer’s neighbor? Whom is the lawyer to love? (v. 29) and b) Who is the victim’s neighbor? Whom is the victim to love? (v. 36). Who is a “Samaritan” for you, whom you are to love? What does it mean for you that your “Samaritan” is the one who brings you healing and wholeness? What would be required for you to love that person “as yourself”? What would be the result?