Having Jesus As My Neighbor

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Reference: Luke 10:25-37

The story of the Good Samaritan is well known, and has become a guidepost reference for all those who would help others. It is worth remembering that Jesus tells the story as the concluding point of a discussion about the Law. Jesus is asked by a lawyer (to translate to the modern context, this would be someone versed in canon law and ethics, not simply civil law) how one can inherit eternal life. The right answer, it turns out, is love God and love your neighbor, the two great commandments. The man asking Jesus is ahead of many, and already knows that. He takes it to the next step at that point. “Who is my neighbor?” he asks. In response, Jesus unfolds the tale of the Good Samaritan, which could equally be titled the Bad Priest story, since before the Samaritan appears on the road, a priest and a Levite have heartlessly passed by the victim without stopping. Samaritans are, of course, a group despised by the Jews of the time, and were especially considered heretical and lacking in religious values. Jesus concludes by asking the lawyer which of the travelers on the road was the good neighbor. “The one who showed mercy,” answers the lawyer, quite rightly.

So, what do we not understand about this exchange? The lawyer got the point. It seems clear enough. If the despised Samaritan can be a good neighbor to a Jew, transcending the strongest ethnic and religious prejudices, it must mean everyone is my neighbor. But in the intervening two millennia since Jesus first told this story, it seems like people have been trying to find the small print with the exceptions, those who they do not need to care about. The quest is in vain. There are no exceptions. Perhaps you have seen the bumper stickers saying “God bless everyone; no exceptions.” This story is the equivalent mandate for the Christian: everyone is our neighbor, no exceptions. As Pope Francis recently noted (in response to the current Italian government’s hardline rejection of refugees), “there are no foreigners.”

Don’t try that at home. Americans are, and pretty much always have been, convinced there are foreigners. There was a time when American policy wanted to fill the western lands with settlers, so foreigners were more welcome. To be specific, some foreigners were welcome, with some conditions applying. But over the years, the list of despised and unwelcome foreigners has been significant, even as the mood changed over time about certain groups. Irish, Germans, Poles and other eastern Europeans, Italians, Catholics in general, Jews in general, Chinese, Japanese, Mexicans, and Muslims have all, among others, been on the list, even if some groups no longer are.

The problem for the Christian is that God apparently does not recognize borders. These are human inventions. But if God is our Father, as Jesus, among others, asserts, others are our brothers and sisters rather than foreigners. The New Testament makes it quite clear that there are no borders in Heaven (see Revelation 7, for instance). Everyone, from all manner of tribes, nations, languages and the like, is grouped together. The more we can eliminate borders on earth, the closer our earthly existence will be to the Kingdom of God. Note that this is not about universalism. The offer of salvation may be extended to all, but what you do with it can lead to consequences. The point of the story of the Good Samaritan is of interest only for those who wish to do God’s will and see Christian ethics as a mandated way to live.

Jesus makes quite clear that salvation is possible only through God’s loving grace. But he also makes clear that the correct way to respond to that grace is in sharing the love received. He does not accept any boundaries restricting that love. For his hearers, accustomed to a kosher Judaism which shunned all foreigners, this was shocking and repulsive, even though Jewish law also had some relevant things to say about accepting and helping foreigners. Many Americans can relate, as various categories of foreigners are despised today as well. Nor is the sharing of God’s love limited to interaction with foreigners. Remember, everyone is your neighbor, according to Jesus. If that neighbor is in need, giving aid is the same as giving that aid to Jesus (see Matthew 25:31-46).

We are thus left with the stark realization that the story of the Good Samaritan has not been revoked or amended. For an American Christian, sharing God’s love is the same challenge as it was 2000 years ago. Some would still attempt a selective approach (only for the unborn, only for Christians, only if you give up drinking, only if you haven’t broken any laws, the list of proposed caveats and restrictions is long). They all ring hollow. Jesus was talking to people who had plenty of reasons to offer as to why they should avoid helping those who were not on some approved list. His rejection of all of that as being so many cold and heartless excuses is categorical. Everyone is my neighbor, no exceptions.

Jesus concludes the story by asking the lawyer who of the three travelers was a neighbor to the victim of the robbers. “The one who showed mercy,” replies the lawyer.

“Go and do likewise,” concludes Jesus. Nothing has changed. That is what Jesus still concludes. Go and do likewise.