This series in Echo, we have been talking about love, which is not a feeling, but a choice. When Jesus was asked what was the heart and soul of this whole religion thing – what is a relationship with God all about, the conversation turned to the “great commandment.” Love God with everything, and love your neighbor as yourself. This week it was all about loving our neighbor.
Luke 10:25-37 recalls how a teacher of the law wanted some clarification. His question was: “who is my neighbor?” If I am being commanded to love someone, I want to know who that someone is. This sounds at first like a great question, but Jesus seemed to to think it was the wrong question to ask.
Jesus answers in a very unexpected way. This is a great example of Jesus doing what he does best: masterfully helping people who are focused on the wrong things find the right things. This teacher of the law intended to have an abstract theological conversation. Jesus manages to turn it into a stinging real life situation. A lot of what made Jesus’ answer scandalous has been lost because of historical distance, so let me talk some of this out.
First, you need to understand the question being asked. By asking this question, the teacher of the law is implying that some people are “neighbors,” and as such are to be loved, while other people are “non-neighbors,” and we might not need to love them. He is trying to draw lines and categories of who should be loved and who should not. The commandment about “loving your neighbor” was from Leviticus, and Jews had been debating what was meant by “neighbor” for a long time. This rabbi would teach one thing, while another rabbi would teach something different. Some rabbis taught this only applied to other Jews. It would certainly not apply to a Samaritan. There was a quarrel between the Jews and the Samaritans that was centuries old. The road from Galilee to Jerusalem led through Samaria, and the Samaritans were known for hindering or even injuring Jews that tried to pass through. The Jews looked down on Samaritans as “half breeds” and “heretics.” They were not friends. When Jesus’ story unfolds and the Samaritan is the 3rd person to find the beset traveler, the original audience likely assumed that the villain had just arrived. Jesus does not pick a Samaritan as his hero on accident. He picked a Samaritan because Samaritans are in the “non-neighbor” category of the person that asked the question. This introduces a new question for you and I: who is in our “non-neighbor” category?
The priest and Levite serve as examples of empty religion that does not work because it is not concerned with the needs of others. They are the story’s true villains. They are expected to be the good guys, but they end up acting in a horrible way. I just heard a story about a woman that was in a rollover accident where she lost consciousness. She was taken to the hospital by ambulance, only to arrive and find her wedding ring was missing. Eyewitnesses told police that a man actually reached into her overturned car and pulled the ring off her finger while she lay there helpless. Stealing is one thing; seeing another human being in desperate need and failing to respond is another. Stealing from a human being that needs your help? that is a special kind of evil. The priest and the Levite saw the same need and heard the same cries for help as the Samaritan, but what did they do with what they say and heard? What will you do with what you see and hear? Neighborliness is only limited by our failure to see, feel, and respond to the needs of others.
This brings me to why I think Jesus was a master at this type of “mind game.” We enter the story along with the teacher of the law, thinking about who qualifies to be our neighbor and who does not. Who should receive our love and who can we withhold it from? Who is our neighbor? Well, it might be everyone – including the people we would not expect. It would include those that are not like us and that we do not like. But this is the wrong question, at least to Jesus. Through the story, Jesus flips the question and the answer. Instead of worrying about and assessing others to see who fits the bill for “neighbor,” or who is good enough for us to love – Jesus’ call is to become people that behave in a neighborly way to everyone. We (and the lawyer) started off seeking to limit who we (and he) have to call our neighbor, and we end up evaluating ourselves and how we are doing as a neighbor in the broken world we share. We are not to worry about who is our neighbor, we are to worry about how to be better neighbors ourselves – serving them, showing them love, and healing their wounds. Jesus says let the neighbor be you. Be the neighbor. This reminds me of Gandhi who once challenged us “to be the change you wish to see in the world.”
Questions for you and your teenager:
*Do you know the names of your actual neighbors (meaning the people living next door to your home)? What can you do to get to know them better?
*What would be different if everyone treated everyone else the way they wish they were treated?
*Can you think of anyone on your “non-neighbor” list? Are some people harder to love than others? Do you think Jesus ever intends for us to have a certain number of people that we do not love, for whatever reason?
*Should you help someone in need if it means putting yourself in danger? Why or why not? Are there limits to this?
*What are the needs around you right now, and how are you doing at being neighborly?