|Van Gogh, Good Samaritan|
Luke 10:25-37 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
25 Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 26 He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” 27 He answered, “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.”28 And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”
29 But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” 30 Jesus replied, “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. 31 Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32 So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. 34 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. 35 The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ 36 Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” 37 He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”
Who is my neighbor? That is the question that elicits from Jesus the famous Good Samaritan parable. The question itself follows upon a question about what is required for one to inherit eternal life, which leads to a conversation about the commands to love God and neighbor. The lawyer wants to know who qualifies as his neighbor. Isn’t that a question we all want to ask Jesus. Jesus tells us that we should love our neighbor as we love ourselves. That’s fine, as far as it goes, but what is the criteria upon which that question is answered? Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan in response. It’s a great parable, but I think sometimes we forget the question that led Jesus to the parable.
Quite often the “Good Samaritan” is simply an example of someone who steps in and helps someone in distress. There’s nothing wrong with helping people in distress, but is that the point of the story? Remember the story is a response to a question as to whom one should consider one’s neighbor. We all want neighbors who will help us when we’re in distress, but do want Samaritans as our neighbors, even if they do prove helpful on occasion? As with many of Jesus’ parables we often miss the point because we don’t understand the context. It’s important to remember that Jews and Samaritans looked at each other as enemies. They despised each other. Therefore, they didn’t want to be neighbors! And yet, here is the hero of the story, the one who rescues the person in distress, at great cost to himself, and his inclusion in the story is both surprising and offensive to the audience.
In this reflection I want to address the question of who is the neighbor. Did you notice that when Jesus finished telling the parable, and asked the lawyer who was the neighbor, the lawyer avoided using the word Samaritan? He simply said that it was the one who showed mercy. He would have found it incredibly difficult to say that it was a Samaritan. He wouldn’t have minded a priest or Levite moving into the neighborhood, but not a Samaritan.
As we contemplate the question of who is the neighbor, we need to ask who is the Samaritan for us today? Whom would you prefer not to move into your neighborhood? A Muslim? A Hindu? A gay couple? How about an African American family or a Latino family? Homeowners are always concerned about property values. If certain people move into the neighborhood they could bring down values. So, realtors know how steer customers to “appropriate” neighborhoods. Back in the day, especially in cities like Detroit and many of its suburbs, there were deed restrictions that prevented persons of color from moving into the neighborhood. When these restrictions were deemed unconstitutional and thus illegal, people fled the cities for the suburbs. White Flight was abetted by government policies that determined who could receive home loans and what neighborhoods they could be used in. Thus, the FHA loan system in the 1950s denied loans to people of color, which allowed for the creation of newly minted suburbs that were almost completely white. At the same time, the urban areas became increasingly non-white. Thus, a city like Detroit is now over 80% African American, while many of the outer ring suburbs are predominantly white. When we’re allowed to choose our neighbors, it appears that we like neighbors who look like us, talk like us, believe like us, etc.
Quite often we define the other according to stereotypes, and deem them unworthy of being our neighbor. How could a stranger, someone so different from me, off me anything of value? The two figures in the parable who stand out as poor examples of neighborliness—the priest and the Levite—are the kind of people that the lawyer would have considered good candidates for being a neighbor. After all, neighbors take care of neighbors (that’s increasingly difficult since we often don’t know our neighbors).
When it comes to the person in the story who is in need of help, we’re left to speculate as to exactly why the priest and Levite chose to avoid helping. We’ve often assumed that they passed by because of priestly duties, but how do we know they were going to Jerusalem or the Temple. Maybe they, like the man whom the neglected to help, were going down to Jericho and not up to Jerusalem. So maybe the issue of clean and unclean had nothing to do with it. It’s possible that they feared that they too could be waylaid by robbers. After all, this was dangerous road. Or, maybe they were just bad neighbors. Whatever the case, they failed to be a good neighbor, but the person that Jesus’ audience would least expect to be the good neighbor becomes the hero of the story.
So, when Jesus asked the question as to whom was the neighbor one should love, the answer was the Samaritan. As we who are Christians ponder this question in our context, I’m sure we all want to believe that we love our neighbors as we love ourselves. We want to believe that we do good things for others. If I’m honest, while I do try, I also fall well short!
So who is the unexpected neighbor? In our current context, I would venture to guess that this role might be played by Muslims. The current political climate has demonstrated a deep antipathy on the part of many Americans, including many Christians for Muslims. They are seen as evil people bent on taking over the country or as possible terrorists. Thus, even though the Statue of Liberty declares that America welcomes the teeming masses, we want to exclude migrants and refugees, especially refugees from places like Syria and Iraq. The rationale here is that they are likely to be ISIS inspired terrorists (because all Muslims are terrorists). We don’t want them to be our neighbors! So what do I have to say to this, especially I write this reflection as Ramadan, the holy season of fasting, comes to an end? I’m fortunate to have become friends with a number of Muslim folks. My community has a large Muslim population. Those I’ve come to know are not terrorists. They’re not trying to undermine America? No, the people I’ve come to know are friendly, gracious, and generous people. They’re the kind of people you want to have as your neighbors! Even though our theologies differ, we have recognized in each other the presence of God. They are the kind of people I want as my neighbors, people whom I am to love as I love myself!
Jesus told a story to help get this across to the lawyer. I think in our day we need more than a story. We need to build bridges of friendship. My congregation was blessed recently to be the host of a Ramadan Iftar Dinner. Members of the Turkish American Society of Michigan brought food to share with us, and we sat at tables and built friendships. We learned about Ramadan and the purpose of the fast. When it came time for evening prayers we made space for our guests to offer their prayers—in the building! They were deeply appreciative. These are my neighbors.
Pushing this question of neighbor even further: what should we say and do about the migrant? Millions of human beings are being displaced by war and famine. What should we do? As I ask that question, which emerged in the Brexit vote and is driving the conversation in our Presidential electoral race here in the United States, what would Jesus, the one who told the parable of the Good Samaritan, do? Miroslav Volf and Ryan McAnnally-Linz speak to this question in their new book Public Faith in Action. The speak of Jesus as “Christ the welcomer.” They suggest that we should imitate him, for Jesus is the “incarnation of a welcoming God” (p. 126). Then the write something that’s germane here:
Embracing others is just what love of neighbor looks like when our neighbor is a “stranger.” Such welcoming love is the first basic Christian commitment that should shape public engagement related to migration (p. 127).
There are other principles involved as well, like justice, but this is the starting point. We talk often about economics and cultural interests, but as Volf and McAnnally-Linz remind us, we should be thinking in terms of “welcoming embrace and justice.” Obviously there are different factors to be considered when a nation welcomes the stranger—including economic and security issues—but how do we determine what those limits should be?
So the question still stands: who is my neighbor?
Picture attribution: Gogh, Vincent van, 1853-1890. Good Samaritan, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=54697 [retrieved July 4, 2016]. Original source: https://lh3.googleusercontent.com/-JxomvlRi2uo/SDTc3ruAVoI/AAAAAAAANxw/L07CjJU2AOo/s512/The%252520Good%252520Samaritan%252520by%252520Van%252520Gogh.jpg.