Monday, July 17, 2023

Neighbors: A Quarter-Summer Reflection on The Good Samaritan

Let me tell you about my neighbor.

This summer, we are staying in a friend’s carriage house in a remote area with a few houses strung along a beautiful river valley. It sounds idyllic, but it has proved far from serene. In particular, there is one fellow who thinks nothing of blaring loud, aggressive music while using his chainsaw—at 10:30 in the evening.


So who is my neighbor?


That is the question a lawyer once asked when Jesus agreed with him that the two greatest commands are to love God and love your neighbor. As he often did, Jesus answered the man with a story that has become the quintessential depiction of neighborly love. But there is one problem: Jesus got the story all wrong.


It should have gone like this: A Samaritan is attacked and left for dead, and a Jewish man finds him. The Jewish man condescends to help the unfortunate fellow even though he is a Samaritan. This story would have answered the Pharisee’s question, Who is my neighbor? And this story would have justified him, which is what he wanted.


Instead, Jesus tells a very unexpected story, one in which a Samaritan—not a Jew—is the hero. And Jesus changes the question to this: Who was the neighbor? This story forces the self-righteous Pharisee to admit that, in spite of his feelings about Samaritans, if he was in trouble he would want to be treated well even if a Samaritan was the only guy around to do the job. In this situation, he would want the Samaritan to be his neighbor, even though in all other circumstances he would not.


Going back to my loud neighbor as an example, one might think, Well, I don’t want this person to do anything for me. I would rather have nothing to do with him. Though that seems reasonable, Jesus’ parable would say that my attitude precludes me from loving my neighbor. Until we get to the point where we are willing to be loved by unlovely people, we will never know how to do for others as we would have them do for us.


Your campers are your neighbors. Some will be easy to love. Big deal! Anyone can love the nice ones. What about the campers that are hard to love, the ones that—if you were willing to admit it—you would rather not have in your cabin group? In other words, you would prefer that they were not your neighbor.


What would you be willing to have those campers do for you, if you were in need? Whatever answer you give to that question limits the level of love you have to offer them. When Jesus told the lawyer, “Go and do likewise,” he didn’t mean he should become a compassionate Samaritan. He meant that he should become a Jew who was willing to receive the compassion of a Samaritan. Only then could he learn to love his neighbor as himself.