Who Is Our Neighbor? Lessons from the Good Samaritan
A recent talk over the role of religion in the Middle East led to the consideration of what role Christians should have in the fighting, rebuilding, and healing process. Marc LiVecche clearly highlights “love” as a central focus that should be involved in both waging war and healing from it. He references Jesus’s command to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31), which leads to the core question: who is my neighbor?
In Luke 10:25-37, Jesus is “put to the test” by a lawyer seeking to inherit eternal life. Jesus asks him how he reads the Law, which was, after all, his profession. The answer is to love God with one’s whole heart, soul, strength, and mind; this means a strong and sincere love that is not only evident in outward actions but also through an internal devotion focused on nothing but the Lord. There was, however, one last part; that is, to love “your neighbor as yourself.” Desiring to justify himself, the lawyer asks the same question: then, who is my neighbor?
Although he answers with a parable, Jesus surprisingly does not directly define the term for us or for the lawyer but, rather, he demonstrates something greater.
The parable describes a man, probably presumed to be a Jew by the Jewish audience, on a dangerous 18-mile stretch of road leaving Jerusalem. He falls among robbers, is stripped, beaten, and left on the road. Passing by soon after, a priest, one of the descendants of Aaron and given high status in Jewish culture, encounters the man. Since the traveling man was stripped and half beaten, his identity is not clear. So touching him, or even coming within six feet of a dead body, would risk a defilement requiring a lengthy purification process, and so the priest passes by on the other side of the road.
Next, a Levite, a “son of Levi” who is also of significant religious status in the Jewish community, encounters the beaten man and does the same.
In proximity, religion, and ethnicity, both of these men would be considered a neighbor to the man who was robbed.
The focus of the parable is on the Samaritan, a man of mixed descent and considered an enemy to the Jews. Though not a Gentile and still under the Law, Samaritans customarily did not have dealings with Jews (John 4:9). According to the primary record of oral tradition in Rabbinic literature, “He that eats the bread of the Samaritans is like to one that eats the flesh of swine” (Mishna Shebiith 8:10). Safely considered the farthest from a modern day “neighbor” in every regard, the Samaritan both felt and showed compassion towards the beaten man. He used wine and oil, expensive goods, to tend to the man’s wounds, took him to an inn, paid two days salary for his care, and offered to pay more as needed with no assurance of receiving anything in return. Beyond material contribution, the Samaritan gave up his own animal and comfort, resigning to walk to the inn, and forfeited his anonymity by staying the night, thereby risking false accusation or association for the crime. In doing all this, the Samaritan also risked the same defilement as the Jews would have by approaching the man, as he was bound by the same laws.
“Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?”, Jesus asks (v. 36). Without uttering the loathed word “Samaritan”, the lawyer admits the truth. The mercy shown by the Samaritan makes him the neighbor. Refusing to define and thereby limit “neighbor”, Jesus answers the initial question of what must be done to inherit eternal life. “Go and do likewise.”
Being a neighbor is not restricted to relation or proximity. It is merely the demonstration of the love and mercy of God to all in need, whomever and wherever they may be, regardless of race, denomination, or belief. Jesus teaches us that love is an action, not just a feeling or a theory, and that it sometimes requires the shouldering of others’ burdens, an often uncomfortable process. The priest and the Levite were religious men and yet they acted inhumanely, and the Samaritan demonstrated just the opposite. Religious vocation or affiliation is empty without the actions to back it up. To be a neighbor, according to Jesus, means to come alongside someone. As Christian Americans, we must remember that we are Christians first, and Americans second. Our nationality should never surpass our faith and its duties. This is what we must keep in mind when we consider our “neighbor”.
But drawing lessons from this parable today presents a challenge. The world is much bigger, the problems often larger, the potential danger much higher, opinions more varied, and the methods and means at our disposal far more vast. As the scenario is changed, how does the lesson in the parable influence what we do?
Though we may intend to “go and do likewise”, the result of our efforts to be neighborly and loving in the face of evil may not always portray us as the “good Samaritan”. Confronting terror or standing up for human rights often requires violence, but Jesus didn’t teach violence in this parable, right? The robbers were violent and clearly in the wrong, so therefore Jesus must have taught against violence. Or did he?
What if the Samaritan showed up a few minutes earlier, while the robbery was occurring? What is the appropriate response then?
Nothing should change our ultimate responsibility: show mercy to those in need, like the Samaritan did to the beaten man. Does showing mercy and being a neighbor always mean relief? Must the capacity to stop violence be with or without force? And what about the robbers? Regardless, a Christian must never fail to act outside of love, even towards the robbers. All things must be done in love, even the hard ones, but love can look differently given the context and situation.
A doctor who amputates a child’s arm to save his life acts out of love, and in the same way a child is both reprimanded and praised out of love, depending on his actions and the response they require. Though difficult and violent responses are sometimes necessary to demonstrate love, to what extent are we obligated? What if the Samaritan had his child with him in such a moment? Does the robbery of one stranger, however helpless he may be, warrant putting that child at risk?
Or what if week after week the Samaritan encountered the same problem: a different man each time on the same road, in the same condition? Is he obligated to risk societal or professional detriment and lend his time, money, and resources each and every time an opportunity to do so presents itself? What if, as is often the case, all one can do will simply never be enough?
These are tough questions, but they must be examined. Though our neighbor is identified and our command is clear, practical guidance should be applied.
Contrary to common thought, Jesus did not teach against all violence. His famous lesson on retaliation commanded that “if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Matthew 5:39, emphasis added). Here Jesus enlightened his listeners that “getting even” with one’s enemy was wrong, as they had previously believed (Exodus 21). But rather, he commanded patience and endurance. A slap to the right cheek comes from the left hand, or the back of the right hand, and so it did not mean a physical threat but rather an insult. This is why Jesus mentioned the “right cheek”, because he was teaching that insults ought to be endured in love without retaliation.
However, Jesus certainly never taught against self-defense, an unfortunate scenario that occasionally calls for violence. It should be said, of course, that these circumstances can be minimized with discernment. Traveling alone and unarmed on a dangerous road is simply unwise, and even Jesus and his disciples carried swords for the same reason (Luke 22:36-38). But when precaution and diversion fail, what are we to do?
Undoubtedly the Samaritan could act out of love towards both the robbers and the traveler, though the actions would look far different as the traveler needs mercy and compassion and the robbers need to be stopped, or even punished. However, if such action would be likely to endanger the Samaritan or his child, one must look at the commandment that first compels: “Love your neighbor as yourself”. Self-love means self-protection, just as loving a neighbor means protecting him. While this mentality can lead to selfishness, it must be employed to safeguard against reckless attempts at impractical, often impossible methods of demonstrating love. The Samaritan did what he could with what he could, sparing nothing that was needed and thinking of himself last, but he was wise and logical in doing so, and we are called to no more than to “go and do likewise”.
Ryan McDowell is an intern for Providence. He is studying Business Administration and Economics at Pepperdine University.
Photo Credit: Homily: The Good Samaritan via frilloblog.com