“And who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29).
This question was posed to Jesus by a lawyer who wanted, the scripture says, “to justify himself.” He had just “tested” Jesus, asking him to sum up the law and the prophets, and Jesus gave a good answer. In a nutshell, “Love God. Love your neighbor,” he said. As the rabbi Hillel later said, “The rest is commentary.”
So it is important to get this question right. It means summing up at least half of what it is to be a Christian. But that is easier said than done. Like the lawyer who asked it, we usually want to try to find a loophole. Asking, “Who is my neighbor” is another way of asking “Whom can I not love?”
This question is on my mind tonight for a couple reasons. I am Eastern Orthodox, and this is my Holy Week. As I write this, I still have the oil of the sacrament of Holy Unction on my head, cheeks, chin, and hands. This passage was one of our gospel readings.
That simple, five-word question introduces probably the most famous parable in the Bible. In the story of the Good Samaritan, a man is attacked as he is leaving Jerusalem. He is mugged and left for dead. A priest sees him but does not help. A lawyer sees him but does not help. A Samaritan sees him, and he helps. He tends to his wounds and nurses him back to health.
Jesus told the lawyer this story and asked, “So which of these three do you think was neighbor to him who fell among the thieves?” And the lawyer answered, “He who showed mercy on him” (Luke 10:36-37 NKJV).
This is a story we like to change as much as possible because we are all little legal scholars when it comes to the Bible. We like to justify ourselves, too. So we talk about how important it is to be helpful to people and completely miss the point of the parable. It was not that Jews and Samaritans did not associate with each other. Jews hated Samaritans. They were half-breed, heretics who taught a perverted version of the true worship of the God of Israel!
Did you catch how the scribe could not even let the word, “Samaritan,” pass his lips?
It reminds me of another story I heard just this morning, something my mother passed along to me from a friend of hers (she insists this is a true story, and for what it’s worth my mother is not one to fall prey to circulated e-mails and other urban legends). There have recently been several tornadoes in Georgia. One woman my mother knows is friends with someone who volunteered to help families affected by the storms, in this case, by doing their laundry. But as she was folding their clothes, she noticed that there were a lot of nice headscarves in the pile. She concluded that she – a Christian woman! – was likely doing laundry for a Muslim family! It was a real crisis of conscience. Wouldn’t helping a Muslim family be like helping the devil?
“And who is my neighbor?”
Jesus answer to the lawyer leaves little room for ambiguity, at least if we try to answer the question honestly. My neighbor is the one I think is my enemy. My neighbor is the reason I am asking about loopholes. The “half-breed, heretic.” The “heathen.” The Muslim.
“And who is my neighbor?” we ask, hoping for permission to hate. And the answer we receive is the person we hate the most, the person whose name we cannot even utter in public. It is the person we think is our enemy.
Whom do I have permission not to love? The answer, of course, is “No one.”