‘But who is my neighbor?‘
The Good Samaritan
A rabbi once challenged his disciples to recite the Torah, the Law of Moses, while standing on one foot. This caused great dismay, for the pupils knew that there are no fewer than 613 statutes and ordinances. But the teacher understood that there were two statutes that contain the essence of God’s will for his people. The first: ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might’ (Deuteronomy 6:5). And the second: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’ (Leviticus 19:18).
The lawyer who came to Jesus also knew this full well, and Jesus in turn affirmed this as the key to eternal life (Luke 10: 25-28). Yet to know the law is one thing; to interpret it properly is another. When it comes to loving our neighbor, where do we draw the line? This is a vital question in our world, filled with migrants and foreigners, a divided world of ethnic, tribal, national and religious barriers.
This question was likewise debated among the Jews, who had to face the question of how to treat hostile and heretical nations and peoples around them. Small wonder that the lawyer wanted to be legalistic about the matter, and ask: ‘But who is my neighbor?’ (Luke 10:29). In response, Jesus does not give an explanation, but an example. The Parable of the Good Samaritan shows that our neighbor is any one whom we meet who needs our kindness and care.
It is not the case that the priest and the levite were hard hearted. As often is the case, they were caught between one duty and another. Compassion versus self-preservation, for example. Suppose the wounded man were really part of an ambush on a notoriously dangerous road? Or suppose the man were dead? Religious officials were prevented by ceremonial law from the impurity of contact with corpses. Would they not be cautious?
On the other hand, it was the Samaritan, a man considered a ritually impure heretic by upright Jews, who delayed his journey, risked his safety, and reached into his own pocket to care for a perfect stranger. How many of us might draw the line far short of that? Yet God is explicit
You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt (Deuteronomy 10:19)
In the end, however, Jesus has a question even more important than ‘who is my neighbor.’ That question is ‘how do I become a neighbor.’ The answer is found not by looking at our legal obligations but by finding ways to be as graceful as God in his mercy and loving-kindness.
Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers? He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise. (Luke 10:36-37)