Who is my neighbor?

One time when I was a young kid, my family was on vacation in a big city . . . and we accidentally drove into a ghetto.

I wasn’t that worried about it, but everybody else in the car was terrified.  They seemed to believe somebody was going to come up to our car and attack us.  I looked around the ghetto we drove past with new eyes, panicked that we were all going to be killed.  The people weren’t people to me anymore.  They were scary creatures out to get me.

Looking back on this, I realize I was right with my first reaction, and not with my second.  The people who live in that ghetto . . . are people.  And drawing a sweeping conclusion that people are out to get you just because they live in a ghetto . . . that’s just ridiculous.  You could live in a mansion on a hill and be killed by your own butler.

Going back to that day, I don’t have to wonder what would have happened if we’d driven by a woman lying on the side of the road, beaten unconscious.

We would almost certainly have driven right by.

When we got to our hotel, we would have called the police, of course, but never would we have gotten out in the middle of that ghetto, carried that unconscious woman to our car, and driven her to the hospital.

Not with all the dangers around us.  It could have been a trap.  She might not really have been unconscious.  Or it could have been the act of a gang, waiting to spring on us the moment we opened our car doors.

Help her?  No way.  Way, way too scary.

Many people are familiar with the story of the good Samaritan, or at least of the cause named after the person.  But we usually miss the terrible danger within this parable.

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The story of the good Samaritan was told by Christ.  During His life on earth, Christ was a teacher, and people would walk up to Him and ask Him questions.  Sometimes they asked questions because they really wanted to know the answers.  Other times they asked questions to try to trip Him up.  (Not much has changed since then, actually!)

One man, an avid reader and religious sage, walked up to Jesus to ask what he needed to do to get into Heaven.  Sounds like a good question to me!

The problem was, the man wasn’t really asking a question.  He really just wanted to prove to everybody listening that he already was going to Heaven because he was so good!

When Jesus answered him, the sage seems, from my understanding of the story, to get excited.  In his mind, he thinks he’s just proven he has earned eternal life—but he wants to make sure everybody in the crowd knows it.  So he asks a little, bitty easy question to show everybody how good he really is . . . or so he thinks.

I think the answer Jesus gave him left him stupefied.

And a lot less sure he had Heaven ‘in the bag’.

An expert in the Law of Moses stood up and asked Jesus a question to see what he would say.  “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to have eternal life?”

Jesus answered, “What is written in the Scriptures? How do you understand them?”

The man replied, “The Scriptures say, `Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind.’  They also say, `Love your neighbors as much as you love yourself.’ “

Jesus said, “You have given the right answer.  If you do this, you will have eternal life.”

But the man wanted to show that he knew what he was talking about.  So he asked Jesus, “Who are my neighbors?”

Jesus replied:

As a man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, robbers attacked him and grabbed everything he had.  They beat him up and ran off, leaving him half dead.

A priest happened to be going down the same road.  But when he saw the man, he walked by on the other side.

Later a temple helper came to the same place.  But when he saw the man who had been beaten up, he also went by on the other side.

A man from Samaria then came traveling along that road. When he saw the man, he felt sorry for him and went over to him.  He treated his wounds with olive oil and wine and bandaged them.  Then he put him on his own donkey and took him to an inn, where he took care of him.  The next morning he gave the innkeeper two silver coins and said, “Please take care of the man.  If you spend more than this on him, I will pay you when I return.”  Then Jesus asked, “Which one of these three people was a real neighbor to the man who was beaten up by robbers?”

The teacher answered, “The one who showed pity.”

Jesus said, “Go and do the same!” (Luke 10:25-37, CEV)

WOW.

Jesus says the neighbor is the person who gets out of his car, in the middle of a ghetto, to help somebody in need.

WOW.

Someone could say, “Hey, wait a second, that’s not fair!  Ghettos are way dangerous and this man in the story was just lying on a road!”

This is where we miss the danger of this story.  The road from Jerusalem to Jericho was a scary one[1].  Jerusalem was (and is) a religious mecca.  After people had traveled there, they might go down to Jericho to vacation or for business.  So this road was a thief magnet.  Thieves would wait for travelers to come by so they could prey on one.

Because clothes were so expensive, thieves would often take the clothes right off somebody’s back.  The thieves in this parable leave the man beaten and naked in the middle of the road and probably go off to sell his clothes and spend his money.

Notice that the three people who came by did not see what had happened.

This would be like driving down a dangerous road and suddenly seeing a man lying across one lane, naked and bruised, the other lane empty.

In this parable, the first two people who passed by the beaten-up traveler went around.  In today’s world, it would be switching lanes.  They went down the clear lane.

Although the priest and temple helper are very religious . . . they don’t have much trust in God or feel responsibility to Him.

They don’t trust that God will protect them if they stop.

And they don’t feel responsible to help.

So they go on by.

Of course they didn’t have cars, but I bet they probably had donkeys and weren’t on foot.  To stop and help would be to dismount—get out of the car.  They would have had to kneel down, pick up the wounded man, and carry him on a donkey—which has no driver and passenger’s seat, by the way—to the nearest hotel.

Can you imagine all of the reasons the priest and temple helper could have given for their decision to ‘drive on by’?

This was dangerous!

It could be a trap!

They could lose temple money—religious money!!!—if they got robbed!

Traveling with a stranger on their donkey meant they would have to walk on foot, practically a shout-out to any more robbers in the vicinity!

The stranger might not even be a ‘good’ person!  Who’s to say how he got on the side of the road?  He might have been a drunk or even a robber himself, having been robbed by other robbers!

We tend to think that the religious people who went on by the man would have been embarrassed if their congregation had found out about it.  But I think actually they might have been just fine with it!

After all, they had so many reasons not to help!  They might have even used the man as an example in a sermon of the sad state of the world without ever feeling bad about going by!

After all, they did not believe a neighbor was some unconscious stranger you meet on the side of the road one day!

This parable must have stunned the religious leaders and the disciples and the crowds that listened to Jesus.  Because Jesus opened up the word ‘neighbor’ from meaning someone living on either side of your house to anyone in the world!

This parable might have triggered an immediate memory in the religious sage’s mind—the one who had asked Jesus the question—of all the times when he had been on his way somewhere, seen a person in need . . . and walked (or rode) on by.

Through this parable, Jesus showed this religious sage that he had zero chance of getting eternal life on his own.  What the sage had intended to be an opportunity to show off his goodness had turned into a conviction to look at his badness.  He saw, probably for the first time in his life, that he was not a good neighbor.

When we think of neighbors, we usually think of people we live nearby.  We don’t think of people who live in the bad part of town . . . in a scary apartment complex in Chicago . . . in cardboard houses in Los Angeles . . . in a Cuban prison . . . in a slum in Mexico City . . . in a Kenyan village . . . on the streets of New Dehli . . . in a tent in Mongolia . . . in a Haiti refugee camp . . . in temporary shelters in Japan . . .  people we can so, so, so easily go around.

But Jesus refuses to give us permission to go around.

Who is my neighbor?

Everyone is my neighbor.

Then Jesus asked, “Which one of these three people was a real neighbor to the man who was beaten up by robbers?”

The teacher answered, “The one who showed pity.”

Jesus said, “Go and do the same!” (Luke 10:36-37, CEV)


[1] My pastor taught a sermon on the Good Samaritan recently, and explained this.

Photo by Isawnyu (Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, profile on http://www.flickr.com/people/isawnyu/, website http://isaw.nyu.edu/

Photograph is under Creative Commons License.

Scripture taken from the Contemporary English Version © 1991, 1992, 1995 by American Bible Society, Used by Permission.

See Copyright Page for Bible translation information.

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