On being a neighbor

Today’s Gospel is the parable of the Good Samaritan. Everybody knows it, and if you’re a Christian and happened to go to church today, you most likely also heard a sermon on the subject. And chances are, that sermon included some sort of reference—direct or obscure, scholarly or passionate, reflection on conciliation or call to action—some reference to immigration. Because as general and universal the lessons of this gospel, and as long as Christian preachers have been chewing them and spitting them out, it is impossible today to talk about the Good Samaritan and ignore what has become in America the most seething, spitting-hot, red, inflamed, agonizingly painful political issue of the day. And we call it “political,” as if it weren’t all other issues, all other things: the issue of abused children, the issue of corruption and of organized crime and its victims, the issue of free speech, the issue of families, the issue of human rights, the issue of health and hunger and poverty and life and death, the issue of decency and power and powerlessness, and of hypocrisy and privilege over desperation, and always, always the issue of truth and lie, and where those clash there’s the issue of blood soaking into the earth.

In the Gospel, a scholar of the law, who already knows that to inherit the Kingdom of Heaven he must love God and his neighbor, asks Jesus: “Who is my neighbor?” And Jesus tells him the story of a Jewish merchant, robbed and beaten to near death, bleeding out in a ditch. A priest and a cleric pass him by, cross to the other side of the road (because under the law, both would become ritually unclean if they touched blood or a corpse and would have to spend three days in purification). Then a lowly Samaritan, from a people hated and despised by the Jews, comes by. He treats and bandages the merchant’s wounds, lays him over his donkey and takes him to an inn, where he pays for his care. “Who was a neighbor to the merchant?” Jesus asks. “The one who had mercy on him,” the scholar admits. “Go and do likewise,” Jesus says.

A familiar tale, but most often I hear it when the point to be made is about loving kindness, or charity, or even that love comes from unexpected sources, or that one should look for Christ in marginalized populations. And all those messages are good and are indeed contained in the parable, and are radical enough for Jesus’s time—yet I believe they are all secondary and tertiary to the story’s primary and most radical meaning. That meaning is the actual answer to the question Jesus was asked, and he wasn’t asked if we should have mercy even on those we hate, or if we should love more than just our neighbor. He was asked “Who is my neighbor?”

The question goes back to the Ten Commandments, to the whole set of 613 Commandments, to the Scripture and the Law and the entire foundation of the society of ancient Israel. The word “neighbor” was used in the Scripture to indicate not people who lived nearby but people who were “like” us, and it was integral to the history and survival of Judaism itself, for it was a national religion. Unlike Christianity, which would proselytize and become a world religion, Judaism was and still mostly is practiced only by Jews. Persecuted, always occupied, and tied to a national and ethnic identity, it was a tribal consciousness, passed along family lines. Your neighbor is your kin, one who is connected to you by tribal ties and religious ties and lives by the same laws. He is, though distantly, related to you: he is of your nation. He therefore looks like you: features, dress, speech, customs. He is the one whose wife you are not supposed to covet, and whose ass you’re not supposed to covet, and against whom you are not supposed to bear false witness.

The scholar’s question to Jesus in this Gospel is not a sincere question because nobody really doubted what was meant by “neighbor” in the scripture, it was a “gotcha” question, and so, the man’s quick admission that it was in the story the Samaritan who was a neighbor to the merchant is highly unlikely. I think maybe the evangelist cut out some rather snide or tense or less-than-polite conversation in between (if this were at all the factual ending to the conversation). Any reasonable person, let alone a legal scholar, would point out to Jesus that an act of charity by an outsider doesn’t make an outside a neighbor. It is obvious to us that the Samaritan “acted like a good neighbor to the merchant” because we are shaped by the parable. Because, in time, the parable did what it meant to do: REDEFINE the term of “neighbor.”

This, I believe, is the radical task of this Gospel. It is a little about charity. A little about love. A little about being surprised by people. But it is much more so, primarily so, about borders. About looking at people and labeling one “neighbor” and another “outsider.” And along comes the Nazarene, an outsider in his own right, and says “there is no such thing.” He says, “When God told you to love your neighbor, he didn’t mean what you think He meant.” He says, “You’ve created your tribes and your nation-state, and you think you can please God by loving within its borders. But neither God nor love have any borders.”

I believe that the parable of the Good Samaritan is an indictment against the concept of nation state. Against borders. Against separating people into “ours” and “others.” “Citizens” and “aliens.” “Neighbors” and “outsiders.”

What does this mean? Does this help?

If it were up to me and my faith, long term there would be no states and no borders. Freedom of movement. And short term, the parable of the Good Samaritan is rather specific: when your neighbor is bleeding in the ditch, you stop and help. Jesus doesn’t care where your neighbor was born. There’s only one question: Do you see your neighbor bleeding in the ditch? Starving? Running for her life from a war zone or gang violence? Carrying a child? Then, you help. You help as long as you have anything to help with.

I am rather convinced I am preaching to the choir. There’s only one thing I don’t understand: In this country, where a majority of the population is Christian, and the younger generation (less religious) is very diversity-friendly and liberal, why do so many of us still have to be fighting “the system” that handles human beings like unwanted objects—and losing?

Permanent link to this article: http://onmounthoreb.com/on-being-a-neighbor/


    • Len on July 15, 2019 at 00:32
    • Reply

    Maria, You put your finger on a deep, festering wound. Would that it will effect at least some small healing. Len

    1. Amen. Thank you, Len.

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