A Bible scholar once tried to trap Jesus in a game of Bible trivia. This particular guy was an expert, and he thought for sure that he was going to easily crush Jesus. As you and I well know, the last person that you want to go toe-to-toe in a game of Bible trivia is Jesus. But this guy didn’t know Jesus like we know Jesus. Here’s how it went down, as told in Luke 10:
“On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” “What is written in the Law?” Jesus replied. “How do you read it?” The Bible scholar answered: “ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.” But the Bible scholar wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
That is the very question we are thinking about today: who are the people in our community? Who is my neighbor? The answer might seem obvious. Think about your neighbors, the people who live next door or across the street.
Jesus, however, has a shocking response for the scholar. As he so often does, Jesus tells a story. Look at Luke 10, verses 30-37.
In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, took him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’ “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.” Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”
So how does Jesus answer the question? Jesus actually answers the question with a bit of a different focus than that with which the question was originally asked.
We expect “Who is my neighbor?” to receive the following response: “The hurting man, even if he makes you unclean in the process.” That alone is a powerful answer. And Jesus does give that answer through the story, but he also answers the question: What does it mean to be a neighbor? His response is in the phrase “was a neighbor.” Which one was a neighbor? To put it another way that makes it even more clear: Jesus is asking which one of the three passersby was neighborly? Which one demonstrates neighborliness? Clearly it is the Samaritan.
This is all the more powerful when you consider how Jews and Samaritans were two different ethnicities that treated each other quite poorly over the years. Jesus, himself a Jew, is telling this story to other Jews. To avoid offending his fellow Jews, Jesus could have told the story with the Jew in the role of neighborly hero. He still would have been making a bold point, in that the Jew as hero would not only have been reaching out to the other ethnicity, but it is likely the Jew would also have bloodied his hands, thus making himself ritually unclean.
But Jesus turns the tables, making this story far more difficult for his Jewish audience to stomach, making their enemy the hero. The expert in the law was probably mumbling through gritted teeth, answering Jesus’ question with “The one who had mercy.” He couldn’t even say the word “Samaritan,” when he answered Jesus. Even in his answer, correct though it was, the expert in the law reveals his prejudicial view of the Samaritans.
What Jesus has done, then, with this profound story is not only describe neighborliness that sounds an awful lot like the Fruit of the Spirit of love, kindness, goodness and self-control. Jesus has also broken down the wall of ethnic prejudice that so often divides us. When we answer the question, “Who is my neighbor?”, it is the people who don’t look like us, don’t dress like us, don’t talk like us, don’t think like us. Jesus says that we need to move away from any kind of “us vs them” mentality and instead think in terms of “we.”
In our American culture, the parable of the good Samaritan has taken on a life of its own, and for the most part that is a good thing. There are Good Samaritan hospitals, Good Samaritan laws where restaurants can give away unused food, and the more general idea of being a good Samaritan, which is helping people. That heart of care is wonderful, but I think it can also dilute the punch of Jesus’ story a bit.
For Jesus, a Good Samaritan is one who practices risky barrier-breaking self-denial on behalf of those in need. A Good Samaritan sees the need and acts in selfless love. That is the first step to the kind of neighborliness that disciples of Jesus practice, lifting our eyes up, away from ourselves, and diligently observing for the needs of others in the community. Often in the Gospels, we read that Jesus saw. He was cognizant of the needs. Jesus sees our need and acts in love. To learn who is in our community, we actively look, we see the need.