Luke records how a self-justifying lawyer seeks to test Jesus. When he asks Jesus to tell him who his neighbor is, Jesus offers one of the most familiar stories in the New Testament. His story about the good Samaritan is shaped by the dramatic contrast between the priest, the Levite, and the Samaritan.
Another contrast within the same passage is rather subtle. This is the contrast between the lawyer’s question about who his neighbor is, and Jesus’ recasting of the same question. For even though the two forms of the question sound remarkably alike, there is a significant difference between them. So similar, that we might not notice how subtly Jesus re-phrases the lawyer’s question. Here’s how we can observe the difference: The lawyer, after receiving Jesus’ affirmation regarding his summary of the law, still wants to engage him. So he asks Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Naturally, we hear Jesus’ ensuing story as shaped by the lawyer’s question. As if Jesus wants to show the lawyer whom we should recognize, and regard, as our neighbor.
But notice how Jesus inverts the question! The man asks, “Who is my neighbor?” But Jesus asks, “Who proved to be neighborly, or, who acted like a neighbor?” In other words, Jesus’ story is not an illustration of how we recognize who is our neighbor. Jesus’ story is about how acting like a neighbor toward other people helps them become our neighbor.
Like the lawyer, when we look at folks wondering who is, or who might be our neighbor, inevitably, we pursue the question with some criteria in mind. And that’s the rub! We might pursue the question by assuming that a neighbor is someone who lives nearby; or perhaps someone who shares my community values; or maybe someone whose kids go to the same school that my kids do. It puts us in the position of making distinctions among folks based on their attributes. And it’s always possible that we misperceive another person’s identity. We might blindly overlook his or her genuine status as our neighbor. In each case, our effort will involve trying to gain greater precision in our discernment about who does, or does not, qualify as our neighbor.
By contrast, suppose I go through each day trying to live out a different approach. I will remind myself that I can choose to act neighborly to everyone I meet, not just to some of them. Neighbor-status is therefore something I enable by my approach to another person, and not by my evaluation of his or her qualifications. This is what Jesus was getting at in his story. His re-phrasing of the lawyer’s question establishes a distinction with a clear and significant difference. Charity, in its basic biblical meaning of God-like love, is something we practice and extend to others. It is therefore not something evoked by qualities we apprehend in another person. Being a neighbor is an entrée into a relationship, a relationship that we offer to other people, rather than something we recognize in them. This applies as much to folks in our community and church, as it does to people everywhere.
The image above is Sadao Watanabe’s woodcut, The Good Samaritan. This post is based on my homily for Sunday, July 14, 2019, which can be accessed by clicking here. Other homilies of mine may be accessed by clicking here. The Revised Common Lectionary, which specifies the readings for Sundays and other Holy Days, can be accessed by clicking here.