Who is My Neighbor?

“But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” -Luke 10:29

I meant to write this blog a few days ago but just didn’t feel up to the task. In Luke 10 we are introduced to a lawyer who is testing Jesus, but is also wanting to make himself look good. He asks the question, “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?” When Jesus asks him how the law reads, the lawyer (no doubt with a great deal of self-pride) quotes Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18, which command us to love God with all our being, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. Jesus commends him and tells him, “do this, and you shall live”.

The next phrase in the next verse shows the true motivation of the lawyer. But wanting to justify himself. It’s jarring, because it shouldn’t be there. What makes it worse is the realization we sometimes do exactly the same thing. We quote all the right verses and compare them to our checklist to see whether we can tick off that requirement. If we have all the boxes checked then we’re pretty good people. If we don’t, we begin to look for justification and loopholes why not.

To answer the lawyer’s question, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus tells the parable known as the Good Samaritan. The story is straightforward: a man gets mugged on the road between Jerusalem and Jericho, and is left for dead. Three men come by; only one stops to tend the man’s wounds and take him to a place where he can rest and recover. The first two see the man but walk by on the opposite side of the road so they don’t become “unclean”. Or maybe it’s because they considered themselves too important or too busy to stop. The Bible never clearly states their motivations because it’s not important. Compassion trumps excuses.

The one who stopped to help was a Samaritan. He was considered a “half-breed” by Jesus’ listeners, someone to be avoided and shunned. Travelers from Galilee to Judea would go out of their way so as not to pass through Samaria. And the feeling was mutual with the Samaritans. Which makes the story of a Samaritan who has compassion on a Jewish traveler even more pointed. When Jesus ended the parable with the question, “Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?”, the lawyer couldn’t even bring himself to say the name, but answered, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus’ reply is final: “You go, and do likewise”.

The lawyer knew the law but looked for a loophole. He was more interested in looking good than knowing who was his neighbor. He would help someone if he got credit for it. Otherwise, he may have told himself that they were ‘sinners’, or were ‘cursed by God’, or just deserved whatever they got. It’s obvious from his answer. The idea of a Samaritan being the hero of Jesus’ parable was unthinkable.

We’ve all met people in our lives that challenge us. The ones we see as “needy”, emotionally, financially, or otherwise. Those whose lives are a train wreck, who we may unconsciously tell ourselves “did it to themselves” or “deserve what they got”.  We prefer to anonymously throw some coins in the red kettle or send a check to any one of hundreds of charities thinking we are looking after our ‘neighbors’. They are certainly worthwhile but fall short of what Jesus is teaching in this parable.

This is the season where we’re most aware of giving to others. That’s truly sad, because loving our neighbors has no time limitations or seasons. It is not restricted to any geographic location or number of miles from our house. It’s not something we do as much as being an integral part of who we are. Being a neighbor is a hands-on exercise. It’s interaction with a real, live, flesh and blood person.  Loving your neighbor has no qualifications of race, nationality, or gender. There’s only one simple statement: love your neighbor as yourself. No matter who it is. If someone has a need that you can meet, they’re your neighbor. Simple as that.