“And who is my neighbor?” asked the lawyer of Jesus in the Parable of the Good Samaritan that we recently studied in worship last month. The question is a good one for modern people to ask also. Who is my neighbor?
I live next door to the church in Weimar, most of you know. We have three houses on the street in front of the parsonage. We know all of our neighbors and we all talk now and then. One family belongs to our church and one other attends our church now and then. I think we are all friendly toward each other and would help each other if help were needed. People who live near each other are called neighbors in society. Who besides these, though, are my neighbors? Is it only geographic proximity that designates someone as a neighbor? How far down the road do I go and still call the persons who live in the houses on the road my neighbors?
I think Jesus was addressing the issue of inclusiveness when he told the parable of the Good Samaritan. I think Jesus was attempting to teach the idea that inclusiveness crosses all boundaries and brings into our social sphere everyone who lives, regardless of how much or how different they are from us.
St. Paul echoed Jesus’ teachings when he wrote to the church at Corinth—“For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.” (I Cor. 12:12-13) It is true in the Christian family that all Christians are related to one another because we are united by One Spirit through Christ. What about others who are not Christians? Are they our neighbors too?
The Parable of the Good Samaritan teaches exactly that by Jesus’ use of the hero of the story being an enemy of the Jewish people. The word “Samaritan” was used as a curse word by righteous Jews of Jesus’ time. To call someone a Samaritan or a dog was to level the worst insult you could against someone. Samaritans were considered half-breeds by the Jews because their ancestors had intermarried with the Babylonians and Assyrians over the years of exile and occupation of the land of Palestine. Those who had intermarried with the “enemy” were considered traitors and their descendants were labeled the same way even though they had nothing to do with the history of their people. Jews did not have any interactions with Samaritans.
To say “good” and “Samaritan” together in the same breath would have been a terrible oxymoron to righteous Jews. So, to tell a story in which righteous Jews refused to help a wounded person and in which a Samaritan did so would have stung the ears of the listeners. Samaritans were considered at the bottom rung of society, along with tax collectors and prostitutes (also people that Jesus ate with and defended.) A Samaritan who would stop to assist a wounded person and give his money to a stranger to pay for caring for the stranger was like a character out of a fairy tale to good Jews, just something made up but unlikely to actually exist.
“And who is my neighbor?” Perhaps our own answer to that question requires us to delve deeply into our own feelings and sensitivities to find out who we resent or mistrust or consider evil or bad. Perhaps our answer brings up our prejudices or hatred. Maybe the answer is too painful for us to even admit but it is something needed for us to find healing in our own spirits. The answer itself may bring freedom because once we admit to ourselves that we could not be a neighbor to a certain class or culture of people, we can begin to examine why we are the way we are and to seek to change to accept and include even those whom we may despise.
“Which of these was a neighbor...?” Jesus asked the lawyer at the end of his story. “He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.” (Luke 10: 36-37) To be a neighbor to others requires showing mercy to all, even those whom we cannot seem to accept for one reason or the other.
Look at the world around you. See who inhabits the world with you. Who can you not accept for one reason or the other? That very one is the neighbor that God is calling you to consider as loved by God and cared for by you.