A few weeks ago a hurricane decided to park just north of where I live and gave graphics departments the world over a tremendous opportunity to develop creative ways to display the trillions of gallons of water that fell from the sky, overflowing our rivers, and flooding our communities. As we have begun to restore our neighbors, we have found ourselves beaten and worn by the work of mucking houses and attempting to salvage some life from the devastation. Often people are broken and hurting as you carry yet another ruined priceless treasure from their home. Sometimes, we find ourselves shamefully rationalizing. Asking, “Who is my neighbor, anyway? Surely not that guy who has always been so rude to my family. Do I have to labor to love this particular one, or can I recuse myself in the face of their pain… because they’re not nice to me?” As I have struggled to hurt with hurting people and labor alongside people who have lost everything, I have been drawn back time and time again to the story of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:25-37. As Christians, we must live this story of the Good Samaritan.
“Who is my neighbor?” The lawyer asks the Messiah who his neighbor is so that he can excuse himself from the laborious task of love. Yet the Lord of all creation responds with such a parable that it rocks society to the core. You see, order to fully appreciate this story you must first understand how the Jewish people saw Samaritans in the ancient near east. Samaritans were looked on by Jews as a lesser race. Indeed, often they were seen as traitors who had rejected the purity of Abraham’s lineage in favor of selfish desire. Such willful rejection of God would make them even less worthy than a Gentile! This is part of the reason that the disciples of Christ are so awkward when they find Jesus speaking to a Samaritan woman by a well in John 4 and why John and James, the disciples, asked if they could call down fire to destroy Samaria in Luke 9:54. There was a deep seeded hatred for the half-breeds of Samaria. Racism was so prevalent that Jews would often walk for miles out of the way to avoid walking through Samaria for fear that they would defile themselves.
So as Jesus unfolds the story he lays a Jewish man who, one can assume, hates Samaritans on the side of the road, beaten and in need. This man would have felt perfectly justified in hating the Samaritans. He was a Jew, pure bread and clean. Only now he was in need. Jesus parades a priest and a Levite, the cream of the crop of Jewish religious society, past the poor beaten man. In the effort to keep themselves clean, these men avoid their poor brother. One could speculate their justification, but Jesus does not elaborate: These men just ignore the need and avoid any inconvenience that they may have to undertake. Then enters the hero of the story: the hated and despised Samaritan! (Imagine the gasps of a room full of neo-Nazis who have been told the hero is a black Jewish man, or the gasps of a left-wing radical democrat who is told it’s a white conservative Republican, or any polarized group in our modern society for that matter.) It is this hated man, the traitor, who has compassion. He shows the love of God to the Jew who hates him. Notice the words Jesus uses to bring the story to life. The Samaritan “saw him,” “had compassion,” and “went to him.” He goes out of his way. He then overpays the innkeeper and offers more financial support. He shows the love of God. According to Jesus, we are to do likewise.
Think about this illustration. This Jewish man who is rescued by the Samaritan may or may not have been grateful. He might have been mad that a Samaritan would dare touch him! Racism is insidious that way. It is also not unique to modern western society. This Jewish man could have despised the care he received, and it is highly likely he did. The Samaritan could have been cursed by this man or praised. Fortunately for us, Jesus doesn’t care to explain the object of the mercy, only the giver. Jesus is concerned that His hearers see the one who gives mercy and do likewise.
So, who is my neighbor? The one who spits on me when I serve him. Hurting people hurt people. Don’t know where I heard that, but it is true. When you live like Jesus and love people who are hurting, chances are they’re going to hurt you sometimes. But if Jesus is our example we must love anyway, even at great cost.
Who is my neighbor? The one who hates me. It is easy to love someone you hate… much harder to love someone who hates you. When someone hates you or wrongs you, it is easier to just leave or ignore them. Yet, Jesus’ command is to love this way. Recklessly following the example of a hated man. A man who overlooks the racist garbage to love another human being.
Who is my neighbor? The one who holds opposite political views from me. That jerk-faced guy who rejects my version of the truth in favor of his own fabrication! That one who seems to defy all logic and thinks I’m the problem with America. I’m supposed to love that guy. (please take note, both sides of every argument has a “that guy!”)
Who is my neighbor? Lastly, my neighbor is the one whose path I cross. “God put you in my way.” (Four Feathers -2002 I know it’s a movie quote… and I’m only allowed to use the Bible… forgive me.) My neighbors are the ones who God puts in my way. Remember the command at the end of Matthew? “As you go, make disciples!” (Mt. 28:19) Every person who has been put in your path… that is your neighbor.
Do you love this way? Do you love those who hate you? Do you love those who hate what you stand for? Do you love those in your path? Love well those in your path, that you may leave a wake of love and mercy in this world and people may see Jesus.