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Robert Black: Be the Neighbor

The Parable of the Good Samarian is, perhaps, the most well-known passage in the entire Bible. The phrase “Good Samaritan” is used even in secular setting to refer to the person who goes out of their way to help someone in need. If you’re not familiar with the story, it is found in the Gospel according to Luke. Someone comes to Jesus and asks him what the most important religious commandments are. Jesus, as a good teacher does, encourages the questioner to try to give an answer. And so he says “love God and love your neighbor.” Jesus says, “Yes, that’s it.” But the man wants to go one step further and asks, “But who is my neighbor?”

So Jesus tells a story about a Jewish man who is mugged and beaten and left for dead on the side of the road. Two people pass him by and don’t offer to help them. The third person to pass this beaten man is a Samaritan, and this Samaritan bandages his wounds and transports him to a nearby inn, where he pays for him to recuperate. As a frame of reference, Jews and Samaritans had a deep and generational hatred for each other. Jesus then asks – “Who was the neighbor?” And the questioner concludes, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus then says, “Go, and do likewise.”

It’s been said that if you ask a bad question, you get a bad answer. The man who asked Jesus “Who is my neighbor?” asked a bad question. What makes it a bad question is that he had just correctly identified the heart of the commandments as loving God and loving your neighbor. But the flip side of the question “Who is my neighbor?” is “Who can I ignore?” And because it’s a question of love, it is a bad question. The answer is “Nobody” – there is nobody that we can ignore.

Often this parable is used to teach the lesson “Treat all people, even if they are different and despised, as your neighbor.” But I’m not convinced that is why Jesus told this parable. There are many references in the Old Testament to the need to care not only for our kin, but for our neighbors, and even those with him we have no relationship. There are plenty of other Biblical examples of the mandate to love our enemies. It seems that there is something more going on this parable.

Parables are stories about the Kingdom of God, and parables are more than simple fables with a moral at the end of the story. Parables are intended to subvert the way we see the world as they cast the light of the Gospel on them. Parables not only make us to see the world differently, but more importantly, they make us to interact with the world differently. And there is a subversive element to this parable of the Good Samaritan.

At the end of the parable, Jesus takes that bad question that was asked (“Who is my neighbor?”) and changes it into a better question: “Who was the neighbor?” Jesus changes the question from having an outer orientation about how we see the world, to a question with an inner focus about how we act in the world. Jesus says “Go, and do likewise.” The emphasis isn’t on how we see people as our neighbor, but rather on how we act like one. This is not a parable about rearranging our mental furniture to move people from the category of “non-neighbor” to “neighbor,” but rather this is a parable us being the neighbor. In other words, we might read this as a parable that says “It doesn’t matter if you see that other person as your neighbor or not, what matters is that you are a neighbor to them.” That’s more subversive, and that changes things.

In light of recent events in Orlando, Baton Rouge, St. Paul, and Dallas (not to mention the general toxicity of our politics), we need more people who see themselves as neighbors. The work that needs to be done isn’t for us to see things differently, but for other people to see the Gospel at work in us.

How might you pray to God, trusting that God is a neighbor to you? How might our community be improved if there were more people who saw themselves as neighbors to all? How might you act this week so that people know that you are their neighbor?

The Rev. Robert Black is Rector of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in downtown Salisbury.

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