I’m preaching this Sunday on the Good Samaritan from Luke 10. I’ve been listening for a fresh word from this famous parable of Jesus. Maybe one of the reasons it’s so hard to preach it is that I have heard it so many times. But I’m thankful the Lord helped me hear it anew thanks to a commentary by Luke Timothy Johnson.
It’s important to remember the context of this parable. A lawyer is trying to trap Jesus with his questions about eternal life. Jesus asks him about the law. The lawyer responds that one should love God with all of your heart, soul, mind and strength and love your neighbor as yourself. The lawyer is quoting passages from Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18. Jesus tells him to live out that commandment. Love God and neighbor. But the testy lawyer asks a question that echoes across the centuries: “Who is my neighbor?”
That’s a question I keep trying to answer for my own life. I wrestle with it every day. Jesus responds by telling him the parable of a man who fell among thieves on a dangerous road. When a priests sees the man he passes by on the other side. He was, I’m sure, running late to a conference on non-violence. The second man, a Levite, sees the man and he too passes by on the other side. But when the Samaritan man sees this man in the ditch, he comes close to the man and is moved with compassion. He binds his wounds and takes him to a local inn.
I could delve into the ethnic and cultural divisions of Jews and Samaritans. Suffice is to say they despised each other because of worship practices and the intermarrying of the Samaritans. But what strikes me more is what the Samaritan first chose to do. He chose to come close to the man in the ditch. The priests and the Levite see the man and refuse to come near him. They pass by on the other side. When the Samaritan man chooses to come near, it’s then he is moved with compassion. I can imagine the Samaritan witnessing this beaten man gasping for air, the flies buzzing around the blood on his ankles, the whelps on his neck from the robbers ripping off his shirt. Something happens in our guts when we go near the pain. To come near is a choice.
Several years ago, a church I served passed out summer lunches to children in apartment complexes who may not have had a lunch otherwise. The majority of the children were hispanic. They were lovely kids with bright smiles. As we wrapped up the program that summer, I wanted to invite the kids and their families to attend our church. One afternoon, I visited that apartment complex. I started knocking on the doors to asks the parents if we could pick up the children for church on Sunday mornings. To my surprise, no one was home. I must have knocked on 20 doors where there had been children just a week before. Finally, this older gentleman comes to me and says, “They’re not going to answer the door.” I said, “Why? We’re just here to take them to church.” He said, “The parents think you’re an ICE agent and have come to take the children.” I looked again at those apartments and I could see eyes in the window.
For the first time, the hardships and complexity of immigration had a face. I felt something different that day. I felt compassion. That day, I didn’t pretend to have an answer for immigration in our country. I still don’t. But what I did experience in its fullest sense is the fear of the children. It broke my heart that on that day I was the source of their fear. “Who is my neighbor?”
It’s a question we all must answer for ourselves and for our communities. It’s not supposed to be an easy question. As we draw near to the pain, we’ll know better how Christ would have us respond.