“And who is my neighbor?” On the surface, this is a ridiculous question. The word literally means “someone really close by.” Coming from a “lawyer,” or Jewish Torah expert, this is a real jerk question. Jesus responds, as he often does, with a parable, one of his most famous. At its conclusion he asks, “Who was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” It is, the Jewish Torah expert declares, the one who showed him mercy. That is, the Samaritan. While Judea and Samaria are regions, Jews and Samaritans lived all over the place. They were to each other “someone really close by.” Moreover, the Samaritan makes himself a neighbor to the one attacked. (We assume the one attacked is Jewish, but we don’t know that.) The Samaritan approaches him, puts himself close by, and assumes responsibility for him. Why is my neighbor? Anyone who has shown me mercy.
The question Who Is My Neighbor is part of an ongoing dispute in Jesus’ day over what constitutes being Jewish. Jesus is Jewish, but that’s like me saying I’m Christian: that can mean anything. Some First Century Jews believed the full Torah—including regulations for priests—applied to all the faithful. Others felt that the Ten Commandments and the Love Commandment were the heart and soul of Judaism. Jesus seems to fit that latter category, at least according to the New Testament’s authors. Maybe the “lawyer” is saying, “Okay, Jesus. If this is the essence of the Torah, show me how it works in the real world.”
That kind of dispute echoes through today. Just think about our First Reading in terms of this dispute. Deuteronomy 30: “God will prosper you when you follow God’s commandments.” Some of us find that concept troubling in itself. Suspending that judgment for a minute, consider this text in terms of the dispute. Is the “Law” God expects us to keep all 613 commandments in Torah? Or, is it essentially the Top Ten and the Love Commandment? Because picking and choosing commandments to follow has its drawbacks. All of us are familiar with religious movements centered on keeping certain commandments, or, better, making other people keep certain commandments. (I don’t need to follow them. I’m fine; you suck. Follow these commandments.) Why is God not prospering our country? (Some might respond: um, we have a lot of stuff.) But the question is asked. Some people blame abortions. Some blame the LGBT. Some blame asylum seekers. They find the biblical texts that lend themselves to this position, and ignore the rest. That’s problematic. Maybe this much maligned lawyer has a point. “Jesus, since we’re picking which laws to follow, how will you be determining what constitutes a neighbor?”
Jesus’ answer is brilliant for how deep it reaches. The story of Jews and Samaritans reaches into the mythic past. In Genesis 29, Jacob—Abraham’s grandson—falls in love with Rachel. He agrees to work for Rachel’s dad for seven years in exchange for marrying Rachel. Seven years pass, wedding night arrives, dad slips Rachel’s sister, Leah, into Jacob’s tent. Jacob is…not perceptive. I don’t know what his deal is. I would be like, “No. That is not Rachel. No. I know Rachel. That’s her sister, Leah. I’ve lived here seven years. I can tell them apart.” Leah, like most biblical women, is given no lines to speak. Jacob only realizes it’s Leah the next morning. Oops. This being the Bible, he is married to her and he still gets to marry Rachel, also. It’s good to be a patriarch, I guess.
God sees that Jacob favors Rachel and that Leah has a lousy deal, so God blesses Leah with many children. This increases her status. Leah’s fourth son is Judah, the mythic ancestor of the Kingdom of Judah, from which we get the word “Jew.” Rachel eventually has a son named Joseph—of fancy coat and dream interpreting fame. He is the mythic ancestor of the northern Kingdom of Israel, centered on Samaria. Jew and Samaritan are half-brothers. Later on, the Bible says the tribes were united as one kingdom under David and Solomon—men of Judah—but Solomon worshiped other gods and his son was cruel, so God allowed Samaria to split. God keeps favoring whichever one is lowlier. Leah over Rachel, Joseph over Judah, Judah over Israel, Samaritan over Jew.
There’s more. Jesus’ parable echoes with a story from Second Chronicles. In the story, Judah’s King Ahaz is so sinful that God appoints the Samarians to beat Judah in battle and hold them accountable. But the Samarian army does not simply defeat Judah; they slaughter them, and take their wives and children to be slaves. They haul these survivors toward Samaria, but are met on the way by a prophet from Samaria who says, “What are you doing? God said smack them, not slaughter and enslave them. You also have a boatload of sins God can punish you for. Should this also happen to you?” The Samaritans repent, and then (here’s the cool part), 2 Chronicles says, “they clothed [the captives], gave them sandals, provided them with food and drink, and anointed them; and carrying all the feeble among them on donkeys, the brought them to their kindred at Jericho.”
That’s like the Good Samaritan. Dresses the wounds, anoints the one beaten, carries him on his own animal to Jericho. Jesus is calling to mind this story from 2 Chronicles. He’s not just picking “Samaritan” as someone we all know to hate; he intentionally refers to a sibling people with whom Jesus’ people have centuries of painful history. It’s a relationship in which God has always given special attention to the sibling having the harder time; in which God has expected the siblings to hold each other accountable as equals; and in which God has interceded when one sibling hurts the other. The one the humans won’t love, God love will love. And, miraculously, for every act of cruelty there’s an act of mercy that is God’s work.
What does this parable mean, then? Your neighbor may have been your enemy. You may be a prisoner or a refugee, and among the conquerors someone shows you mercy. Jesus says, “That’s God working.” What does this parable mean? The people you despise—possibly for good reason—are your own, they’re your flesh and blood. And they are nearby. They’re your neighbors. God’s working in them, somehow, even if I don’t see it. What does this parable mean? Maybe it asks me to wonder. Wonder is a healthy thing. You don’t have to like the answer you get. You don’t necessarily have to think someone else is right. You just wonder, as deeply as you can. God is in Jew and Samaritan, always, every time. Even so, today.
There’s a religious dispute over abortion. God loves everyone involved. That makes me wonder. It may make me wonder why someone gets an abortion. It may make me wonder why someone thinks a stranger should not. Or, maybe, I’m in a place where I I can’t go there. I can only wonder. There’s a religious dispute over the LGBT. God loves everyone involved. That makes me wonder. I wonder what it is like to be shamed for my sexual orientation or gender identity. I wonder why someone else is so threatened by my sexual orientation and gender identity. Or, maybe I can’t go there, I can only wonder. There’s a religious dispute over immigration. Bible says treat the alien as a citizen, 50% of white American mainline protestants disagree. God loves everyone involved. It makes me wonder. I wonder what makes someone fear asylum seekers. I wonder what life is like that someone risks leaving everything and coming here. Or, maybe I can’t go there. I can only wonder.
I can, today, only wonder. I wonder at the Samaritan, who acts the way his repentant ancestors did 750 years before, despite his apparently having done nothing wrong. In the feud between Jew and Samaritan there is plenty over which to retaliate. There’s plenty the Samaritan could draw upon to say, “No. Leave him. I can’t help. Not one of them.” But somehow, miraculously, he helps. He assumes the posture of one who owes the other everything. That’s a gift from God. That’s God-like. God doesn’t owe us anything; God keeps giving us everything. And, I wonder at the Jewish Torah expert who asked the question. This story was directed at him. I wonder, would he accept the help of someone so hated? Jesus indicates it’s God’s work. Would I accept the mercy of someone so hated? I wonder.