Flavius Josephus, the ancient Jewish historian, did not hold a high opinion of the Samaritans. In his Antiquities, he said this: “…they alter their attitude according to circumstance and, when they see the Jews prospering, call them kinsmen, on the ground that they are descended from Joseph and are related to them through their origin from him, but, when they see the Jews in trouble, they say that they have nothing whatever in common with them nor do these have any claim of friendship or race, and they declare themselves to be aliens of another race.” Josephus alludes to the duplicity of the Samaritans, who he claims would lie and bear false testimony when it benefitted them.
The attitude of Josephus was common among Jews of the first century, which makes the parable Jesus tells in Luke 10 so striking. In Luke’s account, an expert in the Law stands up to test Jesus, asking Him what was necessary to inherit eternal life. Jesus responds with a question—what does the Law say? And the expert bounces back the classic “Love God with all you’ve got and love your neighbor as yourself.” So far, Jesus and the expert are on the same page, in agreement regarding the core of the Law. But the expert wants to push a little further, so he follows up with the question: “OK, I need to love my neighbor, but who is my neighbor?”
Jesus then tells this parable about a man who is attacked by robbers on his way to Jericho, and how both a priest and a Levite pass his broken body on their way, but a Samaritan sees him, tends to his wounds, and pays for his care. In verse 36, Jesus concludes His parable, asking the expert: “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”
So, a familiar tale for most of us, we’ve heard it and thought about it—probably frequently for those who have been part of the church since their early days. It’s popular enough that the story had made it’s way into the broader culture—everybody knows what you’re talking about if you refer to someone as a “Good Samaritan.” And we may think we’ve grasped the meaning of Jesus’ parable if we recognize that our neighbor is that person we didn’t really think we had that much in common with.
But there are a couple things that are a little more subtle in the story. We know that the priest and the Levite should have stopped to help the man. But it’s not because of the common compassion that we’re supposed to have for our fellow humans. It’s because they were Jews, and this man in the ditch—while Jesus doesn’t explicitly state it—was probably also a Jew. He was coming from Jerusalem, after all. Obviously, a big part of being Jewish, particularly for priests and Levites, would be observing the Law, including the Law of not becoming unclean because of contact with things like blood. But here was a guy that was more than just a neighbor—he was a kinsman. By portraying the two that ignored the man as “religious” folks, Jesus is taking a little jab at his questioner—the expert in the Law would have identified pretty readily with the priest and the Levite.
But he’s a smart guy, this expert of the Law, and he knows where the story is going. While he can’t actually bring himself to say “The Samaritan” when Jesus asks who was a neighbor to the wounded man, he does identify the mercy shown to the victim as a mark of a true neighbor. And so we come to what seems to be the point of the parable—identifying the neighbor. Jesus is taking this radical other—a half-breed Samaritan, someone the historian Josephus might have seen as a two-faced, hypocritical liar—and saying that he is more of a neighbor than the religious elite who pass by on the other side of the road. We take the lesson, and we say, “OK, Jesus. I’ll be careful and be sure to see a neighbor even in those who are different.”
But the real point of the story is not identifying neighbors. That’s a peripheral point, a tangent. Absolutely, we have a lot more neighbors than we think. You could draw all sorts of parallels in today’s polarized society. For example, our neighbors are the ones on the other side of the political aisle—Republicans are neighbors to Democrats, Liberals are neighbors to Conservatives. We have neighbors in other religions and faiths. We have neighbors in every social and cultural class. Jesus chose one of the most polarized relationships in His day. Each viewed the other as heretical, each tried to play the Roman authorities off the other. And Jesus said that regardless of all the external markers that we’re so fond of pasting on other people, it is the quality of mercy that makes for neighborliness. Neighbors are identified by their actions—which flow from the abundance of their hearts.
Obviously, we don’t want to be like the priest or the Levite, although our stubborn refusal to try and see things from another’s point of view sometimes makes us come off as that sort of person. If we allow our own convictions and ideologies to push us to the other side of the road, avoiding any potential for a connection, then we can’t even see a neighbor, let alone respond to them. But it’s the response that’s the true point of Jesus’ story. Identifying neighbors is a good first step. And it’s true that our neighbors might be people we hadn’t considered, even those on the other side of deep ideological divides. The priest and the Levite in the story couldn’t even identify the neighbor; the expert in the Law that questioned Jesus went a step better—he could see who the neighbor in the story was, even if he didn’t like it. But Jesus wants to go even further.
We cannot forget the initial question—the most important question of the whole exchange. The question is not “Who is my neighbor?” but “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” And the answer to that question is the really important answer. We are to love God with all of our heart, soul, strength, and mind…and we are to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. And this is where the expert of the Law may not go far enough. We don’t know how he responds to Jesus’ command to “Go and do likewise,” but considering this whole exchange is an attempt to test Jesus, it’s unlikely that the expert responded positively. His “neighbor” question was meant to justify his status as expert, so for him, this is an academic exercise, not a genuine attempt to do right. He becomes another character in the bigger story, going a step further than the priest and the Levite, but still not far enough.
See, it’s not enough for us just to recognize our neighbors. It’s important—we don’t want to be like those first two characters in the story who pass on the far side of the road. But simply identifying our neighbor falls short. That part is simple—our neighbor is anyone God brings us into contact with. Not just our friends, not just those who agree with us, not just the folks we share the echo chamber with. Everyone. Regardless of their personal convictions, regardless of their wacky ideas, they are our neighbor. So we need to get that straight. But because of the way this story is told, identifying neighbors isn’t the point. Loving them is.
There’s another character that’s not mentioned, a character that might just hear Jesus and get it right. It’s the audience—you and me. When we hear the whole story, including the initial exchange between the expert and Jesus about the core commands of God, we see that love is the whole point. Jesus confirms the expert’s understanding, that to love God with everything we’ve got and to love our neighbor ourself is the path to eternity. The whole subsequent discussion about “who is my neighbor?” is just window-dressing, an attempt at justification. We get the chance, Luke offers it to us, to decide if we are going to pass on the far side of the road—ignoring the other and failing to love. We get the chance—like the expert—to learn a little about who our neighbors are (and they aren’t always who we would like them to be). Or we have a chance to really hear Jesus, and fulfill God’s commands. We can love.
Samaritans and Jews did not get along. That’s a well-attested fact of history. But they were not the first or the only groups to hate each other, to treat each other with contempt. There’s a lot of groups today that would make the relationship between Jews and Samaritans look pretty tame. And we as followers of Jesus can be just as guilty as anyone of factions and divisions. But rather than allowing us as Christians to wallow in our divisiveness, Jesus binds us together as neighbors. Unfortunately, just being neighbors will not be enough to inherit eternal life, though. Jesus is clear that we have a responsibility, an action to take, when we finally identify that radical other as a neighbor. Once we see the truth—that God has intentionally brought us together, we have a mandate to love. So, take the example of the expert of the Law and look around to those God has brought into your life—recognize them as neighbors. And then, go that extra, crucial step, and follow the example of Jesus. Don’t just see your neighbor. Love them.