“Who is my neighbor?”

The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 10), Year C.

Track I

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”

But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, `Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ 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.”

Luke 10:25-37

Who is my enemy? It’s not a polite question, certainly not a question most of us deliberately think about often. Yet whether conscious or not, it is a question that we constantly ask. While it may not be a pleasant thing to think about, it is understandable. After all, in a world as complex as ours, how do we know who to care about, who to identify with, or even what our own values are if we don’t have enemies? Enemies provide many valuable services for us. Knowing our enemies reduces the number of people we have to care about. It helps us ration our love for only those who really “deserve it”. Having an enemy is also the laziest way to craft an identity. Why go through all the tedious work of self-reflection and thinking when you have an enemy providing contrast, “I may not know who I am, but I sure know who I’m not.” And really, enemies bring us together. What simpler way is there to gloss over irreconcilable differences in a group of people than to have a common enemy? “The enemy of my enemy is my friend” after all.

With all these important services that enemies provide, especially freeing us from the responsibility of caring for others, taking time for honest reflection, and working together for the good of humanity, we are constantly asking ourselves “who is my enemy?” Maybe it’s a bumper sticker, a party affiliation, an accent, their hometown, or a sports team, we look for the signs in everyone we meet that will tell us if they are friend or foe. “Who is my enemy?” is it someone who speaks a different language, has a different faith, a different set of values? Or is it the bitterest enemy of all: the one who shares your language, culture, and values, but does them wrong. There is no enemy quite like the one who is frighteningly similar to ourselves.

Of course in America there is possibly no better example of this bitter animosity than college football rivalries. Any who has wandered through the deep south or pays attention to college football knows there are few loyalties like University of Alabama football fans. A quick “Roll Tide” in public is the quickest way to make friends ‒and enemies‒ anywhere below the Mason Dixon. Even someone like me, who’s only accidentally driven through Tuscaloosa once, has to pay homage to the Crimson Tide because of my many relatives who went to Alabama. Like many families, though we are separated by distance, one thing that brought us all together were holidays and Alabama games. Until the great schism that is. It was one of the great tests of faith for my family when my cousin decided to attend that most hated and heretical place, Auburn. Sure, it was another university in Alabama, not even two hundred miles away, that offered a quality education, a devoted football fan base, and a nearly identical culture, but it was Auburn. It nearly tore my family apart. Even now, all these years later, it still comes up at family gatherings, especially when Iron Bowl is on. There’s no enemy that inspires animosity as much as the one that is almost like me.

Of course, there is another side to this question, the one asked by the Torah scholar: “Who is my neighbor?” Our neighbor of course is the opposite of our enemy. When we know who our neighbor is, we know we’re supposed to care for them, identify with them, and welcome them as part of our own family. Much like knowing our enemy, knowing our neighbor makes our lives much simpler. Setting boundaries and clean definitions frees us from thought and self-examination. Yet this question is a test. It is asking just as much “who is my enemy?” as it is “who is my neighbor?”

As usual, Jesus doesn’t give a straight answer, but answers the real question, the one hasn’t been asked. The parable of the Good Samaritan follows, easily the most recognizable story from the Gospel of Luke. It is a beautiful story in its simplicity and message. The only trouble is when a story is so iconic, we rarely hear it. We know it so well that we know it hardly at all. Outside of this story, few of us have even heard of a Samaritan.

Because of its ubiquity, its hard to appreciate how scandalous and offensive the parable of the Good Samaritan was to its original audience. The bitter hatred of between the Judeans and the Samaritans can hardly be understated. If only it had been like a friendly football rivalry, where for us outsiders the two groups would look nearly identical. A large part of the animosity between the Samaritans and Judeans came from how similar they really were. Both worshipped the same God, had a shared history as Israelites, countless cultural norms, and language. The initial difference was political, supposedly after the death of Solomon the united kingdom of Israel split into the north, the Kingdom of Israel, and the south, the Kingdom of Judah. Samaria was chosen as the capital of Israel and Jerusalem the capital of Judah, a mere 35 miles apart. After the split, it is hard to tell the difference between fact and fiction about the Samaritans from the Bible, as most of it was written by Judeans. The only thing we are sure is for centuries the Judeans despised the Samaritans, as much for their similarities as for their differences.

For the Samaritan to be the hero of the parable, to be the “Good Samaritan”, would be shocking to Jesus’ audience. There is no real equivalent in our culture, the shock value would be like calling a story “The Good Terrorist”, but even that doesn’t reach the challenge to the sense of culture and identity Jesus’ audience would have felt. After all, so much of their sense of identity was provided by their enemy: they knew they were Judeans because they knew how to hate Samaritans. Judeans knew how to treat the ones in need, they knew how to love their neighbor. Yet in this story, the priest and Levite, the pinnacles of religious authority, passed by on the other side of the road. Yet the Samaritan exemplified what it means to be a neighbor. We can see how much this parable offended the Torah scholar when he answers Jesus’ question: “Who was the neighbor?” the scholar can’t even bring himself to say “the Samaritan”, he says “the one who showed him mercy”.

Much like the Torah scholar, we’ve known the answers to “who is my enemy” and “who is my neighbor” this whole time, we’ve just been afraid to face the answer. We have no enemies, only neighbors we do not yet love. So much of our time and energy has been wasted on questions we already know the answer to: means-testing who “deserves” our love, looking for revenge, people to blame, a foil to define ourselves against, instead of loving all our neighbors. The Good Samaritan isn’t meant to make you feel guilty for passing by the needy on the street (well, only a little), it’s about breaking down the divisions, classifications, legal loopholes, and all the excuses we use to not show kindness to one another. It’s time to stop asking the question we already know the answer to. It’s time to let go of straw men that scare and enrage us and recognize the dignity of every human being. If we are to heal our nation and our world, we can no longer build our identity around who our enemies are. It’s time to answer the real question Jesus asks us: not “who is my neighbor” but what does it mean to be a neighbor?

Thankfully it is another question we’ve known the answer to all along. A neighbor is not a classification, a race, a culture, or language, being a neighbor is direct action. It’s being out in the world picking up those who have been beaten down no matter who you are, and more importantly, no matter who they are. Who is a neighbor? The one who shows mercy. “Go and do likewise.”


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