I don’t know if familiarity actually breeds contempt, but I do know that at least with Bible stories it’s the most familiar ones that can present the biggest challenge to a preacher, teacher, or serious student. And that’s where we are this week with the Gospel lectionary passage: Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan.
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 NRSV
More people are familiar with this parable, along with Jesus’ story of the Prodigal Son, than just about any other in the New Testament. Most often it’s used as a morality lesson about helping strangers, even when it’s not convenient. Even if we never get much deeper than that, of course, it’s a worthwhile story to tell. The deeper we go, the more layers of meaning we can encounter.
There’s the obvious element to the parable–the centuries-old animosity between Jews (the descendants of the southern kingdom of Judah) and the Samaritans (the not-quite-so-direct descendants of the northern kingdom of Israel–there’s a reason the northern tribes are often referred to as the “lost tribes of Israel” after all). We could dwell on the fact that priests and Levites were too busy to help the poor guy left in the ditch by the side of the rocky road between Jericho and Jerusalem. We might even broach the possibility that the whole thing could just as easily have been a trap set up by thieves to rob “do-gooders” such as the Samaritan. Or we could just as well admire the lengths to which the Samaritan went to meet the immediate and longer-term needs of the victim.
All of that is worthwhile, but I’m not sure it really gets to the core of Jesus’ intent in telling the story. The parable was prompted by a question put to Jesus: “Who then is my neighbor?” In other words, what does that word “neighbor” mean?
In Jesus’ time “neighbor” meant nothing more than a member of your own tribe. Everybody else was considered an “other,” an “outsider,” a “them” rather than “us.” Clearly Jews and Samaritans were not neighbors! More than that, they had an intense dislike and distrust for one another. And so those two groups rarely had anything to do with each other.
Fast-forward to the 21st century and “neighbor” typically means somebody who lives in our own, well, neighborhood. Yet our worldview today has dramatically expanded from our first-century counterparts. Neighbors aren’t simply the folks who live on the same street or in the same town or city. Certainly there are racial and religious and nationality components to any consideration of “neighbor.” But that’s exactly where we can get as easily sidetracked as the people in Jesus’ time.
I live in a comfortable house on a shady street in a suburb of Kansas City. It happens to be the same city in which I grew up, although back in the day this was a sleepy, small town where most people knew everybody else (and their business!). Despite being geographically in the Midwest, this was a lot like a Southern small town in its attitudes and perspectives. Which is to say, it was an all-white, all-Christian community in which it was quite clear what everybody meant by “other people.” Even though this town has more than 25 times as many residents as it did when I was a kid growing up here, I still run across some folks who dearly lament the loss of those “good old days.”
Certainly not everybody in this town today is white or Christian, even though Caucasian Christians are still the majority. At least some of the considerable population growth that’s occurred here during the past few decades (especially that during the Sixties through the Eighties) is attributed to so-called “white flight” from the city. And if you were to ask local residents now to define or identify “the other,” you would probably get “inner city residents” as some kind of answer.
Thanks largely to a freeway system that gets suburbanites in and out of the central business district, what is most generally known about life in the city comes to us from TV news. Several of those local TV stations take the common approach to news categorized as “If it bleeds, it leads.” And there appears always to be a steady stream of drive-by shootings, liquor-store hold-ups, carjackings, and assorted other violent acts on the evening news–almost all of which originate in the “inner city.”
Almost nine years ago, as I looked around for some worthwhile activities to occupy myself now that I was retired from regular employment, I happened upon an opening for a delivery driver with Harvesters, the primary food bank serving Kansas City and several dozen counties around it. Most Wednesdays, I drove to the huge Harvesters warehouse on KC’s east side, filled one of their vans with boxed groceries to be given out as part of their nutrition program, and delivered them to churches, community centers, YMCA’s, and low-income apartment buildings.
In the seven years I kept that up (until an organizational revamping eliminated my delivery job) I became acquainted with many parts of the so-called inner-city that I never would have otherwise known. And although I admit that much of the territory I entered weekly probably had a somewhat higher crime rate than my own home neighborhood, there was a remarkable normalcy to those city blocks, too. Yes, there are differences from my own street out in suburbia but there are as many or more commonalities. Just about everybody I met was friendly and welcoming. Maybe some of that had to do with the Harvesters logo on the side of the van, but I don’t think that’s the only reason.
Bottom line here is that people live in different places, different kinds of buildings. Their skin color varies, as well as their involvement (or non-involvement) in religion. Some have a lot of money, others have very little. There are folks who obviously don’t ever miss a meal and others who go to bed hungry. But what differentiates us doesn’t really outnumber what we have in common. We’re all human beings trying to live the best life we can. Exactly what that means varies from place to place, person to person. In the end, I believe, we are all children of the same God. We are all neighbors.
My most recent book, Speak to the Bones: How to Be a Prophetic People in a Time of Exile, is up on Amazon in both print and e-book formats: 161-page Book ; Kindle e-book. The ancient Hebrew prophets can serve as guides for modern-day prophetic communities to engage in actions for peace and social justice. Each of the 10 chapters includes questions for reflection and discussion, making this great for class use. My previous book What Was Paul Thinking? is also available on Amazon in both print and Kindle e-book editions.