Sometimes the title gives it all away. With this one, for example, you might think that I'm going to suggest that the point of Jesus' story we call the Good Samaritan was not to answer the question asked him by the teacher of the law, but to get the teacher thinking about how he had things backwards. And you'd be right!
But Luke already gives it away -- first he says the teacher asks his question to test Jesus. I take that to mean that the teacher already knows what he thinks is the answer to his question and wants to see how well this Galilean rabbi knows his law. And then the Galilean rabbi serves up a beauty, by asking the teacher what he knows so the teacher can show off his knowledge! As far as we know, ancient Judean society did not have the concept of the straight man, or the member of a comedy team whose job it was to say things so the funny one could say something funny. But this teacher would have understood it on the spot if he'd ever heard of it.
That's right, Jesus says, when the teacher is done showing how much he's memorized. Do these things and you will live. And here's where the teacher goofs. If he'd just left it at letting Jesus help him show how smart he was, he would have been OK, but now he wants Jesus to help him show everyone how righteous he is, too. Luke says he wants to justify himself, so he asks, "Who is my neighbor?" And Jesus, although not in so many words, says, "OK, playtime is over and I'm going to take you to school."
He tells the story of a man who tried to walk to Jericho but never made it because he was robbed and beaten. First a priest sees him, crosses over to the other side of the road and walks past. Then a Levite does the same thing. Finally, a Samaritan finds the man, dresses his wounds and takes him someplace where he will be taken care of until he recovers and even pays for his lodging while he recuperates.
We've come to associate the word "Samaritan" with someone who does good. Billy Graham's son Franklin named his helping organization "Samaritan's Purse." Comic book writer Kurt Busiek made the central hero of his Astro City series the Samaritan.
But the Judeans of Jesus' day would not have heard that name that way. When the Assyrians conquered the Northern Kingdom of Israel around 670 BC, they ran off all the well-to-do and educated folk of the kingdom, and brought in a bunch of folks from everywhere else they'd conquered. Those people had intermarried with the riff-raff left behind and made a group of folks that the Judeans didn't like to start with and liked even less when they came back from Babylon -- the place they'd been run off to -- about 450 BC. You know how, in our day, about the only group it's still OK to insult in public are poor rural folks? If that situation had existed in ancient Judea, they would have said "Samaritan" the way some people today say "trailer trash."
So Jesus told a story about how two respectable fellows, no doubt well thought of in their own communities, had the chance to help a man beaten half to death and they wouldn't even stop to pray for the guy, let alone actually take care of him. Then this Samaritan, a person Judean listeners wouldn't have believed capable of walking without his knuckles dragging the ground, comes by and does exactly the right thing, the thing that the two righteous guys should have done without a lost second!
And it's here that Jesus' answer spins the law teacher's question around. The teacher had asked who his neighbor was. He wanted to know who he was to love in order to obey the commandment. Who was he obligated to? Was it is his family? His literal neighbors, as in the people who lived near him? His community? Other people of his faith? Who, rabbi, do I have to love in order to fulfill the commandment?
But Jesus' story says that's the wrong question. We shouldn't ask who our neighbors are. We should be asking whose neighbor we are. The Samaritan had things the robbery victim didn't, like money to pay for an inn and supplies to treat his wounds and all of the blood he was supposed to have. The robbery victim needed the things the Samaritan had, and their encounter made the neighbor question clear for those who understood what God called them to do.
People who want to follow God should be asking themselves who they can neighbor, instead of trying to figure out who their neighbors are. They should ask, "Who can I help?" instead of "Who do I have to help?"
And that doesn't just refer to material needs. Christians, we say we have been given the grace of God. By that grace our relationship with God is made what it was always supposed to be and we were saved from our sin. Everyone's been given that grace, but we for some reason have the knowledge of how much we needed it. Will we be neighbors to those who don't have that knowledge? Will we show the love of God, available for all, to everyone who needs it (Hint: That means everyone period)? Will the grace of God flow through us or will it get choked off because we're busy seeing if someone meets neighbor criteria?
I've quoted atheist magician Penn Jillette before, who says he understands why Christians want to share the gospel even if he doesn't in the least bit agree with them. In fact, he says he can't really understand those who won't share -- politely, respectfully, appropriately and lovingly, of course -- when they get the chance. "How much do you have to hate somebody to believe that everlasting life is possible and not tell them that?" he asks. I'd tweak it just a bit in light of our story and ask myself this:
How much would I have to hate my neighbor to believe that everlasting life is possible and not tell them that? And a follow-up, if I may. Have I been a neighbor to the people I've met? Or just another passer-by?