Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Define Neighbor (Luke 10:25-37)

"And he said, He that shewed mercy on him.
Then said Jesus unto him, Go, and do thou likewise.”    Luke 10:37

Image courtesy of Pixabay
The parable of the Good Samaritan was offered in conjunction with the Great Commandment in the Gospel According to St. Luke.   The Great Commandment was also given in Matthew 22:36-40 in response to the challenge of a trick question, as several opponents were trying to trip Jesus up with his words. Much like in modern politics, they wanted to get Jesus to say something they could then take a little soundbite from, twist it around and turn it into a controversy.

Jesus was teaching after the disciples had returned rejoicing from their missionary journey.  A lawyer asked Jesus how to inherit eternal life.  Jesus responded by asking the lawyer what his thoughts were, and the lawyer answered with what would become known as the Great Commandment, to love God and neighbor. These laws came from the ancient times, from the same Law of Moses people quote so emphatically about all kinds of other issues.  Jesus elevated these to the most prominent position of all the laws in the Bible.

Jesus later emphasized, in the Temple on Tuesday of Holy Week, that these two commandments are the most important of all.  Even though many people often prefer and argue others, these are the ones Jesus says provide the basis for interpreting “all the law and the prophets” (Matthew 22:40). Two days later Jesus took this commandment to an even higher level.  On the way to the Garden where he would be arrested, Jesus gave the New Commandment, for us to love each other as he has loved us.  This view encompasses much more territory.  Christ has loved and accepted us with all our baggage and so we are also expected to love and accept others along with whatever that may entail.

The love and acceptance illustrated in the parable of the Good Samaritan is what makes it so popular among people of all different religious views, and even many who claim no religious affiliation.  The lawyer had a follow-up question, like in press conferences, “Who is my neighbor?" We may decide we will love our neighbors, but then we might also want to limit our definition of who that means. We might be tempted to have a narrow view, confined to those who think and act like us to the point we are picking only those who resemble the image we see in the mirror.  Jesus had a much broader view, calling us to consider everyone as our neighbor and to love accordingly.

One characteristic of the neighbor in this parable is that the Samaritan did not pick the neighbor, but rather met him in an entirely chance encounter. Most of the people we know have been met by chance.  Many different circumstances come together in the crossing of each other’s paths.  We had no choice in the places or the families into which we were born, or the cultures in which we were raised.  Many factors about our lives and the people we know are completely outside of our control.  So it was with the Good Samaritan.  Jesus used that very phrase, “by chance,” in reference to the first passerby (Luke 10:31).  None of the characters in the parable are presented as having been in this situation by anything but chance.

Another characteristic, according to this parable, is that the concept of neighbor includes everyone without exception. The parable sets the standard for inclusive acceptance of everybody regardless of who they are, what they believe or how they practice their faith. God expects us to find it in our hearts to love and accept everyone into our fellowship as fully and freely as Christ has accepted us.

For God so loved the world,
that he gave his only begotten Son,
that whosoever believeth in him
should not perish, but have everlasting life. John 3:16

Those are very inclusive words in that verse. Any words we might choose to replace “world” or “whosoever” with anything less inclusive would diminish what the Bible says.  Jesus did not narrow his concept in the least.  When Christ gave his life at Calvary it was for all, without exception.  If we exclude anyone at all, our view is narrower than what God had in mind in sending Christ to be our Savior.  No one is excluded, as communicated in the words of this famous verse.  As Christ died for all, so we live for all, extending the same love and grace Christ has extended to us.

Unconditional love is characterized in the parable of the Good Samaritan. The victim was not assisted because of his merit or to compensate him for any good works.  Nor was he helped because of his ability to repay.  Jesus had several other teachings and parables illustrating the importance of loving even those who would never be able to return the favor. Not even was there a limit placed on the extent of need required. The parable concludes with the Samaritan promising to compensate the inn keeper for whatever other expenses might accrue in meeting the needs of this neighbor, no matter what they may be. There were no restrictions, and there were no conditions.

Think about the characters in this passage. The robbers left the traveler for dead, but so did the religious people who perpetuated his circumstances when they went by and left him in the same condition.  Those who actually helped included the donkey who served as an ambulance and the inn keeper who provided hospitalization and served as medic. The issues raised by Jesus in choosing a Samaritan as the main character of this parable bear striking resemblance to our current events in terms of race, religion, marriage and other timeless issues people argue about today in church and society.

"Let us go and do likewise, regarding every [person] as our neighbor who needs our assistance. Let us renounce that bigotry and party zeal which would contract our hearts into an insensibility for all the human race, but a small number whose sentiments and practices are so much our own, that our love to them is but self-love reflected. With an honest openness of mind let us always remember that kindred between [person and person], and cultivate that happy instinct whereby, in the original constitution of our nature, God has strongly bound us to each other." John Wesley, Notes on the New Testament (1755), on Luke 10:37.

The parable of the Good Samaritan invites us to unite with those of every age before us in forwarding to the next generation God’s plan of salvation through acceptance and love.  The definition of the word “neighbor” provided by Jesus in this parable encompasses everyone without exception or limitation.  We are invited to address the issues of our day with the same response Jesus indicated to the lawyer at the conclusion of the parable, “Go, and do thou likewise” (Luke 10:37).