And who is my neighbor? a legal attorney wanted to know. An innocent enough question. A simple quest for clarification. Jesus had just told
him that the focus of Gods word is on loving God with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind and on loving our neighbor as ourselves.
But the question isnt as eager and innocent as it first might seem. For
the desire to define neighbor is an attempt to limit it. Presumably, the expert in the law wanted a response something like this (according to Frederick Buechner):
A neighbor (hereinafter referred to as the party of the first part) to be construed as meaning a person of Jewish descent whose legal residence is within a radius of no more than three statute miles from ones own legal residence unless there is another person of Jewish descent (hereinafter to be referred to as the party of the second part) living closer to the party of the first part than one is oneself, in which case the party of the second part is to be construed as neighbor to the party of the first part and one is oneself relieved of all responsibility of any sort or kind whatsoever.
What is the scope of neighbor? How far do my responsibilities extend? And when do they end? These are the questions he was subtly asking.
But Jesus refuses even to answer his question. He knows that the lawyers quiz implies limits to compassion. It hints at a line that may be drawn with Gods approval to distinguish between those who deserve my mercy and those who dont.
Jesus is interested not in Who is my neighbor? but in the question When am
I a true neighbor? He knows that the moment you start stapling exceptions to the second great commandment you arent much interested in obeying it. For love is the spontaneous overflow of a heart that forgets itself in the face
of human need. It is the gracious response of a person who has already experienced the forgiveness and compassion of God through Jesus Christ.
The moment you start stapling exceptions to the second great commandment you arent much interested in obeying it.
Rather than define the borders of neighborness, Jesus told a story. The story has lost a bit of its zip because weve spoiled some of its surprise by calling it The Parable of the Good Samaritan. We give the punch line before the set-up! Those who listened to Jesus likely werent expecting a scum-eating, half-breed Samaritan to be the model of godly action. And yet, he is the only one who offers true compassion. He doesnt just love with his head, analyzing the tragedy before him; nor does he love with his heart alone, weeping over the plight of the poor traveler. He shows Gods true compassion. And what did his compassion look like? It was:
- Unrestricted. After all, what less likely candidate was there for a Samaritan to help? He didnt interview the man to make sure he was worthy
of help. He didnt question the mans judgment in traveling on that road.
- Translated into action. Fortunately for the man whod been beaten, the Samaritan didnt just pray for him and promise to call 911. He rolled up his sleeves, pulled out his wallet, and helped.
- Costly. Look after him, and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have, he told the motel manager.
Its a story that takes on a whole new life in these in-your-face,
Rush-is-right, none-of-this-victimization-crap days. It isnt driven by political rhetoric from the left or the right. Rather, it is the heart of Goda God who is often described in scripture as full of compassion.
The story of the Good Samaritan is ultimately the story of Jesus Christ
whose compassion was poured out on all those around him: on untouchable lepers,
on the hungry and poor, on the half-blind disciples, even on the
straight-as-an-arrow religious leaders. His compassion didnt limit neighbor by color, gender, income, health, or moral history. His compassion didnt just pity. Nor did it endorse sinfulness or foolish choices.
Compassion is a learned behavior that comes from setting our compasses on Jesus Christ. It is a way of looking at faces, seeing both the many destructive forces that have worked on them and the ever-present love of God that has pursued them. It is a way of rememberingthat everyone we encounter is made in God's image. It is a way of confessingthat our salvation is a gift of God and not a well-earned perk.
But if we dont define neighbor, then how will we know whom were to show compassion to? By glancing in the ditches once in a while. Thats what the Samaritan did. And Jesus response echoes centuries later: Go and do likewise.