This Sunday morning, congregations around the globe and across denominations will hear Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan. Jesus tells this powerful story in response to a lawyer who rose up to challenge him. In first century Palestine, this would not necessarily been seen as an aggressive act by the lawyer. In fact, intense debates between Rabbis, Scribes, lawyers, and lay people are an ongoing part of the Jewish faith. This scene between Jesus and the Lawyer would be commonplace, and Jesus seems willing to engage the debate.
After proving that he knows his law, the lawyer turns the question back on Jesus by inquiring “who is my neighbor?” Surprisingly, this question is a whole lot more difficult to answer than “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” There is no passage in Leviticus to memorize to understand “who is my neighbor,” but instead it is lived out in the life of faith. Jesus shows this by creating an absurd scenario. Not that getting robbed and beaten wasn’t something that could happen on the Wilderness Road from Jerusalem to Jericho, but the odds of the first three passersby being a priest, a Levite, and a dreaded Samaritan are quite slim. These three are of course necessary for proving Jesus’ point.
The priest, a professional follower of the Law, chose ritual cleanliness over the commandment of Leviticus 19.18b. The Levite, a man ethnically predisposed to religious practice made the same choice, but the Samaritan, a man who was an outcast, a half-blood, and by his very nature considered to be unclean took the risk and sacrificed his own time and money to nurse the injured man back to health. When confronted with this story and the question of who acted as a neighbor, all the lawyer could muster was “the one who showed mercy.” His pride, his privilege, his assumptions, and his fear would’t allow him to even utter the word Samaritan, and Jesus has the audacity to say, “do thou likewise.”
The word of the Lord to this lawyer is that neighbor means showing mercy to everyone, even those who you fear, those who make you uncomfortable, those who seem outside the social norms. This word seems particularly prudent in the United States as we once again see videos of two young black men, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, who were shot dead by police under questionable circumstances. As tensions run high, and the reality that racism didn’t end with desegregation or the election of a black man as President comes to the fore, it is important for the Church to be present, reminding the world around us that the will of God is that we show mercy to our neighbors no matter their skin color, no matter their ethnicity, no matter their place on the social ladder.
Showing mercy means respecting the dignity of every human being. It means standing up for justice for all people. It means reaching out with care to those who the world has deemed undesirable because God’s love is stronger than prejudice, fear, and anger. It is easy to say “love your neighbor as yourself,” but it is really difficult to “do thou likewise.” Come Lord Jesus, come and show us what we ought to do and give us the strength to faithfully do it. Amen.