Luke 10:25-37, from The Message
I believe the story we just heard, the parable commonly known as the Good Samaritan, is one of Jesus’ most important teachings.
I say that because of my understanding of what it means to love God and to follow Jesus. I say that because the way Luke frames this story is the same way Jesus frames the meaning and purpose of life:
To love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love our neighbor as we love ourselves.
As someone has said, “To love God is to love our neighbor is to love God.”
Other scriptures put it even more bluntly: “If we say we love God but hate our siblings, then we are liars.” 1
Who, then, is our neighbor? Who, then, is our sibling?
The more appropriate question, Jesus says in this parable, is “who is not our neighbor, a fellow child of God?” And if the ultimate answer is “everyone,” Jesus highlights at least two particular kinds of neighbors and siblings: anyone who is in need, and anyone who shows mercy, or kindness, to those in need.
“The word ‘parable’ comes from two Greek words:” the first, “para—as in ‘parallel’—means to ‘put something side by side’;” and the second, balo, “means to cast or throw.” Thus, say Amy-Jill Levine and Sandy Eisenberg Sasso in their wonderful new children’s book Who Is My Neighbor, “a parable casts two images side by side: the story in the text and the story of our own lives.” 2
I share that definition with you because it seems to me that this parable, a parable about who our neighbors are, goes to the very root of what a parable is supposed to be about. The religion scholar (or lawyer) who is questioning Jesus seems to want to define his life somewhat narrowly. He wants to pick and choose his neighbors.
But Jesus will have none of that.
And what is the story of our lives that we bring to our understanding of this parable? What is the current context in which we live?
I have to tell you: The Parable of the Good Samaritan comes around in the Revised Common Lectionary only once every three years. And so it was that the last time we considered this story together, Philando Castile, a 32-year-old African American school cafeteria manager, had just been shot and killed in his car by a police officer. The context three years ago was racism and police brutality. Our black and brown neighbors were being beaten up and bloodied, and sometimes they were left lying not half-dead, but dead, in a ditch or a car or on a street corner.
This time around, Jesus is asking us to consider who our neighbors are on the day that our government is conducting raids and rounding up our undocumented neighbors with the goal of forcing them out of this country. Today, as we hear about the priest and the Levite who were too scared to stop and help the man who had been robbed and beaten and left for dead, thousands of our neighbors and siblings, some of them children, are being detained by our government in inhumane conditions.
Our current context, the story of our lives that we must consider in light of the story of this parable, is one of government brutality, racism, human rights abuses, and unimaginable suffering. Our neighbors—Central and South Americans and some Mexicans, men and women, transgender folks and young children—are lying not in a ditch but on concrete floors and in cages, unable to shower or brush their teeth or hug one another. They are being taken from their homes and places of work.
The parallels between the parable and this story of our national life are both clear and painful. After Jesus has finished telling his scandalous story of a Jewish crime victim rescued and cared for by a Samaritan, one of the Israelites’ sworn enemies, he asks the lawyer who in the story was a neighbor to the man in the ditch. The lawyer cannot even bring himself to say the word “Samaritan.”
And so it was that on Friday, after making a very brief visit to a detention center where immigrants crowded behind a chain-link fence said they had not been allowed to shower for more than 40 days, after saying nothing to the adult males clamoring for his attention, Vice President Mike Pence did not even speak of human beings, but rather of systems and stuff.
“I was not surprised by what I saw,” he said at a news conference. “I knew we would see a system that was overwhelmed. This is tough stuff.”
(He did, however, praise Border Patrol Agents for being “compassionate,” and he criticized Democrats in Congress.)
Oh, but how easy it is to judge and fault others for their responses to neighbors in need. How easy it is to conclude that the parable is a simple lesson in how we should get over our fears and self-centeredness and learn to stop and help others, or at least to make the occasional charitable contribution. How natural for us to make the story all about us, just as the lawyer did.
But the lawyer had it wrong from the very beginning; he asked the wrong question. He wanted to know what he had to do to gain eternal life, but there is nothing he had to do and nothing we have to do to know life abundant; it is God’s free gift to us all. And he was focused not on Jesus or on others, but on himself. He was simply going through the motions of living, going through the motions of religion, wanting to be sure he had checked all the right boxes.
The parable calls us to a life that is both fuller and deeper—and, yes, more challenging—than that. Jesus wants us to see our enemies as neighbors; Jesus wants us to see them as people just like us, capable of kindness and compassion.
So, go ahead: Take a moment to consider who in your life is parallel to the hated Samaritan. Might it be an ICE agent? A white supremacist? A homophobe? A child molester or NRA lobbyist? Someone whose religion and politics are different from yours?
Apparently, true love of our neighbors also includes the capacity to see our enemies and the “other” as our saviors and heroes. To understand that we need something they have.
Think about it: All the migrants fleeing their homelands in the hopes of finding safety and survival in ours are our neighbors. The undocumented immigrants huddled in fear behind closed doors, the people who pick our vegetables and clean our homes and wash dishes in our restaurants are our neighbors. Think about not only what we owe them, but what they have to offer us.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said it is not neighborly enough simply to go around pulling the wounded out of the ditches of the world. We must also do justice and change systems until people do not end up in ditches—until drivers are no longer pulled over for being black, until children are no longer caged for seeking safety, until women and girls are not molested by the rich and powerful, until trans folks are not rejected and ostracized and sometimes murdered.
Being a “good” Samaritan, a good neighbor, a child of God, is not a matter of doing a one-time good deed; it is a way of living with compassion and care and justice for all.
The police officer who killed Philando Castile was acquitted of all charges in his death, but that was not the end of the story. A charity called Philando Feeds the Children was created in Castile’s honor, and last year it raised more than $130,000 and paid off students’ lunch debts for every public school in St. Paul, Minnesota. Just last month Castile’s mother delivered a check for $8,000 to another school to pay off the lunch debts it was owed. 3
The victim and his family and friends became neighbors.
I would like to think that the man beaten and robbed and left for dead in a ditch, the man whose life was saved by a Samaritan after his own people passed him by, recovered fully and went on to start a soup kitchen for his poor neighbors in Samaria.
I would like to think that some day, not too far into the future, our immigrant siblings will know us as caring neighbors.
I would like to think that we people of privilege and papers will know our blessedness so deeply that we will open our hearts and dedicate our ministries to making black lives matter, to making roads and border-crossings and cars safe and welcoming to all, to preserving this planet for generations of neighbors yet to come.
I would like to think that, inasmuch as we have been given far more than we could ever ask and imagine, we will go and do likewise.
1 See 1 John 4:16b-21
2 Published this year by Flyaway Books, Louisville, Kentucky.