“And who is my neighbor?” – Luke 10:29
This question was posed to Jesus by a certain lawyer two thousand years ago, and it remains for us one of our most pressing questions. After a year of a pandemic, national turmoil, and increased social media use, it is hard to know who is our neighbor. We might feel isolated, angry, or suspicious. Even more, we might feel that neighborliness, friendship, and peace are unrealistic goals in our current world.
Jesus responds to the lawyer’s question with one of his most well-known stories: the parable of the Good Samaritan. In the story a man is left for dead on the side of the road. A priest and a Levite pass by the beaten man neglecting to give him attention and care. Then a Samaritan man notices the near-dead man, goes to him, tends his wounds, and helps get him to an inn where he can recover.
The catch of this story is twofold. First, the lawyer hears about two people that are part of his group (the priest and the Levite) and he must admit that these people were not neighbors to the stricken man. Second, the hero of the story, the Samaritan, happens to be someone that was not part of the lawyer’s group, and Jesus makes the lawyer admit that this outsider was a true neighbor to the wounded man.
Jesus would have us remember that people who are part of our group (religion, nationality, and political affiliation) are not always good neighbors, and people that we might even consider enemies can show exemplary acts of mercy. By doing so, Jesus is challenging many of our conventional understandings of being a neighbor, and he extends the boundaries of whom we might call a neighbor. Most of all, Jesus would have us follow the example of this one who showed mercy.
Jesus asked, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” The lawyer said, “The one who showed him mercy.”
This kind of neighborliness cuts against the current grain of our society, and some might even consider this sort of neighborliness hopelessly naïve. Yet the more we learn to practice mercy and acknowledge the mercy of others, the more we are able to live out Jesus’s command to love our neighbor as ourselves. Because, whether we like it or not, we are neighbors and we need each other, whether we live in the city or on a family farm, whether we align with this political party or that one, whether we live on this side or the border or that side, we are neighbors and we need each other. To believe otherwise is perhaps more hopelessly naïve than the goal of neighborliness.
In the end, Jesus never fully answers the lawyer’s question. Instead, he says to the lawyer and to us, “Go and do likewise.” Go, be merciful, and discover that you have more neighbors than you might think.
Rev. Matt Baughman, Epiphany 2021