The Trouble with Neighbors

Eighth Sunday after Pentecost | Luke 10:25-37

The Trouble with Neighbors

He already knew the answer, this lawyer, but he asked the question anyway. Scripture commands, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” This much he knew, and the commandment is plain, but this lawyer, much like ourselves, lived for the wiggle room between the words.

We have to love him. That’s what Deuteronomy says, right?

A straightforward answer would have done the job, but Jesus, true to his nature, didn’t give one. Instead, we and this lawyer get a story. It’s pretty famous, as stories go. We’ve even named it—the Parable of the Good Samaritan, we call it, as though this Samaritan were an exception, different from other Samaritan cretins we might know.

The Good Samaritan by Rembrandt c.1630. Wallace Collection, London.
The Good Samaritan. Rembrandt, c.1630. Wallace Collection, London.

Samaritans were nearly Jewish, which made them more loathsome to the Jews than had they been completely gentile. They were the product of centuries of exile, a people group who filled the void left when the Assyrians destroyed Israel and the Babylonians hauled off the best and brightest of Judah. The Samaritans worshiped the God of Abraham, but in the wrong places and in the wrong ways, at least in the eyes of the Jewish people.

We most hate those people who are most nearly like ourselves. Long tailed monkeys are amusing, but chimpanzees make us uneasy.

In the story, the priest and the Levite fail, but the Samaritan shows mercy and compassion, and he rises to God’s expectations. He spends his money, invests his time. He gets involved.

That is the trouble with neighbors—their nearness. If they were far away, an orphaned kid on a poster, we could write our checks and feel compassionate. Neighbors? They are right here. They know where we live. They might come back. Get involved in their messes, and we may not get free.

They’ll want handouts and money, time and favors. And Jesus is telling us not to say no?

Not exactly.

“Love your neighbor as yourself” is an odd way of shaping a commandment. In particular, there is much that it does not say. For one thing, it doesn’t say to give people anything they want. That’s not love, that’s indulgence, or stupidity. It doesn’t say to destroy our own lives, families, or peace.

The Samaritan took the injured man to an inn, but he did not devote the rest of his life to looking after the man. He engaged, he helped, and he also brought the social resources he had available to bear—in this case, some of his wealth, some of his time, and the future help of the innkeeper. His response was loving, it was reasonable, and it was directed at returning the injured man to health and to his own recognizance.

Sometimes we refrain from helping the needy neighbor because we recognize that the neighbor is in the business of seeking help. It is a reasonable response. Standing on a street corner passing out twenty dollar bills is not reasonable. It is the difference between helping our neighbors out of their problems and perpetuating them in their problems.

Fair warning, though—that is no reason not to help. It is a reason to think of constructive ways to help.

The Samaritan came up with the idea of carrying the injured man to an inn because there were no hospitals. Perhaps had there been hospitals, ambulances, and social services available, he would have gotten help for the man in a different fashion.

The point Jesus makes is that the Samaritan saw a need—no, saw a person who needed help—and helped. We have to wonder what the other characters in the story saw. What did the priest see? Maybe he saw a man who fell prey to robbers because God had judged him. Maybe he saw a man whose situation was the result of his own sins. There was plenty of that kind of theology 2000 years ago; there is plenty of that kind of theology now.

The Good Samaritan, Dutch, 17th century
The Good Samaritan. Pen & ink. School of Rembrandt, 17th century. Harvard Art Museums.

What did the Levite see, this man whose role was somewhere between the priest and the laity? Perhaps he saw trouble, and obligation. He knew that to lay aside one’s obligation to the stranger was wrong, but was it wrong if he never took up the burden? Perhaps he pretended to be blind, because that helped him pretend to be decent.

And where were they all rushing? What awaited them that was so urgent as to justify leaving a man to bleed by the roadside? We might supply many answers. All of us have plenty of experience justifying ourselves. No doubt we would recognize their answers as our own.

We like to picture ourselves as Samaritans, at least in this parable. Some of us have found ourselves in ditches. The hard truth Jesus is telling is simple, and we don’t appreciate it. We are the priest and the Levite, of course. We turn a blind eye to the needs of our neighbors. Worse, we resent the clear implication that if we fail to help, we have failed in the eyes of God.

We want to point out that God does not understand how complicated it gets, but even in our most self absorbed moments, we suspect God manages.

It is simple.

We need to stop imagining that our destination is more important than the people we pass along the way. Theologically speaking, spiritually speaking, we might say that the people we pass are, in fact, our journey. And when we see them, we need to look long enough into the mirror of their eyes to see ourselves. Maybe then we can love them.

The Good Samaritan, Jan Wijnants. c.1670. Hermitage Museum.