Important to be a neighbour
A scholar wants to engage Jesus in a religious debate. What could be more important to consider than eternal life?
Jesus takes the bait. “Good question,” he says. “Let’s do a Bible study. Tell me more about your interpretation.”
Quoting Scripture, the man proceeds: “Love the Lord you God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind. And love your neighbour as yourself.”
“That’s it,” Jesus replies. “Now, since you obviously know the answer, go and do it.”
The question about eternal life cannot be separated from the daily details of our living in this place at this time; it cannot be separated from our living in communion with God and neighbours. Eternal life is not a philosophical idea; it is a way of living that begins right here, right now, among the people in our neighbourhoods.
The man’s heart falls in his shoes. He is just looking for a good old debate. He likes to exchange ideas about the condition of the world, speculate about the future, and complain about the things people do.
He hoped that Jesus would spin himself into a corner, but now he finds himself against the ropes. His answer has practical implications; it calls for a change of heart and for charitable living. But that is not what he is interested in.
“Let’s keep it at the level of debate, shall we? Who exactly is my neighbour, Jesus? Could you define neighbour for me?”
Defining ‘neighbour’ enables us to narrow down the list, to include some and exclude others, to include those whom we like and from whose company and friendship we might benefit, and to exclude those who make us feel uncomfortable and whose presence is a burden to society. We stereotype people so that many don’t meet our criteria of ‘neighbour.’ By defining ‘neighbour,’ we hope to escape at least some of our responsibilities.
A strange thing happens, though. Jesus refuses to define ‘neighbour.’ He tells a story instead to encourage us to be neighbours to people in need.
A man was travelling from Jerusalem to Jericho when robbers attacked him. They beat him, took his clothes, and left him half-dead by the side of the road. Lucky for him, two people who looked suspiciously like the religious scholar were travelling along that same route. They knew the teachings, they were good people, they would help, right? But reluctant and unwilling to get involved, both of them passed at a safe distance.
I wonder why? Do they have other important things to do?
What makes it so hard for them to stop and be neighbours?
Finally a Samaritan came to the man. He saw him and took pity on him. (The story slows down.)
He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him.
The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper as compensation for looking after the man, promising to reimburse him for any extra expenses he might have.
The samaritan takes time to help, becomes personally involved, and pays careful attention to the man’s needs.
And Jesus asks, “Which of the three was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”
Jesus turns the question around.
Defining ‘neighbour’ is not important; being a neighbour is what’s important.
Given everything in the news these days, I wonder how we are faring.
Gerard Booy is pastor at Haney Presbyterian Church.