Jesus was speaking to a crowd and in the group, a lawyer who upon hearing that the law said to love your neighbor asked “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him up, and went off, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road, but when he saw the injured man he passed by on the other side. So too a Levite, when he came up to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan who was traveling came to where the injured man was, and when he saw him, he felt compassion for him. He went up to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, 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, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever else you spend, I will repay you when I come back this way.’ Which of these three do you think became a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” The expert in religious law said, “The one who showed mercy to him.” So Jesus said to him, “Go and do the same.” (Luke 10:30-37)
There is a lot that can be said about this parable. I will mention a couple of random things I thought of when I read this morning. First, living here in lower middle class America, I place myself in the position of one of the passers by. Do I offer aid or do I race fearfully by? A man I read recently, from a Liberation Theology background, pointed out that in Third World contexts, the readers automatically place themselves as the hopeless, wounded man. “Blessed are the poor in Spirit” said Jesus and the word translated “poor” there means beggar. Someone who has nothing within himself to live on but has to wait for someone to be “moved by pity”. Taken this way, Jesus is the Samaritan in the story. And, we are all the hopeless wounded.
But as this is a story about loving neighbors, what about my responses to others? Far too often I am the one racing by in fear (sometimes in arrogance). The one man, however, “felt compassion” for him and took care of him. In fact, he took responsibility for him until he was back on his feet.
There is a contrast to be made between this and what is common in the Church. I was visiting a missionary in West Virginia. He runs a large retreat center and also has huge ministry of helps to the local community. He organizes food and clothing giveaways, provides tutoring, and help for unwed mothers. As he was taking us around, he added, seemingly concerned about complaints that he is being frivolous with God’s resources, “But none of this is any good unless I make sure that they hear the Gospel”. I read this parable and there is no “here, I did you a favor now to repay it, you have to listen to me.” It seems the guy was still unconscious when the Samaritan left. Giving expecting something in return is not love but opportunism. Loving acts done so as to hit them with the Gospel cheapens both Love and the Gospel in the eyes of the receiver. Love, moved by compassion, expects nothing in return.
Finally, Placing myself in the position of the Lawyer, I have to say that pretty much through this whole parable, my mind would have been thinking “Great, Jesus is telling me that everybody in need is my neighbor”. But there is surprise at the end. “Who”, asks Jesus, “Was a neighbor to the robbed man?” The question “Who is my neighbor” is the exactly wrong question. No one has to prove themselves worthy to be called “neighbor” by you. You are the one with something to prove. When God says to “love your neighbor” the point is not that you should narrow down the list of neighbors, but to expand it by your expanding love.