We all want to be the person who can be counted on, the hero who comes through in time of need, the one who shows up the hypocrites and the elite. We want to be the person who’s ready to help, who’s in a position to help in the first place. The desire to be the helpful person is so much a part of who we are that we have laws in this country that protect people who try to help others in a crisis. We all want to be a good neighbor.
A lawyer approaches Jesus, to test him. “What do I have to do to inherit eternal life, teacher?” Jesus tests him right back: “You’re an expert in Torah, in the law; you tell me: what does it say?” “Love the Lord your God with all you heart, soul, strength, and mind; and love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus says, “That’s a good answer. I couldn’t have put it better myself. Live it out!” The lawyer pushes back: “But how? Who’s my neighbor?”
“Who is my neighbor?” That’s the question the lawyer asks, but it’s not the question Jesus answers. The lawyer wants to hear a parable about the Good Jew, just like we want to hear one about the Good Christian. The question itself, “Who is my neighbor,” assumes that the lawyer will be in a position to do good, will be the one who can help. But Jesus doesn’t tell the parable of the Good Jew, or the Good Christian. And the lawyer, who thought he was going to learn how to be a good neighbor, is forced into a place he doesn’t want to be. Jesus re-positions him, from the person who helps, to the person who needs help.
Truth is, none of us wants to be in that position. If we had to pick a character in this parable, I’m willing to bet that none of us would choose the man who falls into the hands of robbers. All of us want to be the person who helps that man. In moments of confession, some of us might admit that we’re the priest who walks by, or the Levite who passes on the other side. None of us wants to be that poor, wretched man, lying in the middle of the Jericho Road.
But that’s where Jesus puts the lawyer. That’s where Jesus puts you, too. The lawyer is the man traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho. You are the person walking from one place to another. It isn’t someone else who needs the care of a Good Neighbor; it’s you. It’s the lawyer. Who is my neighbor? It’s the person who helps me when I need it most.
This is taking us down a peg—or ten. We want the power to do good, but Jesus says, you need help, my friend. You need help. And then, adding insult to injury, Jesus makes the helper, the Good Neighbor, a Samaritan. A Samaritan! Jews and Gentiles didn’t get along; Jews and Romans often couldn’t stand each other. But Jews and Samaritans: the bad blood had been there for centuries. When Israel had divided into two kingdoms, the Samaritans were the first to fall, because of their idolatry (2 Kings 17). When the temple was rebuilt under Ezra and Nehemiah, Samaritans weren’t allowed to help or to worship with their Jewish brothers and sisters (Ezra 4; Nehemiah 2). And in John’s gospel, when Jesus’s opponents really want to drag his name through the mud, they say, “Isn’t it true that you’re a Samaritan and have a demon,” as if being a Samaritan and having a demon were pretty much the same thing (John 8). The worst enemy, the person from a group you can’t stand, the person you wish you’d never have to see for the rest of your life, and maybe beyond: that’s who you need to help you. That’s the form the Good Neighbor takes when you need a neighbor most.
Now, at the end of the parable, Jesus asks the lawyer, “Who was the neighbor to this man,” and the lawyer rightly answers, “The one who showed him mercy,” and Jesus says, “Go and do likewise.” Go and do likewise: show mercy, even, especially, to your enemy, especially when it could cost you everything, especially when it puts your own safety and comfort and security in doubt: show mercy! Go and do likewise. But we can’t jump over the parable to get to the command! We have to know what it means to receive mercy so that we can go and do likewise.
That is not what we want to hear, of course. We want to hear about how we can all just be Good Samaritans together, because that feels good, and needing mercy can feel pretty awful. Needing mercy can feel like being attacked by robbers. It can feel like being left for dead in the middle of a dangerous highway. But until we realize just how much we need mercy, just how bad shape we’re in, we make for pretty awful neighbors. We pass by those who are in need. We ignore the cries of others begging for mercy and justice. We harden our hearts to anyone who doesn’t fit our neat definitions of “neighbor.”
Friends, I’ll cut to the chase: Jesus is the Good Samaritan. Sin has waylaid us; we need mercy, badly. But sin also has separated us from God and from each other, so that when Jesus shows up, as likely as not, he comes as our enemy, as a Samaritan, as the person we hate, the person whose help we’d accept only if there was no other choice. And there is no other choice. It’s mercy or death. We need mercy, and Jesus has it for us, ready to administer the healing balm of grace, peace, and love.
This is not just a metaphor, an image for how God works in Jesus Christ. This is real, as real as your next door neighbor, as real as your real-life enemy. If you aren’t open to receiving Christ’s mercy from your enemies, you may not receive his mercy at all.
Today, this very hour, Christ offers you healing mercy. He is your Good Neighbor; he has put himself in harm’s way for your sake; he has paid the price for your recovery; and he will return to make sure you are whole. Will you see yourself as a recipient of his mercy? Will you allow him to tell a story about you, the person who needed a Good Neighbor?
Here’s how it might go:
-You are walking in Friends’ Park
-Mugged from behind, left badly injured
-I take a walk, but I’m no hero
-Our Church Council Chair, Jeff Smart, but Jeff has been reading the paper, and he knows there are reports of robbers using a fake victim to lure people in
-You’re in trouble now
-Someone else comes down the path: not a Church Council chair, not your pastor, it’s the person you hate as much as anyone else in the world. I know, I know… Fine. Maybe it’s “one of those people.” You know who I’m talking about. Maybe you think nothing good can come from this person. Or maybe it’s someone who has something against you, someone you’ve hurt or cut off from good relationships.
-Whatever it is, you’re sure this person’s gonna walk by. Because, if you’re honest, you might walk by her, too. And, after all, the people you thought you could count on have already let you down.
-She doesn’t pass you by. She tries First Aid. She calls 911. She waits. She rides with you.
-She pays your deductible: for the ambulance, for the ER visit, and for your stay in the hospital.
-She prays for you before you go, and she leaves her insurance card.
Your enemy, the person you least want to see, the person whose help you would only accept if you had no other choice, only if you were lying in the middle of the road, only if the choice was between her and death: she’s the one who saves your life. She’s your Good Neighbor, your Samaritan. Your enemy has saved your life, has shown you mercy.
Go and do likewise.