“And Who is My Neighbor?”
by Robert Hamerton-Kelly
Scripture: Colossians 1:1-14; Luke 10:25-37
“But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?” — Luke 10:29
Our readings set by the church’s common lectionary have for some time now been from the Gospel of Luke. By now we are completely convinced that this really is the Gospel for the Gentiles. Today we have come to the best known of Jesus’ many stories on the theme of the universally human, the theme of compassion for our fellow humans just because they are human, compassion crossing the boundaries fixed by religion, ethnic difference, class distinction and gender identity or preference. It is this story we usually call the “Good Samaritan” and it occurs only in this one of the four gospels.
We know it well, but let me point out some features that you might have missed or forgotten. In any case we need to hear the story often, if only because we need to see this exemplary scene again and again so that we might imitate its intention and become compassionate people ourselves.
Here are some points to notice: the one who asks the question is a Jewish lawyer and the religious law is its source. That law draws a circle around the Jewish people to ensure their identity as the chosen, cherished and holy people, the apple of God’s eye. We have the precise provenance of the question in the immediately previous passage. Jesus has just quoted the law book Leviticus (19:18), “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” One could interpret the passage in Leviticus in which this saying occurs restrictively or expansively. The lawyer interprets it restrictively, – that the neighbor in view is exclusively ones fellow Jewish neighbor and not non-Jews (Gentiles). Jesus on the contrary interprets it inclusively, the neighbor in view is every, single other human being. (Let me insert the caveat here that this contrast is polemical and so appears sharper than it would be in a more irenic and reflective rhetoric. The Jewish position on the insider/outsider problematic is more nuanced than it appears in this polemical and hortatory presentation. Let us concentrate not on the negative- Judaism is exclusive- but follow the positive point that compassion knows no boundaries, nor should it.
Even (especially) our enemies warrant compassion, and not so as to make them our friends but simply to affirm their humanity, which is after all the image of God our common Father, as clearly imprinted on them as on us. So let us not commit the farcical mistake of doing what the story prohibits as we recommend it for our and their spiritual benefit, that is act like the priest and Levite by implying that our religion is better than theirs because it is inclusive while theirs is exclusive.
The issue is not that one religion is better than another but rather that all religion, precisely by its nature as religion, makes genuine compassion impossible, because compassion is boundless and religion is the business of fixing boundaries and setting limits. “What profit do you have if you love only your friends? You should love your enemies!” says Jesus (Matthew 5:44). The section in the Sermon on the Mount from which this comes quotes the very text we are considering, Leviticus 19:18. Indeed, Matthew 5:44 might be read as a summary of the point of the Good Samaritan story. Jesus in Matthew defines compassion precisely as the love beyond boundaries, the love of enemies.
The Samaritans were the most bitter of the Jews’ enemies, more so even than the Romans, because the Samaritans were so very much like the Jews. They were enemy brothers, and we know by experience that sibling rivalry can be more hellish even than a woman scorned. It is not by chance that Cain and Abel are the first protagonists in the Bible’s story of our passing historical parade. The Samaritan leapt over the highest hurdle in his culture when he went to the assistance of a Jew. He did not do it grudgingly or fearfully – the robbers might still be there- but boldly and generously. He nursed the wounded man all night in his own bed at the inn and when he left he gave the inn-keeper money, the equivalent of two days of a laborer’s wages, to get the man what was needed, and promised on his return that way to reimburse him further if necessary. This Samaritan did not only love his enemy, he went the second mile, he blessed one who by implication cursed him and did good to one who, by implication, had done him and his people harm. That, as those allusions to the Sermon on the Mount confirm, is what Jesus calls love or compassion. It is defined necessarily, but of course not sufficiently, by the trespassing of normal boundaries in a world of cultural differences and ethnic distinctions.
The priest and the Levite symbolize the very opposite of compassion, the priority of separateness before solidarity, and the impasse of religion. They show that religion makes compassion impossible. How? The text is very emphatic on this matter. Twice Luke uses the verb for passing at a distance (antiparelthen), “They saw him and passed him at a distance.” By contrast the Samaritan “saw him and was moved with compassion (esplanchnisthe) and ran towards him (proselthen).” Compassion moved him towards the stricken man, while religion moved the priest and Levite away from him.
Luke also uses this word for “being moved with compassion” to describe Jesus’ reaction to the widow of Nain weeping at her son’s bier. He says to her “don’t cry” and her raises her son life again (7:13). And he uses it to describe the reaction of the father when he saw his prodigal son returned. He crossed the boundary of injured paternal honor, of moral expectation (that the son would be punished) and fell upon him weeping and whooping, because his lost son had come home (15:20).
Notice also the contrast between the “anti” and “pro” prefixes in the verbs describing the different reactions. The religious figures are anti-, the heretic is pro-, they go on the opposite side of the road, they are the opposition, he approaches the wounded man, he is the support.
Nothing could be clearer as a condemnation of religion, but there is one more emphatic indicator that Luke had precisely this criticism in mind. He says of the victim that he was “half dead” (hemithane). Why include such a detail? Because in that state the priest and Levite could not determine from a distance whether he was dead or alive, and their rules of ritual purity said that touching a corpse would pollute them and temporarily disqualify them from doing their religious duties. So they kept their distance judging ritual purity to be more important than human life.
I will not here belabor the obvious similarity between these religious figures and the Catholic hierarchy that considers the reputation of the church to be more important than the serious abuse of children – religious rectitude before human well-being, power before truth, institution before individual.
Let me end with a brief summary. The main point is the same as the previous two or three passages we have been given to consider – there is a common humanity in the same divine image and compassion for all must defy boundaries to do the right thing. Compassion is that “right thing,” so let us allow ourselves to be moved by the human needs that meet us on our road down to Jericho, (or Los Angeles), and let us go to meet them not shy away from them, and above all let us go on learning from Jesus in his stories and sayings, which are interpreted to us by the Spirit within, who also empowers us to imitate Jesus and do good.
Come Holy Spirit, Come Lord Jesus!