Whelp, this is a well-known story.
I’ll try to highlight some of the details that may sometimes go unnoticed before I share some thoughts. First off, the person asking the question, “Who is my neighbor?” is a lawyer. Why that is significant is because of what lawyers do. Lawyers qualify and define elements of the law, correct? Good lawyers are concerned about justice. So, in this case, the lawyer is examining the Mosaic Law of the Jewish faith to find out exactly what he must do to justify himself before God. This is not an attack on Jesus. This is a legitimate question. What do I need to do to be right with God? Jesus responds appropriately: “What does the law say?” And the lawyer knows:
“Love the Lord your God with all your heart, life, power, and thought; love your neighbor just as you love yourself.”
That’s from Deuteronomy and Leviticus. And Jesus says: “There you go, good job. Done.” But the lawyer isn’t satisfied. So he asks a follow-up question: Who is my neighbor? And then Jesus tells the famous parable-story. Some insight: it begins in a typical way like many ancient Jewish teaching stories—with an introduction akin to a joke: A priest, a Levite, and an Israelite walk into a bar…
But in this case:
A dude is beaten up and dying on the side of the road, and then, a priest, a Levite, and….
And an Israelite walks by…right?
Uh, no. Remember that probably there were at least 70 people listening to this story. They all expected for the third character, the hero, to be an Israelite. But wait—it wasn’t. Before we get there, some quick notes on the first two characters. The priest decided not to help the dying man, most likely because he wasn’t sure if the dying man was a Jew. Better to be safe than sorry, because if he were not a Jew, going anywhere near him would defile the priest and he’d have to go through a lengthy process of becoming clean again. Oh, and also, the guy might die soon. So a priest certainly couldn’t touch him. The priest is the higher class, the elite. Then, the Levite. The Levites were not as high as a priest, but they were descendants of Levi and assisted the priests in the temple. The Levite decided to pass by, because maybe he saw the priest? How could he do that which the priest passed up? So the Levite walked on by. So now the lower-class Israelite will arrive and save the day, right? WRONG!
It’s a Samaritan. The Samaritans were a mixed race between Jews of captivity [when they were exiled from Israel] and the Samaritan people of the actual land of Samaria. Jews [called Israelites, too] were hostile towards Samaritans. The Mishna, the oral traditions of Judaism that developed about law, say this about Samaritans in Mishna Shebiith 8:10: “He that eats the bread of the Samaritans is like to one that eats the flesh of swine.”
Right. That’s harsh. Also, you may remember Jesus talking to a certain Samaritan woman at a well of water? She told him: “How is it that you, a Jew, ask me for a drink since I am a Samaritan” [John 4:9]? This Samaritan, though, would be bound by the same law as the Jews. So seeing a dying person on the side of the road was equally dicey. This dying person did not qualify as the Samaritan’s neighbor. So why did he help?
Because he was moved with compassion.
He did the right thing, regardless of the ethnic and religious conflicts involved. He put himself at risk. And the crowds listening would assume that the half-dead person now rescued by the Samaritan was Jewish. So add that to the drama. Jesus tells the lawyer: go and do the same.
The lawyer wanted to know who we are obligated to love. Jesus answers with a story that says it’s not about obligation, of loving the person near to you, or like you. Jesus erases the line of difference. Whoever is in need or hurting is your neighbor.
Friends, in the course of 72 hours this past week, all sorts of &*$! went down. Two more Black lives were taken away. Their names are Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. It was needless violence, and yes, it was committed by police officers and once again against Black people. And then, violent individuals not affiliated with the peaceful BlackLivesMatter demonstrators in Dallas, Texas, opened fire on police and civilians, taking the lives of five Dallas police officers and harming many others. As a white person, I cannot understand the racial profiling that others have experienced. I can only stand with my friends and colleagues while they express anger, frustration, and grief. I can only continue to work for understanding and peacemaking in our communities. I can only choose to be vocal and to say that Black lives do matter.
When thinking about this burning question of who is my neighbor, this is what I hear:
My neighbor is anyone and all who are ignored, discriminated against, treated as lesser, and all who are the targets of racism and prejudice.
I cannot just walk by and ignore their suffering; I shouldn’t try to silence their anger, frustration, and sadness. I should love them. I should stand with them. Loving my neighbor compels me to help put an end to this sick, institutional, societal racism in this country, inspires me to continue to talk with colleagues and church and community folk about why it’s important to stop saying that if we support Black Lives Matter that we are “against” the police or “against” others. That is not only false, it is also harmful. We can be “for” the just treatment of Black people everywhere and also “for” those in law enforcement. We can be “for” the honesty of admitting that the U.S. has deep, racist roots within its systems and society. And at the same time, while we support Black Lives Matter, we can also support the just treatment of undocumented immigrants, transgender and non-binary folk, the poor and homeless, the abused, and all else who deserve our love and attention. Of course we can.
I close with some words from the UCC’s Acting Executive Minister of Justice and Witness Ministries, Rev. Traci Blackmon:
Ultimately, the guns used to kill those 5 officers last night and wound 6 more and 1 civilian and the guns used to kill Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Jordan Davis, John Crawford, Amadou Diallo, 49 mostly black and latinx people who were LGTBQ at Pulse in Orlando, and the 9 people in bible study in Charleston, were loaded by our common enemies, fear and hate. This same ammunition is responsible for the bombing of mosques and the burning of churches. This same ammunition fuels the escalating levels of death in our nation’s streets as a result of communal violence. Irrational fear and hatred that nurses at the breast of a nation increasingly divided against itself.
We must mourn them all because we are all connected.
And we must find our way back to love.
Murder is a by-product of people who have lost their love.
Love is our only hope.
And look–the WNBA players who chose to wear these t-shirts while warming up for their game were just doing what we should all do. Their message was simple: CHANGE STARTS WITH US. Let’s stop trying to spin things to fit some agenda that isn’t helping to bring us together. Remember the Dallas police officers who protected Black Lives Matter protestors. Let’s set an example for all the kids and youth who are just waiting for us to cooperate and love each other as we should. Come on. Change starts with us.