Who Is My Neighbor?

Human beings are often too clever for their own good.  Many of the problems that we face on earth are due to our own arrogance, and even sometimes our attempts out “outsmart” God and the world that He made for us.  We are experts at trying to exempt ourselves even from the responsibilities that we can readily see that we bear.

This mentality is seen in the man who approached Jesus and wanted to know, “what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” (Luke 10:25-37)  We know from this text that the man was a lawyer, which isn’t the same thing we might think of today.  This was a man well-acquainted with Mosaic Law and was seen as an expert in how to apply it in the lives of first-century Jews.  What isn’t clear is if this is the same man that Jesus is recorded as answering in the other gospels in approximately the same manner. (Matthew 22:34-40; Mark 12:28-34)  Instead of Jesus laying out the two great commandments, this lawyer seems to understand that concept already.  Absolute and total love for God and a selfless love for others is the core of the Law, and this lawyer knew that to be the case.  Jesus only instructed the man to obey what he knew.

A significant difference in this narrative from the others is the lawyer’s second question, and his motivation.  Luke tells us that the man was “wishing to justify himself” (Luke 10:29) by asking Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”  What the lawyer understood is that his knowledge of the Law’s requirements had not resulted in subsequent action. (James 2:8-17)  Since he could not escape God’s command to love, he resorted to asking, “love whom?”

Jesus’ answer to the man involves a parable that we all know well that describes a “good” Samaritan who helps a Jewish man who has been mugged, beaten and left for dead.  This same victim of violence was ignored and avoided by both a priest and Levite, but a man with whom he would have nothing to do provided life-saving assistance out of boundless kindness.  When Jesus completes the parable, He asks the lawyer the most important question, “Which of these three do you think proved to be a neighbor to the man…?” (Luke 10:36)  When the lawyer correctly identifies the Samaritan, Jesus encourages the lawyer to “Go and do the same.” (Luke 10:37)

The beauty of Jesus’ words are uniquely capable of overcoming human cleverness and reminding us what our responsibilities are, even overcoming our attempts at self-justification.  The Samaritan did good to the man who would otherwise treat him with disdain and disrespect.  However, in his time of need, the Samaritan just saw another human, and worked to provide for that need.  This stands in contrast to those who will seek to excuse themselves from acting with grace and mercy, even though they would have been friendly in normal circumstances.  To wit, we are to love all people, even our enemies, for they are our neighbors. (Matthew 5:43-48)

What will we do when faced with Jesus’ words?  Will we hear their plain message or seek self-justification?