Just before Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan, he was asked “Who is my neighbor?” The reason this question arose was because that same person had asked Jesus a question about how to inherit eternal life. Jesus asked him, “What is written in the law? How do you read it?” The man answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus told him that he’d answered correctly and encouraged him to “do this, and you will live.” Then came the “clarifying question” about the identity of his neighbor and the parable followed.
Recently I have participated in a number of group meetings where this question has been asked, around which different levels of dialogue have take place, and some really intriguing follow-on questions have arisen. There are three main responses that I have realized:
The group approach – Different groups that I have been in that have approached this question have brought some interesting and some other, more “standard” thoughts to an answer. While the modifiers and considerations taken in adding to the dialogue have allowed most of the people in each group a chance to apprehend a different neighbor than each might have on their own, they tended to describe groups of people….”neighbors” (plural) in most cases. This not a bad thing, in and of itself, but it can remove the personal “buy-in” to action, and inside the groups that these conversations take place, many times this kind of conversation leads to committees and the proto-formulations of programs….again, not necessarily a bad thing, but the crying need of each person in any of these neighbors’ groups may differ to various degrees between each person. When I look at the way that Jesus worked with the people that gathered around him, many times he started by asking, “What do you want me to do for you?” He was personal….and individual. Group solutions may have the place of providing a framework for action, but stopping at a New Program creates an abstraction of the personal voice of each of our neighbors. They are not abstractions.
The Samaritan or other passerby’s identification – Most of the time when this parable is told, individuals identify with the Samaritan, the priest, or the Levite (and sometimes, with the inn keeper…). Depending on what your life experience has been and the message being pressed upon you by God and your conscience at the time, any of these roles places you in a spot of meditation on what each role means to you right now. Whether you “walk on by”, stop to assist, or, in the case of the inn keeper, act as care-giver, you are part of the story, and God takes that and has things to tell and show you about what that means in your life now..and what you can do. I have come to the realization that I don’t need to seek out my neighbor, any more than any of the characters in the parable did. My neighbor is the person that God has plopped down in front of me. It can be someone I know well, like a member of my family, or someone I literally bump into at the grocery store. My role, in each and every case, is to show mercy. As I am open and, if you will, abandoned to what God has for me in each moment, I can discover what that mercy is, and be a part of the solution for this person in that moment. This requires what I believe Paul was referring to when he encouraged us to “pray without ceasing”….prayer is a state of constant, on-going surrender and awareness to God, what Jean-Pierre de Caussade called Abandonment to Divine Providence. Walking in that relationship with God allows you to know that you are where you are supposed to be, doing what you are supposed to be doing.
The victim the Samaritan helped – Here is a role I discovered and have not thought about before….what if I am the man who got the tar beaten out of him, left half dead and desperately needs help? My neighbor is one of those who pass by….one of which, by God’s mercy, stops and has compassion. Am I ready to be the recipient of help? Looking at the other two responses, I easily take part in group analysis and discussion with a goal of doing something merciful, or I assume the role, by God’s grace, of the Samaritan or maybe the inn-keeper. But the victim? In the emptying of myself that is needed to know myself as too weak or broken to “fix” the mess I’m in or the disaster that has overcome me, am I able to allow God’s grace be ministered to me? This may actually be the toughest set of shoes to fill….
So, who’s your neighbor now?