The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”
Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”
- Luke 10:36-37
Luke describes this anonymous young man as an expert in the law. We might first think of him as a lawyer, but because this is primarily religious law we’re talking about, we might equally call him a seminarian. Now, my brother is a lawyer and I am obviously a preacher. And I can tell you, there are some similarities in our training. We were both taught to examine things, to analyze them, to ponder the possibilities in front of us. Most of all we’re both taught to ask good questions in the search for truth and justice. Theoretically, the questions asked by lawyers and preachers are supposed to eventually lead not simply to the discovery of truth and justice but to the enacting of those virtues as well. Of course, we all know it’s easier to ask the questions and discuss answers than it is to put those answers into practice.
The young man in our text, in keeping with his professional training, had questions for Jesus. Good questions, even if his motives were a little mixed. Luke writes that he stood up to test Jesus with perhaps the question of all questions, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus proves, that while he might not have the training of the lawyer, he’s not afraid of asking questions himself. “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?”
The young man jumps at the opportunity to showcase his learning (lawyers and seminarians always do) and answers with words consistent with Jewish teachings of the day. Perhaps surprisingly to him and others there that day, he was also amazingly close to Jesus’ own teachings, “’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, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”
I’m sure the young man bit his lip to conceal a smile as Jesus confirmed that he had read well. But I wonder if the smile faded when Jesus made clear that reading well wasn’t the key to participating in the
? One must also do what one has read in order to truly live. That is after all what the young man asked, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus had caught him in his own words. Kingdom of God
The sharp, young lawyer quickly picked up on Jesus’ prodding. While round one may have gone to this peasant teacher, he wasn’t about to let Jesus off the hook that easily. Time for round two. Time to show that two could play at this game: “And who is my neighbor?” It was one of those questions with no answer or rather a question with a thousand answers. “Who is my neighbor?” is a question about boundaries – a question of who’s in and who’s out. And boundaries are notoriously difficult to determine as this war torn world knows all to well.
The question “Who is my neighbor?” is really the question of who they’re not. The young man basically wanted to know “Where does my neighborhood end? Where is that line that separates us from them? That distinguishes those for whom I am responsible from those for whom I am not?” For if someone isn’t my neighbor then they’re pretty much a stranger. And we all know that strangers aren’t that far removed from being enemies. And no one would be expected to love their enemies, would they?
At this point Jesus continues the conversation by telling a story. What initially looks like an answer to the man’s question ends up being an extended opening to another question. Jesus wants to move the conversation from asking, “Who is my neighbor?” or “Where does my neighborhood end?” to the far more important inquiry “Am I a part of God’s neighborhood? Am I a resident of the coming
?” Jesus does this by first exposing the unhelpfulness of “Who is my neighbor?” kinds of questions with the story of a man who became a victim of the notoriously dangerous road from Kingdom of God Jerusalem to Jericho. Robbed of even his clothes, beaten, and left for dead we find ourselves with a man who has no identity other than his need. Is he neighbor, someone I know, or a foreigner? It’s hard to tell with all the bruises on his face. Is he a Jew or a Gentile? A respectable man or an outlaw, himself? Without clothes or other cultural markers one can’t be sure. It reminds us that the vast majority of the ways we divide one another up are pretty artificial. Naked and in need we’re all more alike than we care to admit. We’re all potential neighbors, even if we were once (or still remain) so called enemies.
As the story unfolds, Jesus continues to challenge assumptions by warning that just as it’s not always easy to recognize who our neighbors are, it is equally difficult to pick out those who are the neighbors of God. The two obvious residents of God’s subdivision, a priest and a Levite (perhaps coworkers of the young lawyer) each take turns happening upon the wounded man and each for reasons unknown, pass by on the other side without rendering aid. Did their hearts struggle with the decision to stop or not? Were they just cowards? Jesus doesn’t say and his silence indicates that their motivations for refusing to show compassion were irrelevant . . . whether ill or well intentioned, the outcome was the same.
In contrast to the Priest and the Levite Jesus introduces a Samaritan. For the original listeners, the Samaritan was a clear outsider, a religious heretic, one whose country men have already shown themselves hostile to Jesus and his disciples just the chapter before. But this Samaritan acts against type and actually does something good. He does much good. Having compassion on the man, he tends to his wounds, places him on his own donkey, and takes him to an inn where he cares for him all night long and then gives two full days worth of wages to the inn keeper with the promise of more.
Who is a neighbor in God’s kingdom? Remarkably, not the ones with the best theology. Not the ones with the best answers. Not even the ones with the best mission statement or understanding of what it means to be missional. No, the one who shared the same zip code as the Almighty according to Jesus was the one who shared in the Lord’s compassion for the wounded man. Even the lawyer could see that. The question remains though, did he go and do likewise? I wonder, will we?