Over the last few days, I have been reading the story of the Good Samaritan and I have really been struggling with the definition of “neighbor.” Just who is my neighbor? And how do I handle people and situations that make me uncomfortable? I was fortunate to find an essay written by Spencer Perkins, who was the Director of Reconcilers Fellowship and author of More Than Equals: Racial Healing for the Sake of the Gospel. Mr. Perkins modernized the parable of the Good Samaritan and helped clarify Jesus’ definition of “neighbor” and how it should motivate us to especially love those who are different from us, whether by race, social status, political or religious beliefs. My next couple of blog posts cover this subject, so I wanted to share his parable of the Good Samaritan with you:
A PARABLE FOR TODAY
Let’s say you live in a mostly white neighborhood. You hardly deal with people of other races. You work hard, and you teach your children to love God and other people.
Now suppose you hear about an unusual teacher/activist who is going around preaching that same simple message you teach your kids: to love God and other people. But this teacher spends his time with poor people and members of the other race. You agree with what he teaches, but his lifestyle makes you uncomfortable.
Then one day you hear he’s in town, so you go to hear him teach. Afterward, you approach him to ask a question. Your question is probing and goes straight to the heart of the matter. You believe that his answer will probably be theologically unsound, so that you will embarrass him, discount his lifestyle and in the process affirm your own. “How can I be sure that when I die I will go to heaven?” you ask, going straight for the bottom line.
Instead of answering, he asks you an elementary question. “What did they teach you in church?”
You reply from memory, from the first principles you learned way back in Sunday school: “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.”
He smiles and says, “You have answered correctly. Do this and when you die you will go to heaven.”
But you feel a little slighted. His answer was too simple. You think, “If we agree, why then does his lifestyle still make me feel so uncomfortable?” And you realize that the difference must have something to do with the “neighbor” part.
Needing to justify your own existence, you decide to probe a little deeper. So you ask the question—the one whose answer was as ignored in Jesus’ day as it is today: “And who is my neighbor?”
His reply comes in the form of a story:
“One evening a man was driving from his suburban home to his downtown office. Because he was pressed for time he decided to drive the most direct route, which led right through the roughest part of the inner city. It just so happened that while driving through this mostly black part of town he had a flat tire. Because his white face stuck out like a sore thumb in this part of town, he was tempted to continue driving on the flattened tire but decided it would only take a minute to change it. While he was changing the tire, though, a gang of black youths attacked him, stripped and beat him and left him half dead.
“Now it happened that a preacher on his way to evening service also had to drive through this dangerous part of town. When he saw the car up on a jack he slowed down, and then he saw the man slumped over the steering wheel. But the preacher hurried on his way, deciding that it would be too dangerous to stop.
“A little while later another man, who had been a Christian all his life and was well respected in his community, also saw the injured man, but he too decided not to get involved.
“Finally, an old black man driving a beat-up pickup truck drove up and stopped, pulled the injured white man out of the car, laid him in the back of his truck and drove him to the hospital. He paid the hospital bill and then continued on his way, never seeing the injured man again.”
His story finished, the teacher then asks you, “Which of these three, do you think, proved neighbor to the man who was attacked by the gang?”
You answer, “The one who had mercy on him.”
And he says to you, “Go and do likewise.” (See Luke 10:25-37 for the original version of this story.)
When Jesus was asked, “Who is the neighbor I’m supposed to love like myself?” he didn’t say “Your family,” or “The people of your neighborhood—people who are like you.”
For all practical purposes, Jesus turned the question into a racial issue. It was no coincidence that Jesus picked a Samaritan to demonstrate the meaning of neighbor to a Jewish expert in the law. Jews didn’t see the Samaritans as their neighbors. Samaritans were half-breeds, the scum of the earth, outcasts. The Jews believed that if a Jewish person’s shadow happened to touch a Samaritan’s shadow, it would contaminate the Jew. If a Samaritan woman entered a Jewish village, the entire village became unclean.
But in this story Jesus says that our neighbors are especially those people who ignore us, those people who separate themselves from us, those people who are afraid of us, those people we have the most difficulty loving and those people we feel don’t love us. These are our neighbors. In Matthew 5:46 Jesus says, “If you love those who love you, what reward will you get?” Anybody can do that.
Christianity doesn’t require any power when its only challenge is to do something that already comes naturally. But it will take a powerful gospel—a gospel with guts—to enable us to love across all the barriers we erect to edify our own kind and protect us from our insecurities.
Sometimes, in my weak moments, I wish the lawyer who asked that question two thousand years ago had never opened his big mouth. But now, because he did, I am without excuse. I cannot plead ignorance to the question. Now, because of Jesus’ answer, I have to go beyond my comfort zone and embrace neighbors I would rather do without.
The answer to the question “And who is my neighbor?” has much to say about the priority we place on loving people who are different from ourselves, especially as it relates to our eternal future. Hidden behind Jesus’ simple lesson on helping others is an intense spotlight aimed right at one of our most serious blind spots—race.
DO YOU RECOGNIZE YOUR NEIGHBOR?
It doesn’t take much imagination for each of us to figure out who Jesus would use as an example of “neighbor” in our own towns and cities:
For an Arab, how about a Jew?
For a rich white person, how about a black welfare mother?
For a poor white person, how about a middle-class black person who got where he is through affirmative action?
For a black male, how about a white male—better yet, a pickup-driving, gun rack-toting, tobacco-chewing, baseball-cap-wearing white man who still refers to a black man as “boy”?
For a feminist, how about an insensitive, domineering male chauvinist?
For a suburban Catholic family, how about the Muslim family that moved in down the street?
For the typical nuclear family of four, how about the married gay couple at the company BBQ?
For all of us, how about the unmotivated, undisciplined, uneducated poor? Or the single mother with 5 children with 4 different fathers?
Or an AIDS victim who contracted AIDS not through a transfusion but through homosexual activity or intravenous drug use?
Who would Jesus use as the neighbor if he were speaking to you?