Who is a neighbor to you?

Luke 10:25-37 contains an interaction between Jesus and an expert in the law–the story famously called The Parable of the Good Samaritan. Until last year, I thought the main lesson was about the Christian definition of “neighbor”. After all, the parable comes in answer to the expert’s question, who is my neighbor?

However, with that perspective, the conclusion never sat quite right with me. The point was fine, but the logic of it seemed a little off. Strictly speaking, Jesus doesn’t answer the expert’s question. He doesn’t end the story by telling him who his neighbor was. Instead, he ends it by telling him who was a neighbor to him–and that’s a significant difference.

I love that Jesus gets to the root of our questions. If you read the entire story, from start to finish, you notice that who is my neighbor? is not the expert’s first question. By looking at the expert’s first question, you can get a handle on his primary concern. It’s something deeper. The expert’s first question is, what must I do to inherit eternal life?

In this context, the expert asks his next question about neighbors in order to clarify more precisely what he must do to inherit eternal life. He wants to be saved, and he wants to know exactly who he has to love in order to achieve that.

And this is where Jesus blows my mind.

Instead of indulging the expert’s craving for self-justification, Jesus changes the subject. After all, those in need of salvation can’t save themselves–that’s axiomatic. So instead of ignoring the axiom and pretending the expert can save himself by doing something (or loving someone), Jesus puts the expert in his true position: that of the beat-up man. At the beginning, the expert recognized he needed salvation. Now, Jesus tells a story about a man that needs salvation. The expert is the beat-up man.

With this in mind, Jesus isn’t pushing the expert to love Samaritans or to expand the boundaries of who he sees as neighbors. Jesus isn’t telling the expert what to do. Ignoring the expert’s second question, Jesus returns to the root question, reminds him of what he can do to be saved–nothing, just like the beat-up man–and in the process reminds him of how different Jesus is from people. Jesus is the Samaritan.

And instead of tactlessly pushing him to love people that he doesn’t naturally love, making him feel guilty or, worse, driving him to soothe his conscience by manufacturing some counterfeit love for people he really doesn’t love, Jesus gives him an opportunity to look at himself as the unlovable one that was loved by someone different than him, and from there, Jesus lets love do its work.

2 replies to “Who is a neighbor to you?”

  1. A new perspective to me of a well-known story–excellent and so very true. So how many lessons can one learn from the teachings of Jesus–endless!

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