A Traveler's Worst Nightmare

Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. The story is one you know with great familiarity from beginning to end, which leaves little to the imagination. But the question was asked on a certain late-night talk show, “Do you know who the Good Samaritan was?” “Of course, a man who did a good deed.” Then the follow up question, “Do you know anything else about him? Yes, I think they named a hospital after him.” But it is a story that ranks near the top of the favorites list when it comes to Jesus’ parables. The problem, however, with familiar favorites is that too often, before long, they cause us to tune out with a bored refrain in our brain, which says, “I’ve heard it all before. Move along now. There’s nothing new to see here.” Certainly, this story, among all others has great relevance for us, today, in which we too, can feel attacked and vulnerable. We may ourselves on rough and rugged terrain personally that we aren’t sure where it will lead or who may be waiting for us around unknown corners. My hope is today that we may we find new relevance in timeless tales.

In the story, a lawyer asked Jesus a question. Of course, the lawyer already knew the answer since after all it is common knowledge that as an attorney, you never ask a question that you don’t know the answer of before you ask it. The lawyer asked what he needed to do to inherit eternal life, or what must he do to be pleasing in the eyes of God, and he already knew how Jesus would respond. A+ answer- Love God and love your neighbor. When you have an A streak intact, you may as well keep it going. Question # 1 asked and answered. Let’s try for Question #2. Remember that you do not ask a question unless you first know the answer, so Question 2 is predictable, “And just who is my neighbor?” You had best bet the lawyer felt Answer #2 was a slam-dunk as well. My neighbor? Let’s see. Another Jew. A male. Definitely not a tax collector. Someone who bathes, eats and dresses exactly as I do. That should about cover it. And of course, Jesus answers not with a “yes” or “no” but with a story. A story about a people in that day that were considered to be a dirty, filthy, disgusting breed of people. That is the kind of person described as the hero of the story – not the villain. Talk about throwing the lawyer a curve when he expected a fastball right up the middle!

The story rolls out surprisingly. A man in trouble encounters 3 people passing by who could have all helped. The first one did not and neither did the 2nd, but the 3rd, however, saved the day, so be nice like the Samaritan, not nasty like the minister. (That about sums it up, doesn’t it?) But remember that Jesus’ stories always have some shocking, unexpected twist with something perplexing to be puzzled over and wondered about. There it is. The fact that “neighbor” turns out to be not a hero but a hated, despised person that was not considered a neighbor to anyone.
This story invites us to take a deeper look at the lawyer’s question, “Just who is my neighbor” in an age when we may or may not know our neighbors perhaps to the degree that we once knew our neighbors. Most often, our real neighbors turn out to be the people we see in our random endeavors – at sporting events, church, civic organizations, work, school. We hang with those we like and steer clear of those who don’t quite fit our image of who/what a neighbor is supposed to be and do. Our world is now a multi-faceted, multi-cultural, that can often leave us feeling isolated and insecure. The lawyer’s question seems to be a relevant one even for us.

Jesus told his story as an answer to the question to challenge the view that somewhere exists some utopia of a world where “neighbor” constitutes someone who makes us feel comfortable at all costs. Jesus purpose in the Parable of the Good Samaritan is to confront our notion that there really are places where dangerous, scary roads can be avoided and that we can pick and choose life’s victims by how comfortable they make us feel. The Parable of the Good Samaritan provides a new formula for traversing this frightening journey of life where wounded and bleeding people may be found anywhere (and not always physically) and where “neighbor” constitutes anyone that has a need. As we travel through, day to day, if we intend to, as the lawyer answered, take seriously this notion that to be pleasing in the eyes of God, rather basic is helping care for those "neighbours" who we find broken, wounded and needing help.

Still the lawyer’s question haunts me, “Just who is my neighbor” because it is not a question that we are ready to answer. Our attention immediately turns to those wounded and bleeding that we find lining the pathways of our lives, but even though this is the question the lawyer asked, “Just who is my neighbor”, indeed it is not the answer Jesus gave? Notice that Jesus’ story, while it emphasizes an impassioned tale of violence, apathy, an unlikely hero and a surprising punch-line, the moral of the story is not about the bleeding and wounded and where we find those type of people. The story doesn’t hinge on the despised hero who made good in both risking his life while saving the life of another. Rather the power of this parable beginning and ending with the man in the ditch, the parable begins with a clear-cut question, “Who is my neighbor?” but ends with another question “How do you become a neighbor?” The plot of this story and our being able to take home it’s truth and apply it to our lives is that this is not about leaving here ready to scour the highways (and our lives) for those hurting and bleeding individuals that we are sure to encounter. The plot of this story actually first compels us to turn the mirror toward ourselves and determine, “Am I ready to actually be a neighbor and all that means here in this example?” That is a completely different question entirely and as the lawyer discovered, not easily answered.

Am I ready to be a neighbor invites us to examine how willing we are to live life outside of our comfort zones where life and the people within our lives are remarkably similar in thought, belief and in practice to ourselves? In the beginning the lawyer would have answered Question 1, “Love God with all that you have and love your neighbor as yourself” with only those people that looked, sounded and believed in lockstep with what he looked, sounded and believed. The story tests that foundation at its very core in that if our neighbor is only made up of those who make us feel comfortable, then perhaps we need to broaden and expand our concept of neighbor. When we challenge our comfort zones, we challenge the concept that our neighborhood is only that if those within are made in our image. When we begin not with “Who is my neighbor”, but instead with “Am I ready to be a neighbor?” it gives me a new perspective that before I can identify those who are in/out of my neighborhood grid, there is a great deal of internal work that the Lord and I need to begin to do first. When/If we begin to seriously answer the question on whether we am ready to be a neighbor, only then are we willing to challenge our comfort zones and decide that when the situation presents itself that we find those along our path that have incredible needs will be able to respond.

Unless we are willing to do the internal work first, chances are unlikely that as a result of a world of violence, racism, and the sheer complexity of the problems we have, we are not likely to stop to help.

Barbara Johnson, a Christian author gives perspective…

A man fell into a pit and couldn’t get out…
A subjective person came along and said, “I feel for you down there.”
An objective person came along and said, “It’s logical someone would fall down there.
A Pharisee said, “Only bad people fall into a pit.”
A mathematician calculated how he fell into the pit.
A news reporter wanted an exclusive story about his fall and how he felt at the moment.
An optimist said, “Things could be worse.”
A pessimist said, “Things will get worse.”
Jesus, seeing the man, took him by the hand and lifted him out of the pit.
Are you ready to be a neighbor? It isn’t rocket science.

A well-known author was asked by a young man, “Please tell me that all will be OK.” The author’s answer, “Welcome to earth, young man, where it is hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, you’ve got 100 years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, “You’ve got to be kind.”