I went to bed last night thinking about the Zimmerman acquittal and all the reactions to it. This news gives new urgency to the question the lawyer asks in today’s gospel, Who is my neighbor? To what extent do we decide in advance, especially based on what someone looks like, that they are a neighbor or not? Are they friend or foe? I woke up this morning with this prayer from our prayer book on my mind: Grant, O God, that your holy and life-giving Spirit may so move every human heart, that barriers which divide us may crumble, suspicions disappear, and hatreds cease; that our divisions being healed, we may live in justice and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
“Who is my neighbor?” The lawyer asks Jesus. So Jesus tells a story about a Samaritan walking down a road. The Samaritan encounters a man who has been beaten and robbed, and he stops to help him. Previously two others had passed the man by. Who is the neighbor? Jesus asks the lawyer and the lawyer says, “The one who showed him mercy.”
There’s something about this story that I think we can miss. And that is that the Samaritan’s actions are not without risk. The wounded man is proof that dangerous robbers are in the area. The Samaritan stops to help, he slows down to bring the man to the inn, and in so doing he makes himself more vulnerable to attack. For all he knew, the wounded man could have been a trap, an occasion for the robbers to come and jump whoever might stop to help.
But the Samaritan looks on the man with compassion, rather than suspicion. He is moved to pity. In the Greek it says ‘his heart went out to him.’ This compassion precedes the action.
There’s a danger here in summarizing and simplifying the story. If the answer is only ‘everyone is my neighbor,’ then it threatens to become meaningless. There are too many people in this world. I can’t solve all their problems.
But Jesus doesn’t say “Everyone is your neighbor.” Instead, he seems to be saying, “anyone could be your neighbor.” The Samaritan is a neighbor because he helps the person who comes across his path. He doesn’t go out into the world searching to sort everyone out. He helps the person in front of him. And I think there’s something of God in the persons we encounter who need our help as well as the people who stop to help us.
Now some of you may be thinking, “That’s not enough. We live in a world with unjust social structures and we need to think about the root cause of these problems. Why not hire some folks to patrol the Jericho Road or install better lighting.” And you’re right. It was a Roman Catholic Bishop in Brazil who said, “When I feed the poor they call me a saint. When I ask why they’re poor they call me a communist.” We should not ignore the important questions about deeper causes.
But we come to those larger questions later, first inspired by compassion for individuals we meet.
Earlier in Luke Jesus said, “You will know them by their fruits.” He’s saying that one’s true character becomes apparent in one’s actions.
Hearing this, we may want to try and change our actions. That’s probably a good thing. But remember the lawyer’s answer. Who was the neighbor? The one who showed mercy. In the story, it says the Samaritan had compassion, his heart went out to the guy. The mercy was a feeling that preceded the action. I wonder what would happen if, instead of trying to change our actions, we started by trying to change our character. What if we tried to become the people who could actually see the person in front of us. People who assumed the best in others, who responded with compassion rather than suspicion.
The lawyer answers his own question about how to inherit eternal life, and the first part of the answer was: 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.
Love of God actually precedes love of neighbor in his answer. Just as ‘having mercy’ preceded the Samaritan’s actions. I believe they are tied together. The practice of stilling ourselves, quieting our mind, and turning off the ever-present distractions is necessary. The habit of reminding ourselves of God’s presence with us can change us. It can transform us into neighbors, people who see the person in need and respond. The Samaritan stops to help the one person in need who crosses his path. He responds with compassion rather than suspicion. May we go and do likewise.