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Who is my neighbor?

One day as Jesus is teaching, an “expert in the law” asks Jesus what He should do to get eternal life. That’s the same question most of us have. So Jesus gives a simple answer: love God with your full self and love your neighbor as yourself. The man quickly replies, “And who is my neighbor?”
So Jesus tells a story:

A man traveling on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho is robbed, stripped, and left for dead on the side of the road. It was a steep road – it descended 3000+ feet over the short distance of 17 miles. It was known as a really dangerous road because its winding pattern allowed thieves to easily hide out and jump unsuspecting travelers. It was so infamous that it was sometimes referred to as the "Way of Blood". Anyway, Jesus’ listeners knew the road well.

So, a priest that happens to be passing by sees the man lying on the side of the road and doesn’t stop. In Jesus' culture, touching a dead body made you ‘unclean’ and priests were especially careful about remaining ‘clean’ because of their role in the temple. Then a second well-respected man passes by and refuses to stop – perhaps also assuming that the man is already dead. Jesus never states their reasons for not stopping, but makes it obvious that their “purity” mattered more to them than this human being in need. So Jesus points this rhetorical question straight at the so called ‘expert in the law’: did the priest and Levite actually obey the law by maintaining their ceremonial purity or did they completely miss the point of the law by refusing to stop?

While that question is still dancing around in the minds of His audience, Jesus introduces a third traveler to the story. And no one saw this twist in the story coming. The next traveler is a Samaritan. AND the Samaritan actually stops to help and eventually sets this man on the road to recovery. I’ve tried hard to come up with a modern parallel illustration that would be as offensive to our ear as this one is – I thought of “terrorist”. And while it’s a terrible parallel, it does the job of communicating the true disgust that Jews had for Samaritans. It would have been an awkward moment for everyone listening; hearts would have been racing at this twist. The harsh feeling of conviction would have been overwhelming in the moment as each listener had to come to grips with the fact that they had a deep resentment toward Samaritans that wouldn’t allow them to love them – Jesus simply says, “The guy you hate is your neighbor”.

Jesus is such a brilliant teacher because he simultaneously does 2 things with the story:

First, he gives an illustration of what it means to love your neighbor. The choice each traveler faced would have been a difficult for anyone that knew the road. If you do stop, you run the risk of being mugged. Maybe this guy is acting and it’s a setup, an ambush. Have you ever been in a rough area where you feel like you’re in danger and wanted to get out as quickly as possible? That’s the feeling these passerby’s must have felt. But I’ve heard it said that while the Priest and the Levite were busy answering the question, “what will happen to me if I stop to help this man?” the Samaritan was busy answering the question, “what will happen to this man if I don’t stop?”

Second, he communicates to the “expert in the law” that he doesn’t love his neighbor by exposing his hate for Samaritans. The person we are least likely to love because of what our surrounding culture says about them is our neighbor. The person we can’t stand to think might have good intentions is our neighbor. The girl who sleeps around is your neighbor. The co-worker that is always stirring up drama about you is your neighbor. The guy who is only interested in getting some is your neighbor. The mom that hasn’t been there for you the way you need her to be is your neighbor. The man or woman that hasn’t been faithful is your neighbor. The Muslim, Buddhist, and atheist are your neighbor. The homosexual is your neighbor. The girl who had an abortion is your neighbor.

So, Jesus asks each of us a question that none of us want to answer: who is the neighbor you haven’t been loving? We have to answer it. And how can you begin to practically show the love of God to them?


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