Who Is Your Neighbor?

The term good Samaritan means someone who helps a stranger in need. It derives from the parable contained in today’s reading from Luke 10. A man had been beaten, robbed and left for dead on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. Both a priest and a Levite—members of Israel’s “clerical” class, perhaps returning from their service at the Temple—pass him by without doing anything. Finally a Samaritan—someone whose credentials as a Jew were suspect—not only tends to the wounded man’s physical needs but even offers to pay his expenses. Thus this “foreigner” does more than anyone might have imagined.

Today’s Gospel passage features several characters. The first is a scholar of the Law (a scribe, expert in the Jewish Law), who asks Jesus for a concise summary of the Old Testament Law. He answers his own question (and anticipates Jesus’ answer) by citing love of God (Deut 6:4-5) and love of neighbor (Lev 19:18) as the great commandment. Then he asks another question (“And who is my neighbor?”), to which he receives an answer from Jesus in parable form that may well have surprised and disturbed him.

As we enter the parable we note the two “clerics” (the priest and the Levite) who pass by the injured man without trying to help him. It is easy enough for us to identify with them. And just when the scholar of the Law probably expects the third traveler to be a Jewish layman (in a kind of anticlerical joke), we get the heroic and compassionate good Samaritan. The one character who is present in the parable from beginning to end, however, is the wounded man. The priest, the Levite and the Samaritan come and go. The good Samaritan interacts with the wounded man, while the other two fail to do so. When we identify with the wounded man as the central character, we may get the more basic but subtle point of Jesus’ parable.

Have you ever found yourself in a bad or dangerous situation when you desperately needed help? Perhaps it was car trouble or a fainting spell on the street or being in a fire. Imagine yourself in such a dangerous situation and ask yourself the scribe’s question, “And who is my neighbor?” Your answer would most likely be what the scribe’s answer was, “Anyone willing to help me.” In a real crisis we are not likely to be discriminating about who might come to our aid. Through Jesus’ parable the scribe is led to put aside his prejudices against Samaritans and to admit that in the case of the wounded man his neighbor would be anyone who acts mercifully. When we place ourselves alongside the man left for dead by the road, we too can let our prejudices about religion, race or anything else melt away as we look only for mercy and compassion from whoever might stop to help us. Then (and perhaps only then) are we able to accept the final challenge that Jesus poses to us all: Follow the example of the good Samaritan; “Go and do likewise.” Praying With Scripture

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