One of the ways we protect ourselves from the subversive and uncomfortable challenge of the Scriptures is by becoming so familiar with them that they no longer touch us. Through telling and retelling the stories, with the emphasis placed on the parts that are least offensive, we slowly build up an immunity to the virus of Christ-likeness with which they seek to infect us. And no where have we done this work so effectively as with the Parable of the Good Samaritan.
To upgrade this parable and try to restore some of its power to shock and subvert, we could, perhaps, replace the word Samaritan with whatever category of person we find most offensive. For some that would mean thinking of this as the parable of the Good Al Qaida terrorist. For others it might be the parable of the Good Capitalist, or the Parable of the Good Colonialist, or the Parable of the Good Gay Pride Protester. Essentially it’s a question of inserting the face of whatever stereotype we employ to sustain our suspicion and hatred of another people group. But, be careful if you choose to take up this challenge, because once you have, the parable will leave you with no excuses, and all of your carefully constructed barriers to seeing the humanity of these other people will come crumbling down.
It must never be forgotten that this parable was told by Jesus in response to the question, “Who is my neighbour?” asked by a legal expert who had previously asked Jesus which commandment was the greatest. Jesus answer to the first question was what we now know as the Great Commandment – love God with your whole self, and love your neighbour as you love your whole self. The legal expert’s response is much what I suspect most of us would have offered – an attempt to narrow down the boundaries of love. Once our neighbour is defined for us, we can draw clear and uncrossable lines between those who are worthy (neighbourly enough) to be loved and those who aren’t. But, Jesus does not allow us this loophole.
The crux of the parable is in how Jesus frames the final question, after describing the way the Samaritan had treated the Jewish man who, under normal circumstances, would have been his enemy. The question Jesus asks is “Who was a neighbour to the wounded man?” This turns the whole teaching around, because now being a neighbour is a choice, and it is reflected in our behaviour.
For Jesus neighbourliness is not a matter of geography, nationality, or proximity. It is not something that happens to us – we do not just become neighbours by force of circumstance. Rather, we choose to become neighbours, and to those whom we have chosen to be a neighbour, we are instructed to offer the same love we give to ourselves – the same concern for sufficient food and shelter, the same desire for comfort and joy, the same need for protection and security.
Here is where things get uncomfortable. If we have both a choice and a responsibility in this neighbourliness transaction, then there is no one who is not potentially our neighbour. All we have to do is choose to be a neighbour to someone, and they are automatically, as far as we are concerned, our neighbour – and they are automatically, then, deserving of our love. So, if we are going to engage with this parable this week, as the Lectionary suggests, we will need to face a tough question for ourselves: To whom, among those people we love to stereotype and hate, will we choose to be a neighbour? And, consequently, to whom do we still believe we can justify denying our love? (Clue: Jesus’ answer to the former question is “everyone” and, to the latter, “no one”).