Who Is My Neighbor?

But he, wanting to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29)

I can’t claim to have really followed the Chick-Fil-A debacle. I’m not the sort who pays a lot of attention to boycotts or their opposite. And, given that much of my family has celiac disease, we don’t really frequent any sort of fast food establishment. Nevertheless, I have a twitter account and I read quite a few blogs, so I naturally heard some of the back and forth. Throughout it all the expert in the Jewish law’s question to Jesus has been running through my mind. Clearly, from his earlier answer, the man understood that Jesus was teaching that we could only love God to the extent that we are willing to love our neighbor as ourselves. It wasn’t a love God first and then as a secondary command love others. Rather, it was one command intertwined and inseparable.

Almost everyone, Christian or not, has heard about Jesus’ parable in response. We even have “Good Samaritan” laws named after it. And over the years, I’ve heard a lot of discussion about that parable. Much of it has been good and highlighted important aspects about human interactions. But I think most of what I’ve heard over the years has missed one of the key aspects of the parable.

As a response to the lawyer’s question, the parable of the Good Samaritan reads to me like a sharp rebuke. Jesus is telling the lawyer that he’s asking the wrong question for the wrong reasons. When we ask, “Who is my neighbor?” we are all in truth asking who we don’t have to love. And we are doing so by trying to group people into categories. And in response to that question, Jesus tells a story of a man who encounters a stranger who needs him — a stranger who in other circumstances probably would have despised and avoided the Samaritan — and who without hesitation or condition meets the needs of that stranger.

Whenever we ask “Who is my neighbor?” we have already stepped away from the way of life onto the way of death. The question itself indicates we want the escape clause. We want to know who we are allowed to hate. Oh, we dress it up and rationalize it in all sorts of ways; some of them are even pretty convincing.

Jesus will have none of it, though.

So who are really trying to fool? Ourselves? Are we simply attempting to justify our refusal to follow Jesus, the one we often falsely call “Lord“?

This incident is just one of many, of course. We see it every time Christians other Muslims. (Has anyone ever gotten one of those fear-mongering emails about Muslims trying to turn America into an Islamic state under sharia law from anyone other than a Christian?) We see it when a white church refuses to allow the scheduled wedding of a black couple on its premises. And we see it in this most recent dust-up, which has never really been about fast food chicken nuggets and sandwiches.

Jesus tells us in the parable the question we should instead be asking:

Who will be my neighbor today?

Out of those I know, those I will meet, or the strangers whose paths will cross mine, who will need me today? Who can I serve? Who can I help, even if only by my presence and support? Who will I be given the opportunity to love today?

Because ultimately it’s not about groups. It’s not about categories. It’s not even about generic statements that we should somehow abstractly love everyone (though that’s better than abstractly hating them, I suppose). Instead it’s about loving the individual human beings, each beloved by God, who need our love today. And the moment we ask who we have to love and who we don’t, we’ve turned our backs on Jesus. It’s really as simple and as hard as that.

And please don’t misunderstand me. I understand how hard it is. There are individuals I struggle not to hate, much less love. And there are groups (like the modern nativistic, racist GOP element) I want to other as a group, to make into a group I’m excused from loving. Like everyone else, I want to love those who love me and hate those who hate me. Christianity is hard. If anyone ever told you it was easy, they lied. But in the long run, it’s much harder, or at least more destructive, to hate.

Richard Beck has a follow-up to an earlier post in which evidence seems to show that evangelicalism is actually structured to allowed people to perceive themselves as more loving when in reality, even on a self-assessment, according to specific criteria members of that group actually aren’t more loving at all.

Fred Rogers really had it right, I think. Won’t you be my neighbor?

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8w9xk4hUKoQ
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