On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?” He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.” But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’ Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.” Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.” (Luke 10:25-37)
The question the man asks Jesus is very direct: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” We could translate this: what could I do to be really alive, so that my life is not a life for death, but a life for life, a life for ever? Jesus’ reply calls upon the abilities of this man, who is an expert in the law, in other words a specialist in Scripture: “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” The man answers by associating two Bible passages. The first part, on loving God, comes from the Book of Deuteronomy (6:5). The second, love your neighbor, comes from the Book of Leviticus (19:18). Though the texts are well-known, putting them together is original. The man makes one flow into the another. The word “love” is not repeated twice, as we might expect, but just once. Loving one’s neighbor is therefore not a second reality added to the first. God and one’s neighbor are part of one and the same movement, the same love. And so Jesus congratulates the man. This is what is essential in order to find true life.
But the man does not stop there. “And who is my neighbor?” he asks. The world in which Jesus lived was already a multicultural world. In the Roman Empire, peoples, cultures and religions were mixed. But it is probable that the answer to this question would have been evident, in any case for many people at that time: my neighbor is first of all a member of my own people. Although I should respect foreigners, and even offer them hospitality, they remain foreigners; they are not “my neighbors.”
Jesus replies by a parable. An anonymous traveler, alone and defenseless, is beaten and left for dead. Two people pass by and leave him to his fate. Why did the priest and the Levite not stop? Were they afraid? Did they think the man was already dead and therefore impure? The road from Jerusalem to Jericho was 25 kilometers long. It passed through an almost uninhabited region and was known for its bandits. Who would not have been afraid? In contrast the Samaritan seems totally unworried. He is filled with pity at what he sees. The text expresses a dilemma that we all experience: being caught between our good intentions and our fears.
All we know about this man is that he is a Samaritan, in other words, an inhabitant of Samaria, a neighboring country hostile to the Jewish people. When Saint John describes the meeting between Jesus and a Samaritan woman beside a well, he simply says, “Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.” This man is thus not only a non-Jew. He is something worse than that—a member of a nation considered as unacceptable.
In the parable, the kindness does not come from the Levite or the priest—they are the ones who should recognize the wounded man as their neighbor—but from an unknown person from whom no sympathy would be expected. True kindness is always something unexpected. It does not belong to us. It belongs to God; it is everyone’s and meant for everyone. Look at the accumulation of details that the story gives, all the things the Samaritan does for the wounded traveler. He bandages his wounds, put the man on his donkey, brings him to an inn and takes care of him during the night. The next day he leaves money with the innkeeper, two denarii—two days’ salary for a worker in those days—and says he will return. He knows how to give without calculating, and no one sees him to praise him except the innkeeper. The parable causes us to see all these acts so that we can recognize ourselves in them: healing, transporting, watching over, giving, returning….
Then Jesus says, “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” The man answers, “The one who had mercy on him.” Jesus says, “Go and do likewise.” The conversation is subtle. The expert in the Law does not speak of the “Samaritan” but of “the one who had mercy.” He no longer sees a Samaritan and a Jew; he simply sees one person who did good and another who was needy.
Compared to the beginning of the story the question has changed. At the end, Jesus does not ask the expert in the Law “who is my neighbor?” but “who was the neighbor of the man attacked by robbers?” The perspective is reversed. One can no longer ask who is my neighbor and who is not. I no longer try to divide those I meet into two groups. Instead, I ask myself: am I acting as a neighbor? Am I a neighbor? Wanting to know who should be loved and who should not be loved, is that really love? To love in the steps of Christ, must we not let love take all the space, all the breadth it requires?
What aspects of the conversation and the parable especially strike me? Why?
Becoming a neighbor: what does that imply?
If I transposed this story into the circumstances of the world today, what would it look like?