April 29, 2020
While teaching one day, Jesus was asked by an expert in the Jewish law codes ‘what is the most important commandment.’ His answer was to repeat the Old Testament summary of the 10 Commandments: Love God with all your being and love your neighbor as yourself. This prompted another question: Who is your neighbor? Neither of these questions was unique among the ancient Jews. Rabbis had been arguing over these sorts of matters for centuries. In particular, the neighbor question was one of the 7 most hotly debated religious topics of the era. There were two opposing perspectives. The most religiously conservative rabbis said that your fellow Jews were your neighbors, while the most liberal argues that neighbors included other groups, including the Romans, who were the conquering nation that was occupying Israel at the time. One thing both sides agreed on was that Samaritans were not your neighbor. The Samaritans were the people who lived in the area to the northern part of Israel. They were made up of folks who were the remnants of the Jewish people who had split off fromIsrael. They formed a new religion that took the Jewish faith and mixed it with the paganism of the surrounding people. Jews hated Samaritans. A good Jew would cross the street and spit on the ground as he passed a Samaritan in public. If a Jew traveled through Samaria, which shortened a lot of common trips, he would carefully shake the dust off his feet when he got to the border so that Samaritan dirt didn’t sully Israel. So, when Jesus answered the question about neighbors, he told a story about a man who was traveling and got robbed, beaten, and left for dead. As he is lying on the side of the road, he is passed by a couple of folks who were professional religious folks. Both crossed to the other side of the road to avoid touching the traveler, mainly because if they did touch him and he died, they’d be ritualistically unclean and not able to go to work for a week. They probably decided that serving God was more important than saving the man. The third fellow who passed the dying man was a Samaritan, who tended his wounds and took him to an inn to recover. The Samaritan then paid for the man’s stay and promised to pay any extra expenses incurred in the future. Jesus concludes the story of the Good Samaritan by asking who was the neighbor to the dying man. The teacher of the law is so offended by the story that he can’t even say: the Samaritan. Instead, he replies that the neighbor was the man who helped. The story of the Good Samaritan is well known, but without the historical context, its meaning is easily lost. Jesus’ point in the story is that your neighbor isn’t just the people who you are allied with, those who agree with you, or the folks who can be problematic sometimes. Your neighbor is everybody. This is especially true when we look at folks who are completely unlike us in ways that infuriate us. Loving your neighbor as yourself means loving the people on the opposite end of the political spectrum who seem too dumb or deceived to be looked at with anything but contempt. Followers of Jesus are not given the luxury of saying: I’ll love everyone except those guys. Instead, we are commanded to love our neighbors and pray for those who persecute us. We are literally supposed to love people who are evil toward us and pray for them. Easily the best example of this is when Jesus who prayed for God to forgive the folks who were crucifying him. This is especially important right now since emotions are running extra hot between ideological opponents in our country. We are told that our political opposites are ignorant, selfish, evil, and even subhuman. A follower of Jesus is called to recognize that this is not in harmony with what God called us to be as His people. You cannot love your neighbor and tell people how awful they are at the same time. There are all sorts of folks opining about how to heal the great divides in our culture. The teachings of Jesus point us toward grace and love as the solution. Jesus said that folks would know his disciples by their love for one another. I would suggest that this is the time when they should also know we are his disciples by our love for our enemies. We must be different than the world and in doing so, shine a light for Christ with our actions.