My neighbor, my enemy

RCL Year C, Proper 10

I can’t think of a parable more familiar than this one we just heard, the Good Samaritan. It is a story that has become so much a part of our common culture that we even have so-called ‘Good Samaritan laws’ protecting those who help others from being held liable for any harm that might happen along the way. We usually read it in a pretty straightforward way, as a call to us as Christians to be altruistic and universally kind in taking care of other people. The parable of the Good Samaritan is all about helping other people, in other words, and so we are reminded in hearing the story again today that helping people is a good thing. You can all stop reading now.

But, like all parables, this one is not really all that straightforward. Parables are complicated. They’re not simply allegories with a pithy moral at the end – they tend to take the assumptions and beliefs of their listeners and turn them on end. Sometimes they’re frustrating or even enraging. A parable that leaves us feeling comfortable, in other words, is a parable we haven’t listened to very well. And the Good Samaritan is no exception.

First of all, it pushes our buttons about actually acting instead of just discussing. A lawyer comes up to Jesus and asks him a question to test him, but not, it seems because he really wants to know the answer and follow the advice. It’s easier to debate ideas than to act, after all. But Jesus doesn’t let him do that. To the lawyer’s first question, ‘What must I do to inherit eternal life?’ Jesus simply asks a question in return, ‘What do you see written in the law?’ The lawyer answers with the famous summary, ‘Love God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.’ And Jesus says, ‘Right,’ and turns to go. But feeling frustrated in his attempt to ‘get’ Jesus somehow, the lawyer pushes further: ‘Well, then, who is my neighbor?’ And so Jesus answers with the parable, and at the end of it, reverses the lawyer’s question by asking, ‘Who was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ The lawyer is forced into answering that it must be the Samaritan, ‘the one who showed mercy,’ and Jesus responds, ‘Go and do likewise.’ One wonders whether the lawyer really does anything of the sort.

But the other problem is, the parable doesn’t really answer the question, or not the one the lawyer is really asking. The lawyer wants to know what a good Jew should do, and he wants it clearly spelled out to whom he should do it. If he’s supposed to love his neighbor, then he wants to know how far that neighborhood extends. But Jesus’ parable is tricky: he begins with the victim who falls into the hands of robbers, so our sympathy is of course with this person at first – and we react to the heartlessness of the priest and the Levite who walk by without turning aside. Typical clergy, Jesus’ listeners might mutter. But then along comes the Samaritan, one of the despised half-breeds of the north, a people the Jews love to hate. And subtly, the telling of the story shifts so that we begin to identify with that person as he stops, comes to the man, and rescues him from the ditch. The Samaritan, we are told, is the one who acts like a neighbor. Jesus says, go and do likewise.

Well, wait a minute, the lawyer must be asking. Do likewise? like whom, exactly? I asked how to follow the law, and you tell me this disgusting Samaritan who doesn’t follow the law should be my model? Or are you telling me that I’m supposed to take the man lying in the ditch as my model?  Who is it that I am supposed to be in this story?

But there is no answer to the lawyer’s confusion. Who is my neighbor? Literally speaking, a neighbor is one who is near, one who is close by. So we are to love the one who is close by to us. In the parable, the priest and the Levite don’t come close – they pass by on the other side of the road, far away from the beaten man. But the Samaritan has pity and comes near. The despised one in the story is the one who comes near, is a real neighbor, and shows mercy. The beaten man is helpless to resist. The Samaritan, the enemy, is the instrument of grace and healing, and the beaten man can’t help but receive this mercy.

That’s the thing of it – the one who comes near may not be the one we want near us. We may not even want to acknowledge we need the help. There’s a wonderful story in a book by the writer Ian Frazier, a book called On the Rez about life on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. The story is about a high school student named SuAnne Big Crow, a wonderful loving high-achieving girl who is also the star of the high school basketball team. Every time the team plays a certain other team, white kids from off the reservation, that team makes fun of them. They make Indian war whoops and shout things like, ‘Where’s your tomahawk?’ whenever the Pine Ridge team comes on the court. One day SuAnne insists on leading her team out onto the court – and then stops suddenly in the middle. She takes off her warm-up jacket, drapes it over her shoulders, and begins to do the Lakota shawl dance, a traditional young woman’s dance. She performs the whole beautiful dance in silence, and the arena is completely still. Then she grabs the ball, dribbles it to the hoop, and does a perfect lay-up. The whole gym erupts into wild applause – and from that day on, when those two teams play each other, there is no more of that horrible taunting.

Those white kids didn’t know they needed help. They didn’t see that they were being racist and bigoted – it was just part of their group way of being. It took their enemy, a girl from the rez, to show them – in an act of grace and generosity, she gave them the best of her culture, and showed them how wrong they were about her and her people. They learned something that day – they were healed, by one they despised, of a sickness they didn’t even know they had. SuAnne Big Crow, it turned out, was their neighbor.

So who is my neighbor, who is the one who is near?  My neighbor is the one I can’t stand who has come to help me in my time of need. My neighbor is the one who disgusts me but who needs my help. My neighbor may be my own worst enemy, yet somehow the only one who can really help me. We know we need other people – but the parable tells us that not only do we need other people, we need the people we’d really rather avoid.  And most of all, we need God, even when we think we have it made all on our own, that we’re totally sufficient to ourselves. Jesus is asking the lawyer, Do you have to be beaten and left for dead before you realize this? Or can you really do as you say, love God with all your heart, and love your neighbor as yourself?

Loving is not simply a fulfilling of duties to another in order to get somewhere, as the lawyer was hoping. Loving demands that we be vulnerable ourselves, that we recognize our own need and dependence on mercy and grace. We can’t love God and our neighbor without allowing them to love us too – without realizing that we need help as much as anyone else. God comes near us when we would rather he didn’t, our own worst enemy, the one who knows us so completely that she knows our unworthiness, knows us and shows us ourselves in the truest and most painful light possible. God comes near us because we need mercy; we know God’s nearness most acutely when we know we need that mercy. And it is this mercy and grace that heals us, that strengthens us to live lives worthy of God, bearing fruit in every good work, being neighbors, coming near, to all whom we meet on the way. Who is my neighbor? the one who shows me mercy; and the one to whom I show mercy.  Go and do likewise.