Years ago my friend Mother Holly Davis and I were traveling in northwestern Pennsylvania when in dawned on us that we were, to put it lightly, lost. We weren’t even that far from where we wanted to be, but in northwestern Pennsylvania, not that far is pretty far, if you know what I mean. So when Holly and I saw a 7-11 sign glowing in the dusky distance, we considered it a welcome sight indeed. So we go in and Holly immediately starts looking for pistachios, because she is a great lover of the nut and the process inherent to shelling them when you have little else to do. We couldn’t find a bag, however, and so I asked the girl at the counter where I might find some. “I haven’t seen a pistachio in a long time,” said the 7-11 counter girl, with a seriousness that exceeded the gravity of the situation.
If you were able to ask a first century Jew about good Samaritans, they might say “ I haven’t seen a good Samaritan in a long time.” Jews and Samaritans didn’t mix; Jews didn’t even walk through Samaria, despite the fact that Samaria was right next door and technically on the way to just about anywhere one might want to go.
Jews and Samaritans, despite coming from the same basic stock, didn’t think much of one another; they have a long history of separation. “According to biblical tradition, the region known as Samaria was captured by the Israelites from the Canaanites and was assigned to the Tribe of Joseph. After the death of King Solomon (c.931 BC), the northern tribes, including those of Samaria, separated from the southern tribes and established the separate kingdom of Israel…The region was conquered by the Assyrians in c. 722 BC, and reportedly much of its population was taken into captivity and deported. In AD 6 the region became part of the Roman province of Judaea, after the death of king Herod the Great. Over time, the region has been controlled by numerous different civilizations, including Israelites, Babylonians, the classical Persian Empire, Ancient Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Crusaders, and Ottoman Turks.”1
They became a separate people from the Jews, but here’s the rub: the Samaritans “assert their worship is the true religion of the ancient Israelites prior to the Babylonian Exile, preserved by those who remained in the Land of Israel, as opposed to Judaism, which they assert is a related but altered and amended religion, brought back by those returning from the Babylonian exile.”2
The Jews, of course, hated this, and the word Samaritan became a catch all not for all that is bad, but for all that is almost good. In many ways, this is much worse than being bad, for almost good can fool you into thinking it’s good, and then lead you astray (that’s essentially the definition of heresy, by the way).
We care about any of this because a young lawyer once asked Jesus a deep question. After the easy question gets answered, the tough one is put forth: “And who is my neighbor?” Wow. That’s a tougher question than we give him credit for, given that since the fall of man we have done our best to make sure we have clear lines that delineate us from those around us, me versus you, us versus them.
Jesus answers the lawyer’s question indirectly (everyone is our neighbor, literally everyone with whom we come into contact), but then, as was His wont, Jesus answers a question the lawyer didn’t ask.
Jesus answers the question Who is my neighbor? With, essentially, Be a neighbor. Like pistachios in northwestern Pennsylvania, maybe we haven’t seen a true neighbor in a long time, so Jesus tells us how to be a neighbor. Be the neighbor, Jesus says, who thinks of those around him not as potential enemies, but as potential friends. Be the neighbor who takes care of her property not so that those around her might be envious, but so that they might have something beautiful to behold. Be the neighbor who, like the Good Samaritan, has compassion, who binds up wounds, who uses their resources on behalf of others. Be the neighbor,then, who sees others as Christ sees them, valuable enough to die for.