Pentecost 8

A Samaritan scholar once said, “We Samaritans and you Jews are both heirs of the ancient Israelite tradition.  We Samaritans carry the authentic tradition, whereas you who have lived to the south of us are the heretics.  The Torah says nothing about a temple in Jerusalem.  Deuteronomy speaks about worshiping in ‘the place where I will cause my name to dwell.’  We know where that is—Shechem and Mt. Gerizim.”[1]


There is nothing particularly shocking about that statement, outside of the fact that it was made only a few years ago and it was made to an audience at the Omaha Jewish Community Center.  No one there was shocked, as this quarrel between Jews and Samaritans is now twenty-six centuries old. 


Just a couple weeks ago we heard about Jesus and His followers traveling through the region of the Samaritans on their way to Jerusalem, and apparently the Samaritans treated them so badly that James and John asked Jesus if they could call fire down from heaven to consume their tormentors.  To the “Samaritans, a group of Jewish Galileans on their way to worship in Jerusalem was a group of heretics acting out their heresy; the Galileans were crossing Samaritan turf for the wrong reason and therefore deserved not hospitality but contempt.”[2]


And so it must have come as quite the surprise when not long after all of this, Jesus told a parable about a good Samaritan.  To His disciples and to any good Jew, such a concept was mind-blowing. 


The parable itself was a response to a question from a Jewish lawyer, but first we have to remember that this wasn’t an innocent question so much as it was a test, and Luke is explicit about that.  The hope of the lawyer isn’t to get a decent answer but to shame Jesus by exposing Him as ignorant, to have the crowd find Jesus wanting.


Jesus, of course, knew the set up and as He so often did, took things much farther than was comfortable for the questioner, and in the end, for us.  The immediate answer we all know and hear at every Mass: “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.”  Easy, if easier said than done. 


Then comes the lawyer’s issue: Who is my neighbor?  Jesus responds with the parable of the Good Samaritan, a parable that we have grown perhaps too accustomed to, but actually turned the lawyer’s question and the whole world on its head. 


This is because Jesus didn’t answer the question; Jesus told a story.  The story of a nameless, faceless person, molested and left to die, then ignored by all who pass by.  Did those passersby have good reason to ignore him?  Sure.  Who really wants to touch what might be a dead body?  What if another passerby thinks I’m the one who did this to him?  Do I really want to take responsibility for this guy?  Why do I have to be the one to spend time and money on all this?  It’s not my job.


But then Jesus tells the story we know so well; He took the issue of the passive Who is my neighbor, and returned it in the active: Who do you think was neighbor to him who fell among the thieves?


In other words, To whom must you become a neighbor?  That’s our question for today, because Who is my neighbor is too easy of a question, for everyone has been created in the image of God, everyone is our neighbor.  The real question, Jesus points out, is Are you a neighbor?  Are you acting in love as a neighbor ought?


Because this is what being a neighbor looks like: it looks like looking upon everyone you meet, regardless of faith or tribe, as a person worthy of dignity and compassion; a person you are willing to take risks for, the risk of rejection or humiliation or worse; it looks like regarding those who are different or even repugnant, even your worst enemy, as a member of the family.  It’s literally our job.


That’s no easier now than when Jesus told this parable, but the bar hasn’t been lowered.  So who could we be neighbors to today?

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