Who Is My Neighbor?

“Dear Prudence,” someone wrote in a recent advice column. “I have a great group of friends with big dreams to change the world. We’re also all woefully underemployed – working freelance, at nonprofits, or as adjuncts.... As one of the few who has managed to get some job traction, I’m subject to an onslaught of GoFundMe, Kickstarter, and Fundly campaigns to finance my friends’ big dreams of launching startups and foundations to increase the social good.... Ah, for the good old days of, ‘Sorry, I gave at the office.’”

In the networked world of the 21st century, cries for help can become overwhelming. GoFundMe, the world’s foremost fundraising website, contains millions of projects: everything from underprivileged students trying to go to school and people with overwhelming medical bills to families who have lost their homes to fire and teenagers trying to go on mission trips. Every time we turn on the TV or log in to Facebook or Twitter, it seems like we’re faced with new crises. Refugees need basic food and shelter. Survivors of earthquakes and floods need medical care. Kids need school supplies. Drug addicts need rehabilitation programs. How can we possibly help them all? With 1.59 billion active users, Facebook is the equivalent of the third largest country in the world, putting billions of people – and their corresponding needs – at our fingertips.

In Luke 10:29-37 you’ll find what may be Jesus’ most famous parable: the Parable of the Good Samaritan. A man quotes the law to Jesus – you shall love your neighbor as yourself – and then asks him: “Who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29 ESV). As usual, Jesus answers with a story. A man is mugged and left for dead by the side of the road, and a priest and a Levite, both prominent religious leaders, pass him by without helping him. Then a Samaritan stops despite the risk of being attacked himself, tends the man’s wounds, and takes him to an inn to receive care at his personal expense.

Jesus finishes his story by asking the man the same question: “Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” (10:36). His listener won’t even say the word “Samaritan” aloud. “The one who showed him mercy,” he says (v. 37). You can imagine the sparkle in Jesus’ eye as he gently says “You go, and do likewise.”

At first glance, the message of The Good Samaritan seems simple: when you see someone in need, help them. It’s a theme that we’ve seen again and again throughout the gospels, forming the backbone of Jesus’ ministry. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Have compassion. Serve the people that you see hurting.

In the twenty-first century, however, this compulsion to help others becomes more complicated. How are we supposed to react when we can see the pain and suffering of the homeless on our city streets and in earthquake-stricken Haiti or tsunami-devastated Indonesia? When we can see anyone’s suffering, is everyone our neighbor?

In the summer of 2014, novelist John Green traveled to Ethiopia with Bill and Melinda Gates of the Gates Foundation to raise awareness about efforts to reduce infant mortality and improve maternal health.

While individual situations are unique, John argues, we all have a responsibility to care and to help. These aren’t someone else’s babies dying; they’re the world’s babies.

In the contemporary world of global citizenship and seemingly endless information, how far does the net of “neighbor” reach? Are we responsible to know about every crisis or need in the world? How can we possibly help everyone? If we can’t, how can we decide who to help and who to leave to others?

Talk Back:

  • Several states and countries have what are known as “Good Samaritan laws,” which prevent people from being sued for aid they provided in emergency situations. A few states also have “duty to rescue” laws, which require people to help in the event of a crisis. These are also classed as “Good Samaritan” laws. Which of these do you think more reflect the original parable?
  • Observe the conversation between Jesus and the lawyer in 10:25-29. What do you think it means when it says that that man “wanted to justify himself?” What exactly did he need to justify?
    • Was there something contained in Jesus’ instructions that he did not want to do?
  • Does Jesus actually answer the question about who counts as a neighbor? What matters more to Jesus: being able to identify who your neighbor is, or deciding to be a good neighbor to anyone you see in need?
  • The story of the Good Samaritan contains an additional layer of significance that we often miss while reading it in the modern world. In the Old Testament era, the nation of Israel was split in half. Two of the twelve tribes - Benjamin and Judah, were located in the south and were often simply called “Judah” - from which we get the word “Jews”. The other ten tribes lived in the north and were collectively referred to as “Israel”. The capital of Judah was Jerusalem, and the capital of Israel was a city called Samaria. Babylon and Assyria came and took the Israelites and Jews away into captivity. After this exile, the Jews returned to rebuild Jerusalem and re-establish life in their homeland. The Samaritans and Judeans began to have very tense relationships, and even fought against each other at various points. The Judeans rejected the Samaritan religion, which was a modified version of Judaism. The general understanding was that the Samaritan religion could not make someone a true Jew/Israelite. Samaritans were seen as unfaithful to God’s truth. Extreme distrust existed between the two groups, to the point that they did not any longer recognize each other as being ethnically related, but instead as two separate ethnicities.
    • How does this background knowledge affect your understanding of the parable? What would the Jewish audience assume about a Samaritan’s moral character? Why is Jesus’ portrayal of a good Samaritan so shocking?
  • The text specifies two specific people who pass by the injured man on the road without helping him. Both of them were religious figures who should have been good moral examples - a priest and a Levite. What’s the difference between a priest and a Levite? Were they like modern pastors, or something different? Read the following verses for clarification:
  • Why would a priest or a Levite not be eager to touch an injured and possibly bleeding body? What does this possibly say about Jesus’ attitudes towards ritual purity?

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