Few have been as honest as the lawyer is about his strong desire to define the word “neighbor.” He longs for a response that will let him limit who he is required to love. As Dr. King once put it, Jesus “pulled” the lawyer’s question “from mid-air, and placed it on a dangerous curve between Jerusalem and Jericho.”
In the lawyer’s Torah, “neighbor” was a term restricted to fellow Israelites who shared a similar identity and a common border; this was a racially, ethnically, nationally, geographically, and religiously determined category. What the lawyer is really asking Jesus is, “Who is not my neighbor?” Who can I exclude from this category? Where do I draw the line? Who do I not have to love? Who can I ignore? If Anne Lamott had lived in the lawyer’s day, she would have raised her hand to warn the lawyer: “You can safely assume that you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”
Jesus introduces two people to his story, the priest and the Levite. They are traveling on “the dangerous curve of the road” where a fellow traveler has been beaten, stripped, robbed of his possessions and health and dignity, and left to die. When they see the wounded man, they choose indifference over compassion, deny the man’s humanity, and let him lie beside the road as if he’s meaningless. They pass on the other side, thinking only of themselves.
These two know the law about love, but they don’t act on it. When they pass to the other side of the road, they pass on the life-giving experience at the heart of Jesus’ story.
Who do you know who has needed a neighbor for a long time? How could you draw nearer to them?
“Jesu, Jesu, fill us with your love, show us how to serve, the neighbors we have from you.”
(Ghana folk song, CHEREPONI)