Who is my neighbor?

Laurel M. Bunker

Vice President, Bethel University

Point Magazine // September 2020

The Gospel of Luke chronicles one of the most familiar and preached passages in all of Scripture, The Parable of the Good Samaritan. Beginning in Luke 10:27, we find Jesus interacting with an individual previously described as “an expert in the law” (v. 25). For those unfamiliar with such a person, an “expert in the law” was akin to a Th.D. (Doctor of Theology), an extraordinarily learned individual tasked with interpreting and applying the law for the Jewish community.

Lawyers were highly regarded individuals, trusted for their scholarship and admired for their wisdom and adherence to the Jewish scripture. However, these learned individuals, like any of us with gifts that go unchecked or uncontested, could also become arrogant and comfortable in their own knowledge and not live the words they spoke.
As we join the story, we encounter such a man, a keeper and interpreter of the law, who, according to the Word of God, “stood up to test Jesus” (v. 25).

Pause for a moment. Luke does us the favor of painting a vivid picture with his pen, doesn’t he? Imagine the moment.
Jesus is most likely seated on a hillside or perched against a rock just a bit higher than the people who had walked in from nearby towns and villages to be taught by him. Then, as he is breaking the bread of life to these individuals, this teacher of the law stands up, drawing attention to himself and away from the teaching at hand.

As irritating as this would be to me, this was no surprise to Jesus. He was a master at handling disruptions.

Scripture tells us that in many instances, not only had the spiritually hungry gathered to listen to Jesus, but scribes, Pharisees and teachers of the law who, with folded arms, raised eyebrows and tight faces, sought to discredit his authority (Mt. 12:38-42; Mt. 16:1-4; Mt. 22:15-22; Mk. 8:11-12). In similar fashion, this teacher of the law was here to conduct spiritual business, not to listen or to learn from Jesus, but to contest his authority and question his interpretation of the law.

“Teacher,” said the lawyer, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (v. 25). Jesus did not answer the question, but instead asked him what he understood the law to say. I imagine the lawyer spoke with confidence as if the question were an easy one to answer.

“He answered, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’” (v. 27).

Jesus affirmed his correct answer but challenged him further in his application of his recitation.

“Do this and you will live” (vs. 28).
To be more specific, Jesus essentially challenged the man. His point: Live out what you say, and you will have more than life for eternity. You will zaō, or live a life overflowing with the presence of God.

Seeking to justify himself further, the lawyer challenged Jesus once again.

“And who is my neighbor?” (v. 29)

Who is my neighbor?

While it would be quite convenient to continue reading the Scripture and judge the lawyer harshly for his arrogant testing of the Master, let us instead take this moment to be self-reflective. If I am honest, as I hope that you will be, there have been times in my Christian walk where I have desired to determine the answer to Who is my neighbor? on my own terms.
In full fleshly disclosure, I admit that I want my “neighbor” to be people I like, who I can easily get along with, who have some level of commonality with me — people who mow their lawns and pull their weeds.
I want my neighbors to be people who I can exchange pleasantries with over the fence, borrow a cup of sugar from on occasion and whose rose bushes I can admire. I want neighbors who drive my property value up and not down because their loud partying or perhaps something much more volatile makes me call the authorities regularly.
I don’t want messy neighbors. But, my friends, that is not the world most of us live in, nor is constant comfortability and “over-the-fence” Christianity an impactful way to live.
We live in a messed-up, broken, sinful world, and you and I are a part of what has made it messy. Thank God for salvation! God sent his only son, Jesus Christ, into the world to save you and me from an eternity of hell and separation from him (Jn. 3:16-17).

Reconciliation is not going to happen on its own. We must be willing to engage the stranger, the broken, the lost, the confused, the forlorn, the sin-laden and the desperate “other” that outside the love of God we have nothing in common with.

That is the good news. But Christ also calls us — as an extension of our newfound life and new identity in him — to lose our lives, so that we can find them fully in him (Lk. 9:24).
You and I have the privilege of being part of God’s family. But we also are called to live as God’s ambassadors, sharing the good news of the Kingdom and compelling others to be reconciled to him (2 Cor. 5:20).
Reconciliation is not going to happen on its own. We must be willing to engage the stranger, the broken, the lost, the confused, the forlorn, the sin-laden and the desperate “other” that outside the love of God we have nothing in common with.

The parable

In response to the lawyer’s question, Who is my neighbor? Jesus began to tell the parable of the Good Samaritan. I will not share it in its entirety here but will summarize the story and encourage you to go and read it again on your own.
In the parable, Jesus speaks of a man traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho, a 25-kilometer journey by foot or by donkey. As the man traveled the road, he was accosted, stripped, beaten and left for dead (v. 30).

As he lay severely injured on the roadside, a priest saw him, but crossed over to the other side, ignoring him and continuing on his journey (v. 31). The second man, a Levite, also saw the man but passed by him, disregarding his helpless estate (v. 32). The third man, a Samaritan, saw the man and “took pity on him” (v. 33).
The Scripture then tells us the Samaritan got down from his beast, bandaged the man’s wounds, placed the wounded traveler upon his own donkey, brought him to an inn and paid for the man’s care. Furthermore, the Samaritan vowed to return to check on the man and would pay for any additional expense incurred by the innkeeper while caring for him (v. 33-35).
Jesus ends the parable by asking one final question of the expert of the law: “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”
“The one who had mercy on him,” answered the lawyer. Jesus commanded him to go and do the same. (v. 37).

Jesus suggests that, if we belong to him, no difference — no matter how historic, how spiritual or how deep — should prevent us from extending compassion to another in need.

Sometimes the truth can be painful. In this case, I am sure the expert of the law felt a twinge of remorse for engaging Jesus as he had. Jesus not only told a story that exposed the heart and self-protective intentions of two holy men, the priest and the Levite who should have helped their brother, he used a Samaritan as the exclamation point.
Samaritans and Jews had a long, tense and tentative relationship that many scholars date back to before the separation of the Northern and Southern Jewish kingdoms. They were the “other” in one another’s worlds, the neighbor they would rather ignore than assist. Now, this, perhaps, is an oversimplified way to explain the relationship between Jews and Samaritans, but you get the point.
The greater point I am trying to make is that Jesus is exposing and destroying any and every excuse the lawyer and we might have for not being compassionate, God-loving witnesses to others in the world — no matter who they are. Jesus suggests that, if we belong to him, no difference — no matter how historic, how spiritual or how deep — should prevent us from extending compassion to another in need.
Jesus then calls the teacher of the law to account, bringing him directly back to his first question: What must I do to inherit eternal life? (v. 25). Jesus, imploring him to answer his own question, listened as the lawyer recited once again the command to love God and to love his neighbor — any person — as he does himself.

Go and do likewise

There is no shortage of brokenness in our world today, no place or space where God’s redeeming love is not needed. Racism, abuse, war, poverty, joblessness, depression and factions and divisions of all kinds distract and distort our vision. They cause us to get caught in the enemy’s web of us and them, which further causes us to be woefully ineffective and deeply damages our Christian witness.
While we spend countless hours arguing about who is right and who is wrong or who is worthy and who is not, people are dying on the roadside of life. We pass by on the other side, too engaged in our own issues to stop and lend a hand to whoever needs it. We must allow the Holy Spirit to blow afresh over our lives, inviting him to tenderly expose our divisions and factions and to restore relationship with one another.
Jesus did the heavy lifting on the cross, defeating death, hell and the grave, saving us all from a perilous eternity without him.
You and I are the recipients of undeserved grace — a grace that we did not earn and cannot repay. What we can do — what we must do — is examine our hearts and repent for having allowed our self-protective natures to yet separate us from others.
The world is watching the church, looking up from the roadside in its wounded, broken estate. Will they see us walk by, or will we lift them up and out of their woundedness, not by our strong arguments, but by the love of Christ Jesus? For the sake of the church, a lost humanity, the young people whom I serve and for Christ and his kingdom, I pray we will choose the latter.
And let us remember we, too, were once strangers, aliens, foreigners, “others” separated from Christ, strangers from the covenant of promise without hope and without God in the world (Eph. 2:12). It was only Jesus who picked us up and brought us near by his sacrifice. As Jesus commanded the teacher of the law, may we “go and do likewise.”


Laurel M. Bunker, Vice President, Bethel University

Laurel M. Bunker is vice president, Christian Formation and Church Relations, at Bethel University in St. Paul, Minnesota.

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