Inflections really do matter, and if I could guest the inflection of the lawyer who approached Jesus in Luke 10, it would be “Who is my neighbor?”
It was an attempt of self-justification, of validating his own standing before the second table of the law, and it was this question which launched Jesus into the well-known parable of the Good Samaritan. After having explained the story, Jesus wrapped up his point in the phrase of a question, “Which of these, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among robbers?”
The most unlikely person displayed the greatest amount of compassion, while those who had all the knowledge in the world had hearts of stone. They thought they knew love. They thought they had this “love your neighbor” thing all figured out – at least enough to justify themselves. But Jesus opened their eyes to the emptiness of their hearts.
Jesus is not talking about my friends, the people I prefer to hang around with, those like me or share in my interests. He is not talking about people within my own culture, tradition, or other spheres of affinity or shared identity.
I think we are in danger of two things when it comes to loving our neighbor. First, we are in danger of re-interpreting the command of Jesus, watering it down, and making it suitable for our own comforts. After all, the lawyers, priests, and Levites apparently all had their own definition for who qualifies as their “neighbor,” so why don’t we invent our own? Second, such a redefinition excuses our indifference because such people are out of our realm of “neighboring.” Indifference becomes the standardized protocol for those outside my camp.
But neighbors are not like our friends. While we get to pick our friends, rarely do we get to choose our neighbors. I’m not talking about the person across the street, though they are certainly included, but I’m talking about the people we encounter “as we journey” down the road like the Good Samaritan. So when I am faced with the realities expressed by an illustrative embodiment of what it means to love your neighbor, I have found myself, sadly enough, taking the same detour the priest and Levite took all the while justifying my indifference by convincing myself they are not really my neighbor.
Go and do likewise.
That’s what Jesus tells us. Love your neighbor the way the Good Samaritan did and refuse to put limits or boundaries around the mercy and compassion for those God providentially places in your journey. Because the battle against indifference towards my neighbor begins with reminding myself that God did not put a limit or boundary around the mercy and compassion He has shown to wretched sinners like myself through the sacrifice of His Son.
Jesus was not impressed with the lawyer’s answers to the question of eternal life as much as he was the Good Samaritan’s demonstration of mercy and generosity to someone undeserving. Far too often I think we are pleased with giving God the Sunday School answers as substitutes for the kind of radical obedience that is the fruit of taking up one’s cross to follow Jesus. And we pacify any doubt that there might be more by surrounding ourselves with like-minded comforters who tell us all that is required of us is to know the right answers. Battling indifference begins with realizing that we are not even asking the right questions.
What I learn from Jesus is that loving my neighbor is not what I think it would be nor is it what I would prefer it to be. The generosity that stemmed from the broken heart of this Good Samaritan did not originate at the moment of the need. It merely surfaced when the opportunity arose. And I am realizing that I cannot love my neighbor with such mercy-driven generosity when the opportunity is before me without a heart that is liberated from self-justification and bubbling in compassion out of brokenness for others. Simply put, if the heart is not prepared, the opportunity will be spared.
My prayer is that I will not arbitrate between God and my neighbor out of convenience or comfort but abandon myself and my petty agendas to the radical call to love my neighbor well. Join me in this battle against indifference, to love deeply, obey sincerely, and give sacrificially that our neighbors might become more than neighbors, but family as well.