top of page

Created for Community: Who Is My Neighbor?

This morning’s parable is one of the most familiar stories in the Bible. Many of you could tell it almost word for word. A man was robbed and was left for dead; a priest and a Levite pass right by; and a Samaritan stops and helps. The Samaritan, showing mercy, shows us how to be a neighbor. We should do likewise. That’s probably how you learned it in Sunday school, and it’s the basis of Good Samaritan Awards and the Good Sam Club for people with RV’s. We should help people in need. Not a bad lesson, even if we do often feel guilty that we’re not helping enough.

But there’s reason to think there’s more to it. A parable is supposed to turn our current understanding of the way things work on its head. We’re not supposed to read a parable, nod agreeably, and think, “Yup; that’s right.”

So what is it in this parable that turns things upside down? It starts with a question. This is one of many discussions Jesus had with religious executives and seminary professors – those are the updated job titles suggested by William Sloane Coffin – and in these discussions, the religious executives and seminary professors always seemed to end up on one side of the issue while Jesus alone stood on the other. Which is a sobering thought for anyone who works in this building or teaches across the street.[1]

The man asks, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” “Inheriting eternal life” is not just another way of saying “What must I do to go to heaven?” We might translate this, “What could I do to be really alive, so that my life is not a life for death, but a life for life?” The man is saying, “Show me the path to the life of God,” or “Show me,” as Brian McLaren puts it, “the life of the ages,” or “life to the full.”[2]

Jesus knows this man is a lawyer so he asks, “What’s the Law?” The lawyer gives Jesus an A+ answer, quoting Deuteronomy[3] and the Leviticus passage that Dave Jones read: “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 you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

Jesus congratulates the man on giving the correct answer. “Do this, and you will live,” he says. But the lawyer isn’t satisfied. He wants specifics. “Who is my neighbor?” he asks. Which, when you think about it, is the same as asking, “Who is not my neighbor?” In other words, where does he draw the line? I mean, there have to be lines, right? Could Jesus really mean, “Love everybody"?

Jesus answers with the familiar story. His listeners would know about this scary 20-mile stretch of road from Jerusalem to Jericho. It was lined with giant boulders behind which robbers could hide, and full of hairpin turns as it dropped from 2,300 feet above sea level at Jerusalem , down to 1,300 feet below sea level by the Dead Sea. Four centuries later, according to the historian Jerome, the road to Jericho was still being called “The Red, or Bloody Way.” As late as the nineteenth century, if you wanted to travel safely on that road from Jerusalem to Jericho, you paid off the local sheik.[4] That may be why the priest and the Levite didn’t stop. We don’t have to assume they were callous. Stopping would have been risky. Maybe even a trap. Jesus’ listeners would also be familiar with a Bible passage, Numbers 19:11, which says that he who touches a dead man is unclean for 7 days. The man by the road appeared to be dead. Touching him could have meant the priest wouldn’t be able to perform temple duties for a week. He didn’t want to jeopardize his job; many of us can relate to that.

But the Samaritan stops. Not only that, he bandages the man’s wounds, anoints them with oil and wine, carries him to the nearest inn on his own animal, pays the innkeeper for the man’s further care, and promises to return with more money if needed. “So which of the three was a neighbor to the man who was robbed?” Jesus asks the lawyer at the conclusion of the story. And the lawyer answers, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus concludes, “Go and do likewise.”

As I said, it’s a good lesson. A great moral example. But what if Jesus’ parable is more than an example story? What if it’s a reversal story? A story intended to upset how we think about good and bad, sacred and profane, benefactor and recipient? If we too easily and comfortably hope to identify with the Good Samaritan in this parable, maybe we’re missing the point. Maybe the whole point of the Samaritan is that he is not us.[5]

The last time I preached this passage was shortly after we put our Black Lives Matter banner on the front of the church. I explained that the reason we did not hang up a banner that said, “All Lives Matter,” which is certainly just as true as “Black Lives Matter,” was the same reason that this parable in Luke isn’t called, “The Parable of the Good Person.”

Jesus chose a Samaritan as the hero of this story for a reason. Samaria was the next province over from Judea. The Samaritans were ethnically related to Judeans, a mixed remnant left after Assyrian occupation. They practiced a similar but not identical religion. By the time Jesus told this parable, there was an entrenched and bitter hostility between the two groups. In John’s gospel, Jesus is passing through Samaria and asks a local woman for water. John tells us, “The Samaritan woman said to him, ‘You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?’ (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.)”[6] To Jews, Samaritans were heretics; Samaria was a dangerous place. The truth is, they hated each others’ guts.

The third person to come upon the man by the side of the road could have been anybody, and the point could have been, “Anybody can be your neighbor.” That’s a nice, broad principle, and even if it doesn’t specifically say that a Samaritan can be a Judean’s neighbor, it includes it, right? But the way this parable turns the world upside down is precisely that saying, “A Samaritan is my neighbor” would stick in a Judean’s throat, while, “Anybody can be my neighbor” probably wouldn’t. “Anybody can be my neighbor” is an abstract, feel-good idea a Judean and anybody else could hold in his head without raising any of his specific prejudices.

Yet Jesus says it was the Samaritan, the heretic, the enemy, the man of the wrong faith – the “other” – who did the right thing, while the two men of the right faith flunked.

The story says a lot to our multi-faith nation and world – and in our neck of the woods, in Marin, it says a lot about our no-faith world. Many faiths, maybe most faiths, including some versions of Christianity, try to claim they corner the market on religious truth. It’s the “My God is bigger than your God” syndrome, and too often it produces hostility, that sense that anyone who is the “other” is the enemy. By “other,” I mean anyone who is considered an outsider, not “one of us;” anyone belonging to a different group, gender, orientation, party, religion, race, culture, creed or country.[7] Hostility makes a person or group unwilling to be a host – the two words, host and hostility, are related. The “other” must be turned away, kept at a distance, not welcomed in hospitality as a guest or friend. Seeing people as “other,” as “not us,” can and has and continues to lead to hatred and violence.[8]

I spent part of my vacation last month in Mexico City. We went to see the Diego Rivera murals at the Palacio Nacional.[9] They are stunningly beautiful, but they are also heartbreaking. The murals depict the history of Mexico. In the lush, peaceful panels showing life and culture before the Spaniards arrived, Rivera tends to gloss over the fact that the indigenous people groups also treated each other as “others” to some extent. But I understand why Rivera did this, because the violence, exploitation, dehumanization, destruction and even genocide perpetrated by the Spaniards and Cortez is so over-the-top appalling that the murals showing Cortez made me weep. They are that much more heartbreaking because Cortez, and Columbus, and the English colonists in North America, and all the rest of the Europeans who settled in this already-occupied “New World,” were Christians. Christians who justified their violence because the natives were “other” – “not one of us.”

It’s so tragic, so ironic, when love and compassion are the core of our faith, a faith based on the two great commandments to love – to love God and love our neighbor as ourselves. Something deep within us tells us that this hostility, this us-against-them, my God is bigger than your God syndrome is part of the problem to be overcome in the world, not the means by which our problems will be overcome. Religious hostility, us-against-them, is a symptom of the disease, not part of the cure.[10]

That is exactly what Jesus takes on with the Parable of the Good Samaritan. Love, mercy, and compassion, as opposed to seeing the “other” – as opposed to seeing all our contemporary versions of the Samaritan – as threats to be feared, pitied, eliminated, or refashioned in our image.[11] The old religious language about “saving” or “salvation,” language we tend to shy away from, begins to make sense in this context. Jesus says, “Do this and live.” We will live, we will live the life of the ages and we will be saved from the dehumanizing effects of hostility if we can cherish our own religious traditions but abandon what Samir Selmanovic calls “religious supremacy.” We and the world will be saved from the disastrous effects of misguided, distorted, dysfunctional religion, beginning with our own; religion that cares more about doctrinal purity - more about believing the "right" things - than about human kindness; religion that creates clans and tribes, us and them. It makes all that talk about “repentance” make more sense, too. If we don’t repent, if we don’t change our ways, if we don’t give up our clannish hostility toward the “other,” we can expect not a fiery torture chamber after death, not hell, but a death trap in this life: war, hate, violence, and fear; famine, disease, floods and drought; hunger, riots, refugee camps and crime.[12]

Perhaps what Jesus meant, as well, is that the Samaritan actually represents all the ways God is already at work in the world showing mercy where it is most needed in unexpected places, and using profoundly unexpected people to do it. People who aren’t “us.” People who are the “other.” Perhaps the Samaritan reminds us that we don’t own God – no religion does. Our God is not OUR God. God is bigger and freer than we can imagine; so big and so free that God can work in and through people of other religions and people with no religion, and for us to believe otherwise is not only arrogant but dangerous.

The Samaritan is a reminder to you and me, folks in the church, that maybe we should get over thinking it’s all up to us, and just start looking for the ways in which God is already working in the world.[13] Here at First Presbyterian Church we’ve seen this up close and personal with 350.Marin, the folks who work with us on climate change; the Marin Organizing Committee, a group of both religious and secular organizations working for the common good; and Children for Change, a completely secular organization of local kids who are trying to change the world through service. I wonder if we just did all we could to catch up with where God is already at work in the world, and joined in, maybe we’d be doing exactly what Jesus calls us to do in this parable. Even, or especially, when the one we are catching up to is Samaritan. Or Muslim. Or atheist. Or Mexican. Or Republican. Or Democrat. Or.... well, you fill in the blank.

Do this, and live, says Jesus. May it be so for you, and for me. Amen.

© Joanne Whitt 2018 all rights reserved.

[1] William Sloane Coffin, “The Good Samaritan,” October 21, 1979, in The Collected Sermons of William Sloane Coffin: The Riverside Years, Vol. I (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 239.

[4] Coffin, 241.

[5] Debie Thomas, “Go and Do Likewise,” July 3, 2016,

[7] Brian D. McLaren, Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road? (New York: Jericho Books, 2012), 19, n. 11.

[8] McLaren, 56, n. 5, quoting Miroslav Volf.

[9] Although photos do not do these murals justice, you can see photos of Diego Rivera’s Palacio Nacional murals here:

[10] McLaren, 20.

[11] McLaren, 257.

[12] McLaren, 259.

[13] Janet H. Hunt, “The Samaritan: Where is God at Work in the World?” July 3, 2016,

25 views0 comments


bottom of page