Who is your neighbor? We just finished a VBS curriculum called “Everywhere Fun Fair,” which had an international carnival theme. Children were encouraged to think about their neighbors around the world. Each day, we learned about a different culture and a different way of being a good neighbor: “neighbors are welcoming” and “neighbors are forgiving.” This Sunday, with the Parable of the Good Samaritan, that theme seems to have come to our gospel lesson, but I think overemphasizing the cultural difference between Jews and Samaritans might miss the point of Jesus’ story.
Many sermons this Sunday will expound upon the bitter resentment between Jews and Samaritans. The Ethic, religious, and historical rivalry between them was unparalleled. I’ve heard sermons likening their hatred to that of Alabama and Auburn fans, which of course is silly. I might tell disparaging jokes about students of a particular “cow college,” but I’m not going to jump out of the bushes and beat and rob them (a common practice of the day) just because they wear orange and blue. I’ve heard preachers encourage their congregations to think of people with different socio-economic backgrounds as the neighbors that Jesus had in mind, but that misses the point, too. Even though we may be embroiled in an immigration controversy, we don’t live next-door to an entire country of people whom we identify as blood enemies. I can’t think of an analogy that really does the weird and complex intertwined racial, sexual, religious, and political hatred that existed between Jews and Samaritans. But that’s ok—that’s not the point of the parable anyway.
After telling the story, Jesus asked the man, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” We know the answer—as the lawyer replied, “The one who showed him mercy.” But that suggests that being a neighbor isn’t simply about blowing up ethnic divisions. It’s about showing mercy. The point of this parable isn’t simply to teach us that everyone is our neighbor—though that’s half of it. The point is to connect that broader concept of being a neighbor to the original commandment—love your neighbor as yourself.
In other words, if everyone is your neighbor, what are you going to do about it? Honestly, being nice or showing mercy to one Auburn fan isn’t so hard. Taking care of one stranger in distress doesn’t make me a saint. I’m supposed to love everyone as I love myself—with the same instinct of care and self-preservation that is built into my biological heritage. The role of the Samaritan in the parable isn’t to make us a hand-holding, race-less utopia (though that’s what the kingdom of God is like). The Samaritan’s role is to force us to consider the cost of showing mercy to absolutely everyone.
If you’re preaching this week (and I am), consider saying less about the rivalry between Jews and Samaritans and more about what it means to love everyone as much as you love yourself. Don’t stop with the love of a rival. Don’t limit Jesus’ instruction to the one person you like the least. The real gospel message here is that we are to love the world the way God does, which is more than a merely racially-blind approach to the world.