Thabiti Anyabwile writes:
Mrs. Bea was my mother’s best friend. The two of them used to laugh together as if they were the only two in the universe. They spent a lot of their free time together, which was easy since they lived half a block apart.
Mr. Fred was Mrs. Bea’s husband. Everybody in the neighbourhood called him “neighbour” because he greeted everyone with the same question: “How’s my neighbour?” He was the kind of man who would interrogate strangers who happened on your property and didn’t look as if they belonged. He would repair a door or mow a yard without being asked. He was a neighbour.
I played with Bea and Fred’s five children. We did everything from ride our bikes together to play basketball or stickball in the neighbourhood park to chase one another in frenetic games of tag or hide-n-seek. We children were neighbours, too.
I thought about Bea and Fred last week as I prepared to preach Luke 10:25–37, the parable of the so-called “good Samaritan.” I prefer to call it the parable of the godly neighbour since Jesus tells the story to a religious man who asked in a self-justifying moment, “who is my neighbour?” Here’s the parable:
25 And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” 26 He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” 27 And he answered, ”You shall 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 your neighbour as yourself.” 28 And he said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.”
29 But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbour?” 30 Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. 31 Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. 32 So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. 34 He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’ 36 Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbour to the man who fell among the robbers?” 37 He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.”
I read this and six things stood out to me:
1. To be a neighbour requires risk (v. 30). The Jericho road was 17 miles long, descended over 3,000 feet, featured many twists and turns with caves along the way. It was perfect for robbers and it was a dangerous pass. Any good neighbour will have to take some risks, like stopping on a dangerous road to help the hurting.
2. Simply being religious and theologically orthodox will not make you a neighbour (vv. 31–32). The priest and the Levite are religious leaders in Israel. They’re holy men. They believe all the right things and worship in all the right ways ceremonially. But they are not neighbours to this hurting man. It’s possible to be deeply religious in one sense and treacherously unloving.
3. A neighbour isn’t necessarily someone like you (v. 32). Common ethnicity is no predictor of neighbourliness. If the robbed man were an Israelite, then being fellow Jews did not make the priest and the Levite his neighbour. They passed by. It is the despised, outcast Samaritan (John 4:9) that proves to be the true neighbour. It’s someone thought to be “unclean” and “cut off” that emerges as the truly loving. I recently heard Ed Copeland say, “Not all your skin folk are your kin folk, and not all your kin folk are your skin folk.” I think the parable demonstrates that neighbours are not determined by ethnicity. In fact, these two men were strangers to one another. Yet that Samaritan crosses the xenophobic gulf to care for the stranger in his midst. Jesus expands the definition of neighbour well beyond family, friends, co-workers, ethnicity and those who live in physical proximity to us.
4. A neighbour is someone who sees your need and responds with compassion (vv. 33–34). That’s the difference between the Samaritan and the priest and Levite. They all see the man on the road naked and half-dead. But the Samaritan has compassion. He allows himself to feel for the man and acts out of that concern. A neighbour doesn’t turn his eyes away or cross the road when he sees someone in need. Neighbours render practical and sacrificial assistance in time of need.
5. The most natural and effective mercy ministry in a community is a good neighbour (v. 36). I’m all for organized mercy ministries. In fact, some problems in a community are so widespread or intense that they require an organized response. But the deeper, longer-lasting, truly transforming “mercy ministry” comes in the form of good neighbours. Saturate a block, a community, a city with neighbours like the Samaritan and you’ll transform that community slowly, deeply, and effectively.
6. Love and Law demand every Christian be a merciful neighbour to anyone in need in our presence (v. 37). Jesus’ discussion with this expert in the Mosaic Law summarizes all the Law and prophets with two commands: Love God and love neighbour. Love God with all yourself and love neighbour like yourself. The final command from Jesus, “go and do likewise” (v. 37), binds us to this duty of being Samaritan-like neighbours. It also binds our conscience with guilt so that we any attempt to justify ourselves apart from Christ miserably fails, like the lawyer’s. We’re thrown onto the back of Christ for justification with God. But then having been freed from the Law for justification, we find ourselves drawn to the Law in sanctification and Christian witness. Having been loved, we now turn to love (1 John 3:16–18; 4:20).
What does all of this mean?
Very simply: Christians ought to be good neighbours with an expansive definition of neighbour.
The reason there are fewer and fewer true neighbourhoods is because there are fewer and fewer true neighbours. Even though more and more people live atop one another and we aggregate the need in cities, we don’t often love like this Samaritan. In fact, the Samaritan is so striking to us because we so seldom see such sacrifice for others or make such sacrifice for others. But we Christians ought to be the best neighbours of all.