This question, and the Good Samaritan story that unfolds in response, has impacted the trajectory of countless lives and communities ever since. Good Samaritan hospitals, Good Samaritan laws, and countless such awards and honors stand as proof that the notion that of coming to the aid of a stranger can bring out the best in us.
Lobbed at Jesus as the sassy retort of a skilled religious scholar setting a trap, Jesus’ returning volley reverberates with impact akin to Wimbledon championship play. Wham, the stage is set. Zing, a masterful response stings a bit. And, the neighbors have been talking about it ever since.
In the parable of the Good Samaritan a traveler, presumably of Jewish descent, sets out en route from Jerusalem to Jericho. Along the way he is beaten, robbed, and left for dead. Fortunate for him, a priest, and later a Levite, both known to administer Jewish alms to the needy, come by. Yet, neither offer aid. Perhaps they do not stop out of fear of being robbed themselves. Self-preservation is understandable and even smart. This was a dangerous road. And, in their defense, it’s possible that the beaten man was left without identifying clothing, or the ability to speak, making it difficult to tell if he was in fact Jewish. Then, around the bend, comes a most unlikely hero. No one would expect this guy to stop and help. Samaritans were despised, presumed heretics, and simply unapproachable. That is, unless one were left for dead. With compassion befitting that of a saint, the injured traveler’s wounds are dressed, he is placed atop the Samaritan’s donkey, and at great personal risk the Samaritan and traveler slowly make their way to an inn on the outskirts of Jericho. It would be a scene as unlikely as an Indian doing likewise for an injured cowboy in the Wild West. Imagine the reaction of town folk the next morning. Likewise, the Samaritan put himself at great risk. Neighborly conduct can be dangerous; yet Jesus says go and do likewise.
Neighbors are sometimes chosen and sometimes thrust upon us. A quick scan of some of the most popular American TV shows illustrates our fascination with how neighbors bring out the best and the worst in us. Would we care a speck, for example, about Fred and Wilma Flintstone if it wasn’t for their neighbors Barney and Betty Rubble? Would Ricky and Lucy be half as charming without the spunky companionship of Fred and Ethel down the hall? It’s hard to imagine the cast of Friends, or Seinfeld, or Gilligan’s Island for that matter, without the camaraderie of their neighbors. The relationship between Home Improvement’s Tim ‘the Toolman’ Taylor and his neighbor Wilson, Cory and Mr. Feeny of Boy Meets World, and countless other TV neighbors keeps us tuning in, week after week, laughing and crying ourselves silly. It’s good comedy because it’s real life. There is something profound and vital about being a neighbor, and needing a neighbor, that we all share.
In the telling of the Good Samaritan parable Jesus redefines what it means to be a neighbor. To be a neighbor is to live out the impossible task of helping and become a friend to anyone we may find in need. No rule of law can bring this about. It can’t be forced or programed. Practical ‘neighboring’ grace like this is a gift born of God’s Spirit at work among people. When this takes place it seems there is a whimsy akin to Jerry and Kramer, and a charm akin to Ginger and Marianne; and there is healing and reconciliation, laughter, tears, and an abundance of joy born of neighbor caring for neighbor.