And Who is My Neighbor?

The Parable of the Good Neighbor
Luke 10:25-29  (NIV)

25 On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 26 “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?” 27 He answered, “‘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, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” 28 “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.” 29 But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

Jan Wijnants - Parable of the Good Neighbor.jpgI have always believed the message Jesus was trying to get across is that everyone is our neighbor, not just those with whom we live beside, look like and agree with. Unfortunately not everyone seems to agree with me. A 2016 poll by Public Religion Research Institute shows that 53 percent of white evangelical Protestants believe immigrants weaken America. The current attitude against immigrants and others considered to be outsiders is troubling. In this article however I would like to explore an aspect of the parable that is often overlooked; the shame factor.

And who is my neighbor?

The story starts with a man robbed, beaten and left for dead by the side of the road. A priest and a Levite didn’t just pass the man by but crossed over to the other side of the road. Making it clear these men, leaders in the Jewish community, were consciously avoiding the injured man.

Jesus does not reveal the victims nationality but He does identify the good neighbor as a Samaritan. Jews, especially the Levites, considered the Samaritans religious mongrels. Most Jewish people of the time didn’t believe Samaritans were worthy of God’s love. In essence Jesus was saying, “Those you consider less than you are in fact better than you”.

He said this much more plainly in Mark 9:35; “Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, ‘Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all’.” (NIV)

I don’t think the point was lost on the expert in the law (probably a Levite). When Jesus asked, “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” the lawyer replied simply, “The one who had mercy on him”.  I don’t know about you but I can hear the humility in his voice.

Pride goeth before destruction

This is not the only time Jesus used the power of shame to display a truth. In Luke 7:36-43 Jesus went to dine at the house of a Pharisee. A local woman considered a sinner by the town heard Jesus was there. So she came and anointed His feet with oil and her tears. The Pharisee was outraged, not only by the woman but by Jesus’s apparent acceptance of the situation. Jesus then told the Pharisee the parable of two debtors and asked for his opinion.

The Pharisee answered correctly, “I suppose that he, to whom he forgave most“.

We have many weaknesses as humans but one of our biggest is pride. Matthew 20:16 confuses many of us; “So the last shall be first, and the first last:”. We like winners. Coming in first is something we learned in childhood. Whether it is to find the most Easter Eggs, be the best at the Spelling Bee, score the most points in a basketball game; there is always a competition to win. Second place is just the first loser.

As adults it gets worse. We compete both at work and in our personal lives. Always trying to have the best car, the best house, the best yard, consumes many of us. Getting a promotion is not a reward but a goal for many people. And they are willing to do ‘whatever it takes’.

Our pride blinds us. And not just pride in ourselves but anytime we put our job, church, political party, country or anything else ahead of God. There is an old saying, ‘you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink‘ but the saying is rarely finished. You may not be able to make the horse drink but you can show him he thirsts.

When and why the shame technique is useful

Not everyone reacts well to the technique. Jesus did not shame the woman at the well (John 4:4-42) even though he did point out her sin. But only after breaking Jewish law and custom by talking to her and drinking water from her cup. It seems Jesus had more patience with sinners than with the proud. The Lawyer who asked “who is my neighbor” knew the law but was only concerned about how it affected himself. Jesus used shame like a pin to burst the bubble of pride. But to a person lost in sin shame will only drive them away. Acceptance, empathy, care and love will open more doors than pointing the bony finger of indignation.

However to anyone who ‘knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it’ (James 4:17) shame can be very effective in bringing them back to God’s grace. The Chief Priests, Pharisees and Lawyers were the target of much of Jesus’s condemnation. The same people who had the most knowledge of God, which God used to point out their error.

Occasionally Jesus would respond with anger. The most famous example is when he threw the money changers out of the Temple. (John 2:14-17 NIV) But most of the time He responded with love and truth. And so should we.