Who Is My Neighbor?

"Go and do likewise" (Luke 10:37).

By combining two of the most potent stories in the Scriptures, the Lectionary sheds fresh light on a familiar theme, the mercy of God expanding beyond our human prejudices to include everyone, even our enemies. 

The story of Jonah was a tale produced within the Wisdom literature to challenge the Jewish notion of exceptionalism. Jonah resisted his assignment to preach to the Ninevites, Israel's greatest enemy, because he did not want them to be spared punishment. He flees in the opposite direction to Tarshish, but is thrown overboard by the pagan sailors who understand the supreme power of his God.  Even when he arrives in Nineveh, he barely preaches, but the whole nation, from the king down to animals, puts on sackcloth and ashes, and everyone is spared.  

The Parable of the Good Samaritan repeats this theme. The lawyer wants Jesus to define the limits of his obligation to love his neighbor. By telling the story of the rescue and care of a Jew beaten, robbed and left for dead, not by a fellow Jew, or even a priest and a Levite, but by a hated enemy of the Jews, a Samaritan, Jesus turns the lawyer's world inside out.  Salvation is revealed not just for the Jews or by the Jews, but by an enemy who has compassion. Whoever shows compassion to another in need is neighbor, and even more, they imitate God, who is always merciful to all.

It was a stunning challenge to the lawyer who had spent his entire life and career  fulfilling the letter of the Law, or so he thought, because he had missed the core of the Law, the command to love God and neighbor, a limitless invitation to love unconditionally wherever love is needed. 

This Gospel of unconditional love denies us the comfort of limiting our love to predictable recipients-- friends, family, neighbors, by race and religion or any other distinction. The test of this limitless love is to substitute for "Samaritan" the name of your worst enemy, the last person on earth you would feel any obligation to help. We can no longer exclude anyone as neighbor, and we must be prepared in our own hour of need to look up from our suffering to find the face of someone we have rejected and hated.

Put aside you guidelines, your rule book, your certitudes about who is worthy or unworthy,  insider or outsider.  Anyone can potentially be your neighbor, and God will come to you  by surprise if you live by love. There is only one rule: "Be compassionate as your heavenly Father is compassionate." This is an unbearable yet wonderful invitation to life, and to the joy of the Gospel.