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Sunday, January 24, 2016

Always Misunderstood

ViralCraze’s “10 Bible Verses That Are Always Misunderstood” explains the parable of the Good Samaritan ... by not really explaining it:

“Jesus asked the question, ‘Who is your neighbor?’ The simple answer is the one who you choose to show mercy to.”

This is the generally accepted response, and it’s not entirely wrong. Still, a careful reading of the passage shows it is not quite what the Lord Jesus said.

In fact, the parable is not about identifying our neighbor at all.

Your Neighbor As Yourself

The story is occasioned by a lawyer who asks the Lord, “What shall I DO to inherit eternal life?” Since he has framed the acquisition of eternal salvation as a matter of works, the Lord answers him within his own frame, by referring to Jewish law. He asks the lawyer, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?”

The lawyer then responds by mashing up Deuteronomy 6 with Leviticus 19:
“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 neighbor as yourself.”
To be fair, this was probably a rabbinical formula and a good answer in its time. The Lord replies, “Do this, and you will live”.

Who Is My Neighbor?

The lawyer, who may have been several steps behind Jesus in his thinking but was still doing pretty well for himself overall, now blows it. Unable to leave the answer alone, he steps into the Lord’s trap by inquiring, “And who is my neighbor?” Luke tells us he did so “desiring to justify himself”.

Big mistake. That never works.

In answer to the question, “Who is my neighbor?” the Lord tells the famous parable, which does not need retelling to make my point. My point is simply this: the story does not actually respond to the original question.

It inverts it. Think about that for a second.

Let’s Make It Manageable

The Lord then sums up his story in this single question:
“ ‘Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?’ He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘You go, and do likewise.’ ”
If this were an exchange in a court of law, we might say the Lord’s answer is unresponsive. It doesn’t address the question, “Who is my neighbor?”

You see, the question is an attempt by the lawyer to limit his responsibility to something he thinks he can manage. We all try to do that with the Lord’s words from time to time, don’t we? It’s almost impossible not to:
  • “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
  • “Whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.”
  • “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away.”
Taken literally by Jewish men and women raised to believe eternal life depends on performance, such notions are intolerable. Taken literally today by Christians they are every bit as intolerable. So we chip away at the plain meaning of the Lord’s words in the hope of finding something minimally acceptable to God that we are actually prepared to do.

If you can find me one or two neighbors to my liking, perhaps I can love them as myself.

If you can find me someone from my own religious tradition and ethnic background, maybe I can love them as myself.

Who knows what the lawyer was thinking?

Being a Neighbor

But the parable is not really about identifying our neighbor or reducing the subset of those to whom we potentially bear some responsibility for their well-being. It is not really about “who you choose to show mercy to”, as ViralCraze puts it. It’s about what sort of person I ought to be. The Lord is not answering, “WHO is my neighbor?” but rather, “How can I BE a neighbor?”

The true neighbor is the one who is ready to show mercy indiscriminately at all times to everyone in need of it, wherever he or she encounters them.

That, I think, is the Christian answer, and it’s a lot more work.

Which may be why the verse is so frequently misunderstood.

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