"Looking for a loophole, he asked, 'And just how would you define "neighbour"?'
"Jesus answered by telling a story, 'There was once a man travelling from Jerusalem to Jericho. On the way he was attacked by robbers. They took his clothes, beat him up, and went off leaving him half dead. Luckily a priest was on his way down the same road, but when he saw him he angled across to the other side. Then a Levite religious man showed up; he also avoided the injured man.
"A Samaritan travelling the road came on him. When he saw the man's condition, his heart went out to him. He gave him first aid, disinfecting and bandaging his wounds. Then he lifted him onto his donkey, led him to an inn and made him comfortable. In the morning he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper saying, 'Take good care of him. If it costs any more, put it on my bill -- I'll pay you on my way back.'
"'What do you think? Which of the three became a neighbour to the man attacked by robbers?'
"'The one who treated him kindly,' the religion scholar responded. Jesus said, 'Go and do the same.'" Luke 10:29-37 (The Message).
This story speaks for itself -- a straightforward answer to the religious boffin's question. The more I read the gospels, the more I am struck by the fact that Jesus was not interested in theological debates. Time and again, when He was confronted with attacks from His religious opponents, His questions and stories always focussed on how people responded to those in need.
The parables He told were designed to make people think and to identify with some person or group in the story. In this case, the man who asked the question, in other words the man who made the Law the subject of study and discussion, would easily identify with the second man in the story, if he were honest, who walked away from the injured man without helping him.
The priest and the Levite had one of two choices -- to help the injured man because he was in need or to walk away because they did not want to become "unclean" by touching a bleeding man. Both of them chose the "religious" route because they believed it was the right thing to do. They thought that it was more important to stay on the right side of God than to get their hands and clothes dirty by assisting the unfortunate traveller.
The religion scholar had just correctly answered his own question about what to do to have eternal life. Loving God and loving one's neighbour is evidence of an inner attitude that cares more about doing right for those in need than doing "right" in a ritualistic sense for oneself. It's not about how people get into trouble. It's about helping them get out of it. That is a reflection of the way God treats us.
The Samaritan had no religious scruples about the man in need. He did not care that he was a despised Samaritan helping an injured Jew. He saw him as a human being who needed him.
His compassion moved him to do something to rescue him. Jesus turned the question around -- not "Who is my neighbour?" but "To whom am I a neighbour?" I am a neighbour to anyone who needs me and anyone who needs me is my neighbour. How does one go about "loving one's neighbour"?
Here is a simple definition: Love is meeting some else's need at your own expense. The motivation is compassion, but how does one become compassionate if one feels nothing for the needy person?
The apostle Paul gives us a helpful and practical answer: "Therefore, as God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience." Colossians 3:12 (NIV). These qualities may not be a part of who you are but, Paul says, act as though they are and they will become a part of you.
It's not how religious we are that will change the world. It's how compassionate we are to our "neighbour" that will, in the end, make the real difference. Let's just do it!
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