I come from a religious culture in which the value of the questions to be asked is assumed and the Bible is taken to be the source of the answer. I haven’t lived in that culture for a long time, but, as I discover from time to time, it still lives in me.
I have an example in mind, Jesus’ story about the neighborly foreigner, but I would like to reflect a little, first, on the persistence of my habit of taking my question to the Bible and looking for an answer there. I really do know better. To a lot of the questions I have, there is not even a casual sniff of interest in scripture. The real response of some scriptural texts is, “You really shouldn’t be asking that question.” I feel a little like a recovering alcoholic. I do pretty well on my new plan–biblically clean and sober–but then an event happens or I’m hanging out with just those friends who have my old bad habit, and I fall back into it. Three days later, I wake up with an exegetical hangover that just won’t quit and wonder what happened to me.
So what about the Good Samaritan? Everyone who frequents this blog, the ones I know about, is familiar with this story. If you are not, take a quick look at Luke 10. A biblical scholar asked Jesus what he should do to inherit eternal life. He gave a really good answer and Jesus said, “Nice job. Do that.” But actually “doing” things at the level of the scholar’s answer is daunting, so the scholar tried to get Jesus to be a little more specific. This scholar’s habits of mind were, in other words, pretty much like mine except he had Jesus there to consult and I have only the stories.
The question the scholar asked was, “Who is my neighbor?” Who is the person, in other words, whom I am obligated to love in the same way I love myself?” Jesus didn’t answer the question at all, possibly because he didn’t like the premise. In his response, he said, “Let’s don’t talk about neighbors. Let’s talk about neighborliness. You know what neighborliness looks like. You chose answer c) from the list I gave you and that was the right answer. So be neighborly.”
So stop for just a moment and reflect on how hard it is not to formulate in your mind the question, “To whom should I be neighborly?” How hard is it, in other words, not to persist in asking the question Jesus wouldn’t (won’t) answer?
Actually there is an answer implied in the story. It just isn’t a very satisfactory answer. The Samaritan was travelling (v. 33) and he happened upon this victim of roadside violence and he took pity on him. Right there, face to face with a man who had been brutally treated, he felt compassion and he acted it out.
I really think that is the answer in the story. Neighbors take pity on the victims they run across and, where it is possible, they act on that feeling. We don’t know whether the two previous passersby felt pity. They might have. If they did, they would have to find some way to quell it or to subordinate it to whatever other duties they were fulfilling.
The clear teaching of this story–not the only teaching–is that acting out the feelings of pity you have is the kind of thing neighbors do and the victim became a “neighbor” when the Samaritan felt the push of compassion.
I feel that way sometimes, too. I don’t see a lot of physical violence in my life, but I see people who are not accorded the respect they deserve; I see people who are emotionally abused; I see people who are stepped on intellectually by passersby who are quicker afoot and who like to step on people. I am either going to feel compassion toward these people and act on it or I am going to violate the single clearest feature of the story, which is, “Don’t quell your feelings of compassion.”
I find the implications of that understanding to be daunting, but I do know what they mean. Now let me ask a few related questions. Are there certain classes of people who are my “neighbor?” Are the poor of the third world my neighbors? Is Mr. Rogers my neighbor? Are the socially and economically marginal my neighbors?
I don’t have any answers ready to hand. I listed them only to show how appealing they are and now nicely they flow from the line of thought the scholar wanted to pursue and not at all from the line of thought Jesus substituted for it. Look at that. We’re back to the neighbor question again. We have the question we want to ask and we’re going to keep submitting it until we can find, in this story, an answer. We are undaunted by Jesus’ refusal to give an answer because we know the question is right and we know it is his job to answer it.
I’ll bet that somewhere in the series of Something Anonymous groups, there are people who could help me.