It is, perhaps, the most well known biblical parable. A man on the road to Jericho is assaulted by robbers and left for dead. Two separate travelers who are religious men pass him by without helping. A third is from a tribe known at the time as religious outcasts. He rescues the wounded traveler and sees that he is cared for until he is brought back to health. Jesus asks, who was the neighbor?
When I was a child, I listened in on an adult conversation. Television had, by then, become a part of daily American life, and the conversation turned to church broadcasts. A televised speaker at one religious convention preached to the assembled about love.
Your neighbor is not just the one living next door or across the street. NO NO NO. When Jesus says to love your neighbor, he means Southern Christian Baptists everywhere!!
The adults around the table laughed.
Now, I was a kid listening in on adult conversation, so I may have the denomination wrong. And if I don’t, one speaker does not make doctrine for an entire sect. We can find similar examples in many variants of the faith.
A Seventh Day Adventist argues the traditional view, that we are commanded to love all, especially those in need. She meets a bit of resistance in a series of comments: Jesus wanted us to help those in need, but love?
The fact remains that those who do not resond (sic) to the gospel message are “God’s enemies” and God’s wrath remains on them.
Another article, this one by a conservative religious scholar, insists that God wants us to provide only for other Christians. He explains who is our neighbor.
The answer is that those who have eternal life love God and their fellow believers and they prove themselves to be believers when they take care of other believers.
Most of my brothers and sisters in Christ reject that view. Their rejection is sometimes buttressed by other passages. In one, Jesus describes how some will find themselves rejected for a simple reason. It has to do with the self identification of Jesus with those who are impoverished, vulnerable. “…whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.” He was hungry and they did not feed him, needing clothes and they did not clothe him.
I was a stranger and you did not welcome me.
Most of us are not well grounded in scriptural doctrine, aside from a vague idea that each of us ought to be a good guy. To others there is a deeper emphasis on internal transformation.
With all your heart
With all your soul
With all your strength
With all your mind
There is the equation of anger with murder, and there is its opposite: “Without love, I am nothing.” Internal recognition of the worth of others is the source from which external acts will flow.
My life has been happiest when that human recognition of the intrinsic value of others has been more than a condition of the mind. Relief at a televised rescue, offense at witnessing injustice, the experience of empathy, are brief symptoms. When acceptance of others, however fleeting, comes from an emotional recognition that human worth is not a debatable topic, perhaps that is part of personal transformation.
Most Christians, even those of us not well versed in verses, remember that all of us will fail. Sometimes we go to the story of Peter betraying Jesus three times. Sometimes we simply close our eyes and mumble that nobody is perfect.
Another childhood memory involves watching black and white television with my dad. It was one of dozens of paternalistic films about kindly professional white folks arriving in Africa to help resistant, superstitious natives. The beneficent white people were a male doctor and a female missionary, I think. The plot involved some sort of medical triumph. A tribal leader is impressed as could be with this new thing called medicine. The local witch doctor is outraged at his sudden loss of influence. He utters a curse: You will betray your faith and your God.
I remember my father chuckling at the plot line. I couldn’t see the joke. So he explained. “It’s a curse that can’t miss.”
That is one reason we are told to avoid judgments. Jesus is more explicit with warnings to pay less attention to the splinter in our neighbor’s eye than the log in our own. Perhaps that internal recognition of human frailty helps in empathizing with the flaws in others.
We incorporate that little bit of wisdom into our rituals of worship. So confident is the church of its own shortcomings, our communion prayer includes a prepared statement of confession:
We have not loved our neighbors,
and we have not heard the cry of the needy.
The not hearing the cry, the turning away of the stranger, is a singular failing.
Another brief childhood memory involves listening as a kitchen table visitor, a pastor, talked of his view of the faithful. He reminded himself that each person was engaged in a personal spiritual journey. He was not inclined to criticize the progress of anyone. Then he looked downward and shook his head. Still, he said, some of what he heard was pretty bad.
There is a vulnerability to any religion. History tells us there has always been. Partly, it’s a smugness that comes from possessing the one true belief. “There is nothing more arrogant than a Christian holding four aces.” But a large part is the twisting of a message of universal human value into a sort of tribalism. The privileges of my group of believers must be defended from any claims by your group. And others, those unlike ourselves, are to be feared.
There are real-life consequences. We see the influence of xenophobia in policy debates that go back before any of us were born.
A recently concluded political campaign was largely aimed at true Christian believers. It included an attack on a single ethnic group.
ISIS is infiltrating America, and using Syrians to do it. The FBI warned we can’t simply screen every Syrian, and Jon Ossoff’s liberal party bosses brought 10,000 Syrian refugees to America.
In 1939, similar rhetoric was used to turn away Jewish refugees, many of whom were children, all of whom were soon killed by Nazis.
The attack isn’t true. ISIS is not infiltrating America with Syrian refugees. From the time large numbers of Syrians began fleeing bloody attacks, common sense safeguards have been in place. The processing of refugees takes years. The overwhelming majority are children and their mothers. There is no case of a Syrian refugee carrying out a terrorist attack in the United States.
Shortly before he was killed, Martin Luther King preached a sermon based on the Samaritan non-believer helping a wounded victim.
You know it’s possible that the priest and the Levite looked over that man on the ground and wondered if the robbers were still around. Or it’s possible that they felt that the man on the ground was merely faking … acting like he had been robbed and hurt in order to … lure them there for quick and easy seizure.
And so the first question that the priest asked, the first question that the Levite asked, was if I stop the helpless man what will happen to me.
For us, modern lengthy vetting means that even that excuse is no longer viable.
We are left, then, with only one reason to continue on without providing sanctuary to those under attack.
But then the Good Samaritan came by and he reversed the question if I do not stop to help this man what will happen to him.
For many of us, for too many, the question what will happen to the wounded man on the side of the road has a bare knuckle answer. It is the same answer we apply to scarred and vulnerable children and parents fleeing the ruthless attacks of the powerful:
It doesn’t matter to me.
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