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The Good Samaritan, by Theoldule Augustin Ribot

In the category of asking the wrong question, a legal expert was in conversation with Jesus to check out his credentials as a teacher/rabbi. It is a notable back and forth of asking questions, and answering with questions.  Luke records the incident this way:

“On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

“What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”

He answered, “‘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, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.”

 “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”

We might mistakenly think this is the end of the conversation, but Luke records one more question asked by the legal expert:

“And who is my neighbour?”

I might have put it like, “But who is my neighbour?” as legal experts are apt to thinly slice every word for a legal definition.

What comes next is not a legal answer but one of the most relational answers in what is known as the Parable of the Good Samaritan.

The Centrality of Justice

This parable has inspired organizations, charities, and the ethic of giving. In a recent book I read this year (Mentoring: Biblical, Theological, and Practical Perspectives), one of the essays is written from a Latin perspective. Christian De La Rosa “questions the interpretation that leads to the practice of charity as it is linked intrinsically and foremost to justice. The centrality of justice in the loving of our neighbour fosters agency – not charity- that identifies solidarity as a character virtue.”

Quoting Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz, he writes:

It is an attitude and disposition that greatly includes how we act. As a virtue, solidarity becomes a way of life.

Therefore, in light of more “than two-thirds of the people of the world living under terrible oppressive conditions,” we need to redefine love of neighbour and the demands this new interpretation and way of life place on us if we want to “continue to claim the centrality of this gospel message.

The Centrality of Jesus

With deference to De La Rosa, the centrality of the gospel is not justice; justice is a significant but subsequent outcome of the One who brings it. The centrality of the gospel is Christ Himself, and the further we remove ourselves to mere ideas and concepts apart from Jesus, the more we are left with self-aggrandizing charity on one hand, or political self-defined justice claims on the other.

Instead, as French Philosopher of the 20th century, Paul Ricoeur noted, “sociology as a science of human relationships in organized groups ironically has no sociology for the neighbour.” In a way this is what the legal expert was after when he asked Jesus a technical question to avoid the very personal question of responsibility, justice, and costly self-giving. (Note the cautionary tale in The Difference between a Drain and a Conduit).

Jesus’ answer is not to the question “who is my neighbour?”. Instead with the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus demonstrates “I do not have a neighbour… I am a neighbour.” James Houston writes:

The ‘Person’ in the narrative of the Good Samaritan particularizes one’s situation with one’s neighbour, preventing them from reducing them to abstract moral categories.

To the extent that we reduce persons to abstract moral categories for justice or charity, we reduce the personhood of the one in front of us.

For more see The Mystery of the Poor – or – Heavier than a Bowl of Soup.

Not Who is my Neighbour – But – to Whom am I a Neighbour?

Jesus’ question to the legal expert at the end the parable is one for each and all of us:

 Which of these… do you think was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”

The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”

Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.

Micah 6:8

In the echo of Micah 6:8 – go forth and show mercy, do justice, and walk humbly with your God…