Friday, August 19, 2011

Getting it backward

Vox draws the wrong conclusion from an old teaching:
VD: 12/28/09 12:37 PM:
wrf3: 12/28/09 12:21 PM:
Who is my neighbor?
Jesus answered that specific question in the parable of the Good Samaritan.

Luke 10:36-37: "Which of these three do you think was a neighbor 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."

Jesus obviously did not tell him that all three of the men were his neighbors. In fact, two of the three were excluded. "Neighbor" is simply not synonymous with "everyone". There is no Biblical basis for establishing that equivalence.
It's an old post, which I hadn't seen until it popped up today in a discussion over there about anklebiters. But I was rather shocked at Vox's implication: your neighbor is the man who does good to you first, and no one else. I don't think that's Jesus' point at all.

For the biblically impaired, the backstory (Luke 10:30-7) is this: Jesus told a story about a man* who was attacked by robbers along a lonely road and left for dead. While he lay there bleeding, a priest and a Levite, his fellow Jews, walked past and ignored his plight. A little bit later a Samaritan, a member of a sect of "half-breed" Jews despised and hated by real Jews, happened upon him.  He got the man patched up, then hired an innkeeper to nurse him back to full health, even offering to pay that part of his expenses not covered under Medicare, Part D. Jesus then asked his inquisitor** which man was a neighbor to him? The lawyer rightly answered it was the Samaritan. Jesus then told him to go and do as that man had done.

According to traditional Jewish teaching, a neighbor was a fellow Jew (c.f. Strong's Concordance #4139), and it was only these neighbors, and not gentiles much less nasty Samaritans, that one had an obligation to love under Leviticus 19:18. Since non-Jews were considered outside God's love, they were considered unworthy of the love of godly men - pretty convenient if you find some group of people unlovely and unlovable. However, it is Jesus' choice of a Samaritan as the neighbor that blasts the traditional Jewish teaching (and I might add Vox's conclusion) to smithereens. For if Jews are not the 'neighbors' of Samaritans, then neither are Samaritans the neighbors of Jews, and yet not only was the Samaritan admittedly acting as a neighbor, Jesus told the Jew with whom he was speaking to go and do the same thing. "Cross the boundary of your comfort, your tradition, and your prejudice," Jesus was saying, "and show love to the stranger you happen across on the road." That would make neighbor synonymous with anyone, if not everyone.

If our neighbor was defined by who we are, then the actions of this Samaritan (and the inaction of the Jews) would never have brought about the lawyer's answer - his neighbor (fellow-citizen, companion, friend) was the Jew. But if neighbor is a concept larger than these boundaries allow, only then does the parable make sense***.

One can certainly force a hyper-literal interpretation and conclude that only the Samaritan who did the traveler good was his neighbor. In fact, one need only assume Jesus was answering the question and no more. It would follow then that the traveler had only the obligation to love the Samaritan.  But if that's the case, why tell the parable? For men naturally love those who do them well (Luke 7:42).  Yet Jesus did not say, "Go and do what you are naturally inclined to do;" that would hardly be worth saying, much less recording for posterity. Instead, Jesus answered "Who is my neighbor?" by insisting that his interlocutor go and do as the Samaritan did: love and care for the stranger. My take is that Jesus did not answer the question directly as was his habit with dishonest questions****. Rather he simply cut through the legalistic dust the lawyer was kicking up, exposed his hypocrisy, and told him how to truly keep the command that he already knew full well he should be keeping, but was not.

* Who from the context we will assume is a Jew.
** A lawyer. Insert joke here.
*** and only then does the OT teaching make sense. If some men are not your neighbors, does that make it ok to sleep with their wives (Lev 18:20) or defraud them (Lev 19:20)? I'm pretty sure that's not exactly what Moses is saying here.
**** since the man was only seeking to justify his present behavior (Luke 10:29) and not really looking for an answer.

No comments: