Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.“You’ve answered correctly,” He told him. “Do this and you will live.”
But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
Jesus took up the question and said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho and fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him, beat him up, and fled, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down that road. When he saw him, he passed by on the other side. In the same way, a Levite, when he arrived at the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan on his journey came up to him, and when he saw the man, he had compassion. He went over to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on olive oil and wine. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him. When I come back I’ll reimburse you for whatever extra you spend.’
“Which of these three do you think proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”
“The one who showed mercy to him,” he said.
Then Jesus told him, “Go and do the same.”
It's a story we've heard since we were children, the story of a man left bleeding and dying, ignored by those seeming to have the most responsibility to help yet helped by the one most likely to pass by. But like many stories told over and over, this story has much wisdom we can glean.
When Jesus "took up the man's question", everyone stopped to listen to his story. I imagine people shouting questions and requests for healing at Jesus like reporters at a press conference, all voices silencing when he opens his mouth to answer.
To imagine ourselves as listeners to this story, let's put the story into a modern day setting. A man lies beaten and possibly dead after being robbed in the inner city. Several people we would expect to stop and help a naked and injured man - a physician, a minister, an Army medic - all pass by, pretending not to see. Perhaps they have good reasons. They will be late for something important; they will be covered in filthy blood; the man is probably dead or dying anyway; the perpetrators could still be lurking nearby. We know the priest and the Levite in the story would have feared for their safety as well as knowing they would be unclean for temple service if they touched a dead body.
Suddenly a character appears in the story that must be up to no good, a Samaritan. Surely he will kick the body, spit on the dying man, or look for any money left behind by the robber. In our story we'll replace him with a Muslim terrorist, a member of the KKK, or that kid in middle school who gave everyone wedgies. How shocking that Jesus would have the Samaritan be the one who binds the wounds, pays the debt, and risks his own life to help the nearly dead man.
Jesus turns the question around from "who is my neighbor" to "who was a neighbor". The lawyer cannot even make himself say the word "Samaritan" in answer. Jesus calls his listeners to be a neighbor to all - showing love to even those we deem unlovable.
We like to pat ourselves on the back and feel superior at all those we accept. We take pride in claiming to not be racist, or sexist, or classist. But when we examine our hearts there is likely someone we would walk to the other side of the road to avoid. Perhaps we are uncomfortable around homeless people, homosexuals, those of other religions, people from different cultures. There may be someone at church, at work, at school, or in our own families we avoid if at all possible. God calls us to be a neighbor to that person. We must get out of our comfort zone and include all people, especially those we find difficult to tolerate and love.
Now, you know, we use our imagination a great deal to try to determine why the priest and the Levite didn’t stop... It’s possible that those men were afraid. You see, the Jericho Road is a dangerous road... In the days of Jesus it came to be known as the ‘Bloody Pass.’ And 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, and he was acting like he had been robbed and hurt in order to seize them over there, 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 to help this man, what will happen to me?” 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?”
- MLK Jr. (full speech here)