Who Is My Neighbor?

Today I read a short devotional excerpt by Henri Nouwen that jumped out:
“Love your neighbor as yourself” the Gospel says (Matthew 22:38). But who is my neighbor? We often respond to that question by saying: “My neighbors are all the people I am living with on this earth, especially the sick, the hungry, the dying, and all who are in need.” But this is not what Jesus says. When Jesus tells the story of the good Samaritan (see Luke 10:29-37) to answer the question “Who is my neighbor?” he ends the [parable] by asking, “Which, … do you think, proved himself a neighbor to the man who fell into the bandits’ hands?” The neighbor, Jesus makes clear, is not the poor man laying on the side of the street, stripped, beaten, and half dead, but the Samaritan who crossed the road, “bandaged his wounds, pouring oil and wine on them, … lifted him onto his own mount and took him to an inn and looked after him.” My neighbor is the one who crosses the road for me!
I admit, this flipped my head upside down. True, over the years it occasionally struck me a bit puzzling that Jesus offered the answer he gave, providing what seems like an answer to a different question: “To whom should I be a neighbor?”
Then I wondered if it was nothing but a clever mental gymnastic: interesting but insignificant. After all, the story has the same conclusion either way.
But what changes is: who am I in the question of “Who is my neighbor?” And there is the rub.
For of course, in my mind I am the potential Good Samaritan. I am the empowered, the resourced. And therefore that this is a story to evoke roughly a ‘noblesse oblige’ response–the obligation of the fortunate (literally those born into nobility) to bestow voluntary charity on the unfortunate.
But Nouwen is right: Jesus didn’t intend this top-down view in his story. Once again, our cultural overlay has tweaked my interpretation.
For Jesus answered the scribe who wished to justify himself by asking, “Who is my neighbor?” with the story of a Jewish man beaten and helpless and then asks: ‘who is this man’s neighbor?’ So by telling the story in this way, surely in some measure he wants us too to see ourselves as the one in need, in need of a neighbor like that.
And in terms of an attitude of ministry, that makes all the difference. I am not a beneficent benefactor bestowing blessing from my impenetrable perch, but a fellow traveler, just as vulnerable and needy, with just as much to receive as to give. Today I am the one coming upon a waylaid fellow traveler; tomorrow I may need a fellow traveler to stop and tend to my wounds.
The story ends with Jesus’ words “Go and do likewise.”
Go, knowing we travel the same path of mottled shadowlands and light. Go, keeping an eye on the ditches for those waylaid. Go, remembering that we each will play both roles in the story, sometimes the helpless, sometimes the helping. (And too often the disavowing passerby in need of forgiveness.) Go, viewing everyone at eye level, the common road our equalizer, replacing “noblesse oblige” with Jesus’ paradigm—that of the wounded healer.
Then, when we go, we will walk gingerly, admitting our common need for one another, for Good Samaritans, and for a Good Shepherd.

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