Who do you think suffered more pain: the man who fell into the hands of robbers, or the lawyer who fell into the hands of Jesus?
We are so familiar with the one story, too familiar maybe, that we are prone to miss the other one in which a lawyer stood up to test Jesus.
Jesus turns his question on him and makes him look silly for asking.
That won’t do, so the lawyer follows up with another question to justify himself, to save face, to salvage something from this contest he started and is now losing badly.
And who is my neighbor? he asks.
Jesus responds with a story that strips him, beats him, and leaves him half dead.
A man … Jesus begins, talking to a man.
He already has him exactly where he wants him.
Storytellers know that hearers identify with the first character they meet.
The man to whom Jesus is telling the story will hitch his wagon to the man for the rest of the story because right now there’s no one else to follow.
The man goes downhill through the hood.
He walks the winding, hilly path full of switchbacks and hiding spots alone.
Predictably, he gets jumped, robbed, rolled, and left in a ditch to die.
Questions gather in the lawyer’s head, but the story keeps moving.
A priest also goes down that road, so away from rather than towards the temple—he’s not
heading to work.
Holy business, including purity laws, should not be an issue—but he crosses the road, maybe
because he’s a chicken.
So likewise a Levite—clergy continue to be unhelpful.
The people who know God, and God’s law, are not very loving or neighborly, and time is wasting for the helpless man with whom the lawyer has subconsciously identified.
Then comes the right hook to the soul.
A smarmy looking foreigner wearing a San Francisco Giants hat and an I voted sticker
makes eye contact and slows down.
He starts speaking very quickly a language the man does not recognize.
He approaches, reeking of alcohol, bad weed and strong dollar store cologne.
He takes out a dark, mysterious bottle and pours whatever’s inside into the open gashes, which immediately burn and stink.
Jesus has slowed down too, pouring on the details that make the lawyer just want to die already.
Oh no, the suffering will continue.
The tender enemy picks him up, lifts him onto his burro, smiles encouragingly, and bounces him down the road past the urgent care with the window bars, two payday loan storefronts, a liquor store, and a pawn shop to the small loading dock behind a dicey looking motel.
Don’t worry, he knows a guy.
He carries the aching body into a room with a stained bed that does not smell clean.
He pours in more fire juice and wraps the wounds in some laundry he uncrumpled from his bag.
Then he pulls out a few hundred cash and hands the wad to the terrifying proprietor.
Take care of him, and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.
Now that the lawyer is sufficiently horrified, Jesus polishes him off before leaving him half dead inside.
Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?
The lawyer still has his dignity, so he refuses to say the S word.
His principled hatred is too strong, his faith in God is too strong to say it, but he also
knows he is checkmated.
The one who showed him mercy, he stammers.
Be like him, Jesus says with a wink and a mic drop.
The lawyer risks no further questions.
The last question, of course, is still haunting him: Who is my neighbor?
If the question doesn’t haunt you, you haven’t thought about it enough.
There are many answers, and less you want to hear them, the more likely they are right.
But please remember how we got to this terrible question.
Our two stories, which are really one story, begin with two commandments, which are really one commandment.
You shall love the Lord your God with all you have and all you are … and your neighbor as yourself.
Loving neighbor is how you love God.
Loving God means loving who God loves, which is to say, your neighbor and yourself.
And the answer to who is my neighbor is really grounded in the question, who is my God?
Who is your God?
Is your God a patriotic Jew?
Is your God an extension of your prejudices and preferences?
Does your God hate or avoid all the same people you do?
Is your God a micromanager who never makes mistakes, a moral enforcer, a passionate lover, a prosecuting lawyer?
Is your God a cosmic cop, a combination of police sargeant and Santa Claus who’s going to find out who’s naughty and nice and dole out punishments and rewards accordingly?
Is your God the old Deist watchmaker who winds up the world and lets it go, staying out of its automatic functions and working on something else?
Is your God a sweet benevolent grandparent, a superhero, a distant CEO?
Is your God a woman who is growing older, as Rabbi Maggie Wenig famously preached?
Is your God a profit margin, a security system, a personal insurance broker, a magic healer, a warrior packing heat, a failure who didn’t meet your expectations?
Whatever you put your trust in, that is your God, Martin Luther would say.
How do you describe the God you do or don’t believe in?
And what if your God looks like your dreadful neighbor?
What if God smells like the barn he was born in?
What if God is a helpless refugee child on the run from a violent tyrant?
What if God is a homeless wanderer, a son of man with no place to lay his head?
What if God is a spiritual or political enemy who treats you with excruciating kindness?
What if God is a stripped, beaten criminal left for dead on the side of the road?
Who is your God?
And who is your neighbor?
You can’t really answer just one question, or keep one commandment, without wrestling long
and hard with both.