by Janet Frick
Who is my neighbor?
The Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37)
29 But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
As the parent of two children who have been part of the Athens Clarke-County public school system since 2007, I have been watching with great interest and concern the events that have been uncovered at Cedar Shoals high school this spring. I won’t rehash all of the gory details which have been covered extensively in the local paper, and which continue to be discussed among local parents. Questions and concerns remain about how decisions were made regarding both discipline and communication, and ongoing inquiry into these matters has led to further concerning reports about broader issues related to school discipline, culture, and the impact of poverty on the academic and social-emotional development of many young people in our community.
Discussions about issues of poverty and behavioral concerns in CCSD public schools have been interesting to watch over the years. Athens is a very racially, economically, and educationally diverse city. Anyone who has spent any time in local public schools knows that there are children who face enormous challenges and obstacles to successful learning and emotional development. I think we all realize that public schools cannot solve all of the problems that have been created by poverty and other structural challenges. But the question for us as both followers of Christ and as members of this community is: how are we called to respond?
People who don’t have school-age kids might read about these issues, feel concern and compassion, but think, “not my problem.” Families whose children attend schools other than CCSD public schools might think, “not my problem.” However, making progress on addressing the challenges that face the most disadvantaged and deeply struggling families in our community is, in fact, “yes my problem.”
In the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus is having an exchange with an expert in the law. Luke describes this encounter as the man “testing” Jesus — in other words, he’s not interested in a friendly conversation, but he’s looking to trap Jesus or embarrass him. Jesus, tuned into the man’s intent, answers his initial question with a question. I like to think of Jesus’ response to the man’s opening question of “what must I do to inherit eternal life” as being a bit like, “It’s in the syllabus.” Once the expert in the law responds with the two greatest commandments (“Love God” and “Love your neighbor”), Jesus says “Yes, do this and you will live.”
Not content to stop there, however, the man follows up with: “And who is my neighbor?” Interestingly, Jesus never directly answers this question. He turns the question away completely from describing the characteristics of the “other” who would qualify as a neighbor, and instead, he puts the focus squarely where it belongs — on the actions of the person asking the question. We all know the parable of the good samaritan, but what I find interesting in this story is that the question answered is not “who is my neighbor”, but rather, “which of these people (in the parable) WAS A NEIGHBOR to the man who was robbed?” To Jesus, his priority for his followers was not for them to focus on the characteristics of other people and decide who fits or doesn’t fit into “our club”, but rather, his followers should focus on what THEY should do to BE a neighbor.
So in other words, when we read “Love your neighbor as yourself”, our focus shouldn’t be on the word “neighbor” (and figuring out who that is?) but rather our focus should be on the word “Love” (which is what WE do). And further, as we read the parable, we note that “love” is not “sit around and pray for” or “feel warm fuzzy thoughts towards” or “gaze adoringly upon.” Love, in this parable, is hands-on. It starts with a feeling of compassion, but then it moves into action. It takes time, and money, and communication. It can be inconvenient. It is a personal commitment. It is given without an expectation of anything being given back in return.
When we live in community with one another as followers of Christ, everyone is our neighbor. We know from Jesus’ own example that he spent his time with the outcasts of society — the poor, the downtrodden, the reviled, the rejected. Here in Athens, children failed by the local school system, and/or by overwhelmingly challenging family or economic forces, are all of our neighbors. The poor, those in prison, those who reject the standards of society that we take for granted — they are our neighbors. When we begin to focus on healing their wounds, giving of our resources to support them, and going out of our way to meet them where they are, we will begin to live out what Jesus called us to do when he said “Go and do likewise.”
Prayer: God, help us to set aside our own comfort and complacency to go out and love our neighbors — all of them — through our words and our actions. Amen.