“Who, then, is my neighbor?” It is such a deceptively simple question. But let’s think about it together. I can read that question from a demographic perspective. Who are the people with which I live in proximity? I live in what was originally a first-ring suburb, a White-flight destination. But that reality is two generations past.
Now, I live in a neighborhood with a small amount of racial and ethnic diversity in the single-family homes. I live next to an apartment complex with a much higher amount of racial, economic, linguistic, ethnic, and age diversity. Our property is one of only a few in the neighborhood that actually touches both the single-family properties and the multi-unit property. Most of my single-family neighbors do not regard the apartment people as their neighbors, although we do.
I’m wondering how even that geographic proximity affects our perceptions. Most of my single-family neighbors regard the children of the apartment dwellers as interlopers and potential threats. They monitor those children (mostly BIPOC folks) with suspicion and tend to ascribe anything negative in the neighborhood as their fault. We don’t see those kids the same way and have come to know some of them a bit. They are our neighbors.
Who, then, is my neighbor? Is that a question of definition? Perhaps the lawyer remembers that “neighbors” in the Leviticus 19:18 text are Israelites, not “foreigners.” I think at least some of my physical neighbors believe that their neighbors are supposed to be white, middle-class, native-born Americans who own their houses, pay their taxes, and have nice lawns. Those who fall outside such parameters don’t qualify for the “neighbor” label.
This takes us to a third way of hearing and reading the question. Who should be my neighbor? Arland Hultgren argues that this is the real nub of the conversation in our text. He writes that “the thrust of the story and the follow-up question of Jesus expose the initial question for what it is, namely an attempt to classify people into two groups: those who are the neighbors whom I am to love, thereby keeping the love commandment, and those who are beyond my circle of concern” (page 75).
Hultgren argues that “making that distinction is wrong.” The issue is not about defining “neighbor” in order to determine who’s in and who’s out. “One’s concern should be,” he concludes, “How can I be a neighbor to anyone in need?” (page 75). As you know from my previous post, I’m not sure that’s how the rhetoric of the text actually works out. But the outcome is virtually the same.
Jesus followers shall not allow the boundaries of human enmity to determine the scope of neighbor love. God does not allow the boundaries of enmity between God and sin to determine the scope of God’s love. In fact, God’s love renders those boundaries null and void. For God, the boundaries of enmity are not removed in order for neighbor love to cross. Instead, neighbor love crosses those boundaries, and in the crossing dismantles them.
Here’s how I would put it in theological terms. Grace is the source of reconciliation. Reconciliation is not the precondition for grace. The Samaritan comes as neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers. The Samaritan continues that neighborliness to the end. Will the man be changed by that encounter and see the Samaritan now as neighbor?
Like most interpreters and preachers, Hultgren reads the text as a story about the call to help others in need. “How far am I obligated as a Christian,” Hultgren asks, “to help another who is in need” (page 75). The story and our reflections will get us to that question, I agree. But that’s not the first stop on the rhetorical journey. Will I risk accepting help from, being vulnerable to, being naked and alone with one who is by historical definition and social convention, the Enemy? Can I endure the danger of allowing grace to come ahead of guarantees?
The Samaritan is the “hero” of the story – if a hero is to be found. We who are part of the dominant culture in America always want to identify with the hero. Entertainment media has complied with that desire by making our historical heroes White like us. I’d refer you to Kristin Kobes Du Mez’s work in Jesus and John Wayne for the straight scoop in that regard. We press the Samaritan into that mold and assume that somehow, he is just like us.
But the Samaritan is not like a White, privileged, powerful, and propertied American. And I can’t make him to be so. This Samaritan is the Enemy, the Outsider, the Half-Breed, the Traitor, the Heretic, and so much more – at least to first-century Jews. The character we can identify with is the man in the ditch – likely a Jew heading home after faithfully practicing his faith in the Jerusalem temple. This is a man of at least some privilege, power, property, and position.
Hultgren proposes a sort of “color-blind” sensibility for the Samaritan in the story. “The Samaritan crosses over religious and ethnic boundaries, and the fact that Jesus includes that feature within the parable makes it a crucial point,” Hultgren argues. “The Samaritan provides an example of one who does good to another person in need with any regard for religion or ethnicity. Authentic love,” he concludes, “pays no attention to religious, ethnic, or culture differences when need is present” (pages 76-77).
The Samaritan crosses those boundaries in the story. But there is no reason within the story to think that the Samaritan is anything but painfully aware of those boundaries. Only those with privilege and power can be oblivious to such boundaries. The Samaritan saves the man in the ditch in spite of those boundaries, not because they have now become somehow invisible or irrelevant. Love in action is always specific and incarnate. The Samaritan didn’t stop being a Samaritan. The Jew didn’t stop being a Jew.
I note this because Hultgren’s reasoning leads him to minimize the realities of racial, ethnic, religious, and economic boundaries in the works of neighbor love. Such boundaries “are simply there,” he writes. “But there is a perennial tendency, faced by each generation,” he concludes, “to make the distinctions more important than they are” (page 77). The real result of this way of thinking will not be more vocal neighbor love. The result is the continuing culture of oppressive silence when it comes to dealing with such boundaries.
Expanding the boundaries of our own neighborhoods of active care is a critical part of following Jesus in contemporary America. I agree wholeheartedly with Hultgren in that regard. But that focus leaves the powerful in positions of power. We are the ones who do the healing and helping, the soothing and saving. We are still the heroes, and control of the system still belongs to us (White people). Opening ourselves to the care of the Other – that’s even harder to do.
In my anti-racism book study, we’ve launched into a discussion of the twentieth anniversary edition of Beverly Daniel Tatum’s Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? Our conversation led us to reflect on the sources and causes of the generalized White fear of Black people. While the sources and causes are, to coin a phrase, legion, one of our members spoke with candor about a particular cause for the fear.
A significant expression of White fear, our friend noted, is the expectation that Black people will, given sufficient power and resources, at some point retaliate for the violence, oppression, injustice, hatred, and theft they have experienced at the hands of White people over the last four hundred years. After all, that is probably how White people would generally respond if the roles were reversed, right? The historical data is all too clear in that regard.
In this understanding, supported by studies, journalism, and other documentation, Whites and Blacks regard one another as enemies rather than as neighbors. At least some White people do not trust Black people to act with civility and restraint, given half a chance to act otherwise. Our mythology is that Black men are beasts who want our women and our money. Therefore, White fear leads to continued structures and systems of restraint and oppression directed toward Black people.
At the very least, White people continue to resist having Black people as actual neighbors in actual neighborhoods in actual villages, towns, and cities in the United States. That’s an interesting lens through which to read our text. We can ask it first of all, not as a theological question, but perhaps as a demographic and sociological question. In fact, where I live, who is my neighbor? And how does that impact how I live as a daily disciple?
More than that, will I as a White person risk being vulnerable enough to engage in relationships with those “unlike” me? Will I risk the possibility that I might say or do something hurtful to a BIPOC friend, colleague or associate and then have to ask forgiveness and receive correction? Or will I remain, as Robin D’Angelo puts it, a “nice racist”? Am I willing to lay naked and alone, hurting and vulnerable along the road and trust that a potential “enemy” could be my neighbor? I think that’s what we’re called to “go and do likewise.”
References and Resources
Capon, Robert Farrar. Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus. Kindle Edition.
Hultgren, Arland J. “Enlarging the Neighborhood: The Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10: 25–37).” Word & World 37, no. 1 (2017): 71-8.
Levine, Amy-Jill. Short Stories by Jesus. HarperOne. Kindle Edition.
Levine, Amy-Jill, and Witherington III, Ben. The Gospel of Luke (New Cambridge Bible Commentary). Cambridge University Press, 2018.
Swanson, Richard W. Provoking the Gospel of Luke: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Year C. Cleveland, OH.: Pilgrim Press, 2006.
Tranvik, Mark D. “The Good Samaritan as Good News: Martin Luther and the Recovery of the Gospel in Preaching.” Word & World 38, no. 3 (2018).