The writer of Hebrews describes God’s word as being sharper than a sword that can pierce deeply. But I wonder if that is always true. The potential is certainly true. But through over-familiarity, enculturation, assumptions and what not, that sword can be blunted and hardly able break the skin, much less separate bone from marrow, or penetrate the thoughts and intentions of the heart. We read and hear the scriptures as proof-texts of our already held assumptions and affiliations, our patterns and choices.
Let’s take one of the most familiar gospel parables as an example: the story of the good Samaritan found in Luke 10: 25-37. The story both illustrates what I am speaking of, that is the blunting of the tradition, but it also illustrates the story-telling potential that can sharpen that sword so that it might penetrate once again. The story is framed with an expert in the law putting Jesus on the spot. Jesus turns the conversation so that it is the expert answering his questions, and the expert spouts quickly and easily a very apt and appropriate interpretation of the tradition. He is a good student and interpreter. He sums up the law by saying that it boils down to loving the Lord with all one’s heart, soul, mind, and strength and to love one’s neighbor as oneself. Few if any would dicker with this interpretation. Few Christians today would debate the assertion. Of course. We are called to love our neighbor as ourselves.
Got it. Check. Roger.
It is with the next question that the blunt conclusion that as Christians we love the Lord with our whole being and as our neighbor as ourselves is called into question. All of a sudden the blunt edge of pre-conceived notions starts to get ground down into a sharpening edge. “Who is my neighbor?” the expert asks. To this question the parable is a response.
But the parable turns the question again. In the end the question Jesus puts back to the expert and which the expert answers is not “who is my neighbor?”, but “who was a neighbor to the man?” You see the story gives us four main characters, three of whom we know enough of to rely on our assumptions: a priest, a Levite, and a Samaritan. The fourth we know nothing of. No description other than his fate as being robbed and beaten. No description but that of his wounds and his needs. He is face down, and so we can’t rely on assumptions about who he is or what he is like based on looks. He is dirty and bloody. He is not speaking; no accent or word usage with which to identify him. He is just a person beaten down and in need.
The problem is we often come to understand ourselves in opposition to others. We have categories and labels that define ourselves in relation to others. Native vs foreigners. White vs other. English speaking vs. foreign speaking. Straight vs. gay. Clean vs. unclean. Safe vs. dangerous. Legal vs. illegal. Christian vs. Muslim. Pro-life vs. Pro-choice. And in order to know how to maintain our identity we rely somewhat on our ability to define ourselves and others in relation to these categories. Perhaps this is what unnerves the priest and the Levite in the story, which keeps them from acting. They pass by on the other side. Or perhaps it is because they can identify him as an “other” that they do not want to have contact with, or do not want to help? Or is the identity of this man as opaque to them as it is to the reader with no way to identify him?
Who is my neighbor? Is the man in the ditch my neighbor? What does that mean? How do I determine this? What are the criteria? What makes or does not make someone my neighbor? What would I look for as I peer over the edge of road down at this man lying in the ditch? This is where the blunt sword of assumptions starts to get ground down. Do we really love our neighbors as ourselves? Do we even know who are neighbors are? Or have we relied on categories and delineations to keep us apart from our neighbors? And if we were to help the person in the ditch, even if they are totally other from us in terms of our choices, beliefs, practices, political affiliations, would it threaten our own sense of self and identity. Would we find it contaminating to come into contact with and support and nurse back to health one such as that?
So the question turns to “who is a neighbor to the man?” Are we ready to answer this question in a time when we are being invited to address the problems of our day in terms of others who are the threats? Muslim registries – don’t help him if he looks middle-eastern. Border walls – don’t help him if he looks like an illegal. “Law and Order” – don’t help if he looks like a criminal. Responsibility – don’t help her if she is relying on the system.
It is a time when we as a church must be close readers of our scriptures. Yes, we can rattle off the answers like the expert in the law did. But can we sit with the questions and let the blunt sword made dull by culture and assumptions get its edge back? Can it cut us, convict us, instruct us? Can it penetrate deep enough to help us to know the thoughts and intentions of our own heart? Can it compel us and propel us to know how live out our tradition, out our faith, out our convictions, out our love and belief in grace, forgiveness, and community in Christ?
Who was a neighbor to the man? In an era of renewed labels and lines, borders and registries, the question comes to us as a sword dripping with the life-blood of our tradition, “who was a neighbor to the man?”