I had a friend who lived and worked with refugee communities. One day a woman reached out to her, asking, “Do you have any refugees I could come hug?” This woman was agitated, anguished even, about the political situation that kept pushing refugees to the top of the headlines. She was a good-hearted person, no doubt, but my friend was at a loss for words. Her neighborhood wasn’t a zoo full of people that this woman could drop into and observe or hug somebody whenever she felt sad. But this woman, like so many, reached out to me precisely because of her lack of connection. She was trying to span the bridges our society had created, albeit on her own terms. And those terms dictated that some people were nameless, faceless groups of the miserable, always up for a nice woman to come in and comfort them.
I too have experienced many such offers of “help” and have polished my ministry of gently deflating these do-gooder dreams. The people in my neighborhood who had experienced forced migration don’t need a hug from a strange woman. What they need are good neighbors. They need people to live next door to them, to send their kids to school with theirs, to vote for policies that protect instead of harm them. They need people whose lives are intricately bound up with their flourishing.
It’s a hard message to give in my city—which, like so many in our world, is segregated by race and class. Asking people to do good, to give, to be charitable, becomes easy in these kinds of societies; asking them to be neighbors with those they most wish to help is not, since it points out an inconvenient truth that most of us try hard to forget all the time: some of us have worked hard to make sure we are only neighbors with certain kinds of people, and now we have to live with the results.
There is a famous parable Jesus told about a good Samaritan in Luke 10. It is about how a priest and a Levite—the pristine, untouched, religious, the followers of God—ignored a man who had been beaten by robbers and left for dead on the side of the road that went from Jerusalem to Jericho. It is a Samaritan man—someone Jesus’ audience had been conditioned to despise from birth—who took care of the victim and found him shelter and clothes. There are many reasons people love and fear this parable. Jesus was telling the crowd that it is often the people we least expect who are the ones who actually do the work of God in the world, saving those who have been battered by our culture. He was telling us that the people who think of themselves as good often turn out to be terrible neighbors.
READ: The Surprising Success and Faith of ‘Won’t You Be My Neighbor?’
But I often think, too, about the man who asked the question that sparked the parable. We are told that a lawyer—an expert in the Old Testament law—wanted to test Jesus (Luke 10). So he asked the mother of all questions, “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus turned the test back on him, shrewdly asking him to sum up the law—which the man had studied his whole life. “How do you read it?” Jesus asks him, all innocent. The man is a good student, he immediately sums up the entire work of Scripture: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all of your strength and with all of your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” And Jesus replies, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you shall live.”
But the lawyer is not satisfied with Jesus’ answer. The lawyer could say all the words of what it meant to be good, to possess the keys to God’s approval and favor and eternal life; but he did not understand them. We know this because in verse 29 it tells us he reached out to Jesus again, not done with the conversation. “But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus ‘And who is my neighbor?”
This verse haunts me more than any other in Scripture, for it defines the ethics of our time. How many of us have orchestrated our lives around this same question, buoyed by a life of continual self-rationalization? In truth, I don’t really want the answer to that question who is my neighbor? I want to remain safe and secure, confident that I have accrued eternal life for myself, that I am a good person. But Jesus tells the lawyer, and he tells me and he tells you, that the good neighbor is the one who shows mercy to those who have been robbed and left by the wayside of society.
The irony is, the more you try to be the good neighbor, the good Samaritan with eyes to see the world, the more the battered and bruised bodies start to pile up. As one of my mentors once told me, you can only help so many people on the side of the road before you start to wonder where all of these damn robbers are coming from. The more you see a world that creates Jericho highways and profits off of there being a society full of both robbers and victims. The more you notice the outwardly righteous who either cannot or will not see their responsibility to alleviate the suffering, the more we might have to ask ourselves where we fit in the parable. I think about that priest and that Levite in the story, how they were so sure they were doing what was right. The Samaritan man possessed something they did not, something I am now on a perpetual quest for: curiosity at the way the world works and what our responsibility might be to each other.
Taken from Myth of the American Dream by D.L. Mayfield. Copyright (c) 2020 by Danielle Mayfield. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com