Who is My Enemy? An Interfaith Spin on the Good Samaritan Story
Author’s Note: Portions of this blog post were originally written for and preached at Antioch United Methodist Church, Rural Hall, NC on May 18th, 2014.
Is the Good Samaritan Story an Interfaith Story?
Last Sunday, I was invited by my Salem College and Duke Divinity School bestie, Rev. Jennifer Hege, to preach for the good folks of Antioch United Methodist Church in Rural Hall, NC. I went off the lectionary—which is very Baptist and renegade of me—and offered reflections on the Parable of the Good Samaritan.
This was Jennifer’s suggestion—which rolled off her tongue effortlessly in eight seconds of brainstorming during a clergywomen’s retreat.
“You know, the Parable of the Good Samaritan is an interfaith story,” she’d said.
That never occurred to me. Leave it to a preacher whose weekly pulpit duties thrust her into the spiritual discipline of Bible exegesis to make clever theological connections.
Who is my enemy?
“Visualize someone who rubs you the wrong way,” I’d suggested, asking the Antioch Church community to visualize their enemies. They either, 1) actually did it, or 2) thought “this Baptist woman is NUTS.”
Then, we parsed them out. Who are our enemies? Are they folks who’ve done us wrong? Co-workers? Bosses? Business competitors? Are they someone of another race or religion?
Enemies are about perception: they are enemies because we feel threatened in some way. These alleged foes threaten our relationships, jobs, businesses, family configurations, or politics. The enemy takes away people, opportunities, profit, or peace of mind.
“What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
The details of the Good Samaritan story are familiar—the lawyer asks Jesus how to inherit eternal life, and, in typical Jesus fashion, a let’s-turn-things-upside down story ensues.
In Jesus’ day, lawyers were “interpreters and teachers of law given to the Israelites by Moses.” Today, we are the “lawyers”—modern-day critical thinkers, unsure of all what’s been placed before us.
In the text we read today, Jesus responds to the lawyer’s inquiry with another question: “What is written? How do you read it?”
Who is my neighbor?
The lawyer offers the textbook Old Testament response: “You shall love the Lord your God will all your heart, soul, strength, and mind—and your neighbor as yourself.”
“But who is my neighbor?” the lawyer continues, his question loaded.
The Israelites are geographically surrounded by many “neighbors,” and yet their list of enemies runs a mile long.
I can imagine the lawyer’s internal monologue went something like this:
“Sure, Jesus, I’ll do what the Old Testament says and love God and my Jewish neighbors—they are chosen and pure and abide by the law. But what about this non-specific “neighbor” business? What does that mean?”
Jesus doesn’t skip a beat.
Christ launches into what’s known today as a familiar, feel-good account about doing the right thing. But, for all its shiny lessons in compassion found in this story, there’s one that’s often over-looked: the significance of the ethnic, cultural, and religious identity of the Samaritan.
The Way of Blood
The desert road from Jerusalem to Jericho is long, about 17 miles, or a full day’s walk. The temple was located in Jerusalem, but many of the priests and religious pilgrims lived in Jericho.
The road in between these two cities is dangerous—Jesus would have known that his listeners (including the lawyer) knew about the dangers of the journey—including that many travelers fell victim to robbers.
In the story, Jesus describes a man who endures this fate. The traveler is robbed and left for dead, and the only thing that could possibly save him is someone passing by who offers helps. Cue the victim’s two fellow Jews, one, a Jewish priest, the other—a Levite, who is a temple worker. Both men see the hurt man on the road and pass by. Neither stops.
Then, a miracle: a Samaritan arrives where the man is hovering at death. What does he do? The Samaritan helps.
Jesus listeners’ must have been shocked: Who stops to help? A Samaritan?!
If I had asked the Israelites visual their enemies, the Samaritans would have come immediately to Israelites’ minds. For Jews, Samaritans were outcasts, people who don’t practice the “right” religion. Israelites considered Samaritans to “half-breeds, ethnic traitors, and bad guys.” For the Jews, the Samaritans were a threat to the spiritual standard.
Jesus is going out on a limb here. He’s taking a risk in telling this story—this would have been quite a taboo tale in his day and age.
But Christ wants to make a strong point: it was the Samaritan—not the victim’s fellow Jews—who had empathy. The Samaritan: the outsider and the despised one—whom the Israelites considered to be a hostile enemy—who stops to help.
What comes next is a litany of compassion. Action after action, the Jesus recounts the Samaritans deeds.
“He did what? You’ve got to be kidding me, Jesus. There’s more?”
I’m certain the listeners are writhing with discomfort and shock as Jesus unfurls each detail, demonstrating how the Good Samaritan—the religious, and ethnic enemy—goes above and beyond.
In concluding the story, Jesus turns to the lawyer and asks him, “Of these three, which one was the neighbor?”
The textbook answer—which would have been the ritually pure, religious Jewish neighbor—was no longer the correct answer.
In this case, the religious enemy was actually the neighbor.
You want me to love my enemy?
In Matthew, Chapter 5, Jesus tells us, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
How do you and I need to change our perspectives in such a way that the enemy becomes our neighbor? How might we ease the threat of this perceived enemy? How might we love them and pray for them?
“Go and do likewise”
Before I opened myself up on eHarmony to dating someone of another religion, I would have deemed the non-Christian boyfriend to be a threat to my Christian walk. But it turns out that this alleged enemy of my spiritual journey became my neighbor, my beloved, my husband. Fred’s devout Hinduism jolted me out of my Christian complacency. A devout Hindu—someone many Christian might perceive to be the enemy—has actually helped me become a better follower of Christ.
At the conclusion of the parable, Jesus asks the lawyer which of the three passersby was the real neighbor. The lawyer responds, “the one who showed mercy.” The Jesus “Go and do likewise.”
Perhaps those whom we perceive to be our enemies are not enemies at all. Perhaps it’s us who need the fresh perspective. Like the lawyer, we need this parable. We think we have all the answers, but then Jesus changes the equation.
Interfaith conversation can be a stretch for many Christians. But I encourage us to re-examine this Bible story as our example. We open ourselves up to the possibility of wondering, “who is my neighbor?” we might be surprised to find the one who worships differently, prays differently, and has a different scripture to be our neighbor. These friends helps us dig deep on our religious paths while exposing us to many ways humanity experiences God.
How can you be a Good Samaritan to your enemy? How will you show mercy? Loving our enemies may be the toughest thing we are commanded to do. But this, my friends, is how we inherit eternal life.
Edward Markquart, Sermons from Seattle, The Good Samaritan Gospel Analysis
Michael Rogness, Working Preacher, Commentary on Luke 10:25-37
Marilyn Salmon, Working Preacher, Commentary on Luke 10:25-37
Joseph Tkach, A New Look at the Good Samaritan
The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament