Who Is My Neighbor?
By Alison Roberts
July 12, 2016
25Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 26He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” 27He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” 28And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”
29But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” 30Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. 31Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. 34He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 35The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ 36Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” 37He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”
A couple of years ago a fire started in the apartment building where I live. There are 49 apartments in our building, but the fire started just after 4am, so nobody was awake and nobody noticed it. The smoke alarms didn't even detect anything because the fire started outside on a balcony. We all kept sleeping while the fire grew bigger and bigger.
Luckily we live across the street from a Dunkin Donuts that opens at 5am. Staff arriving early for work that morning -- Harmoney and Mohammed -- saw the flames coming from our building and called 911. Mohammed also ran over to the nearby police station to be sure help would come as quickly as possible. Thank God for these people who saw our distress and took action when we couldn't!
The first thing I noticed that morning was a loud commotion in the hallway around 4:30am. I woke up and called 911 when I heard someone kicking in the door of the apartment across the hall. The 911 dispatcher told me there was a balcony fire, and then suddenly I heard the fire alarm, so I put on my shoes and made my way outside... I was surprised to see so many firefighters already working on the fire -- there wasn't any smoke in the hallway yet -- but firefighters were bringing in lots of equipment and they also had someone on a huge ladder fighting the fire from the outside. By the time most of us woke up and got outside, the firefighters had already contained the fire, and it was only a few more minutes before they had it completely extinguished. No one was injured and very little property damage occurred. This felt like a miracle because balcony fires can be especially dangerous in large apartment buildings like ours.
It was early July, so the sun was beginning to come up as we stood outside in our bathrobes watching the firefighters. When it got to be 5am, some of us walked across the street for coffee (and to use the bathroom, since we weren't allowed back in our building yet) and we heard the story of how the Dunkin Donuts staff saw the fire and called 911. We talked about feeling grateful for all the people who took care of us that morning: the Dunkin Donuts staff who called 911, the 911 dispatchers, the firefighters, and all the people over the years who had the foresight to spend time and money developing systems and equipment to make this emergency response as efficient as it was. When we heard that the cause of the fire was an improperly discarded cigarette, we started talking about how we all have a responsibility to think of our neighbors in everything we do...
Many times when we read Jesus' parable about "the good Samaritan," we have a tendency to want to identify with the Samaritan in the story -- we say to ourselves, "God calls us to help everyone who needs us!" But I don't think this is exactly how Jesus intended for us to hear this story. Jesus was answering the question, "Who is my neighbor?" -- so, since Jesus ended the parable with the question, "Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?" (instead of asking from the Samaritan's point of view, "Who was the Samaritan's neighbor?") -- therefore I think Jesus intended for his listeners to identify with the man who was beaten and vulnerable, rather than with the Samaritan who helped him.
The difference between these two interpretations is significant.
If we focus too much on the Samaritan helper, we might end up seeing ourselves as mini-messiahs who must constantly be saving the world, which is both arrogant and unhealthy. This attitude leads to ego-superiority and compassion-fatigue and guilt.
However, if we identify with the man who received help from the Samaritan, we might get a sense of the same gratitude my neighbors and I felt when we were saved by the Dunkin Donuts employees and the firefighters. The theme is interdependence. The answer to the question, "Who is my neighbor?" is: "You'd better hope ALL the people around you are your neighbors! Because you need them as much as they need you." I think Jesus was using this parable to tell the Pharisees that no matter how powerful or "chosen" or important we think we are, we will always need some kind of help from others. It's about learning to notice how interconnected we all are, and letting our response to our neighbors flow from that.
The fire started in my apartment building on a Sunday morning just after the 4th of July in 2014. Since then, I always think back to it when Independence Day rolls around, because it reminds me that none of us is truly independent -- instead we are all INTERdependent, both as individuals and as nations.