But he, desiring to justify himself, said unto Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29)
The Washington Post published an article entitled “Judgment Days” by Stephanie McCrummen on July 21, 2018. In it Ms. McCrummen interviewed many members of First Baptist Church in Luverne, Alabama, regarding their support of Donald Trump and their convictions as those who profess the Lord Jesus Christ. Within one of these interviews, ostensibly without provocation, one such member, Sheila Butler affirmed her confidence in America as a Christian nation and declared that “love thy neighbor as thyself,” quoted by Jesus as part of the foundation of the law and prophets in Matthew 22:39-40, meant “love thy American neighbor.” The “least of these my brethren” of Matthew 25:31-46 are Americans, according to Sheila Butler (“God, Trump, and the meaning of morality”; accessed 07/25/2018).
We might wonder what Jesus would say to Sheila Butler about her beliefs about His words. In this situation we need not wonder; Jesus Himself encountered an Israelite who felt the same way about Israel.
This Israelite shared a lot in common with Sheila Butler. He believed fervently in the God of Israel; he was proud to be part of his nation and ethnicity, and thought it was special to God. He asked Jesus the right question, one Sheila Butler may have asked before as well: what shall I do to inherit eternal life (Luke 10:25)? When Jesus asked this Israelite what he thought of the answer based on the Law, his response was of great value, one with which Sheila Butler would no doubt agree: you shall love YHWH your God with all your heart, soul, and strength, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself (Luke 10:26; cf. Leviticus 19:18, Deuteronomy 6:5). Jesus also agreed with the answer, and told him to do so and he would live (Luke 10:26).
But the conversation did not end there. This Israelite, a lawyer by trade, wanted to justify himself, to demonstrate how he was in the right in his present circumstance with his present attitudes. And so he asked Jesus: who is my neighbor (Luke 10:29)?
The Israelite assumed and acted as if his neighbor were his fellow Israelite. One could make an argument for this based in the Law and its treatment of Israelites versus the nations; it would certainly be taken as the standard practice of the day, since Israelites wanted as little involvement as possible with “Gentiles,” people of the nations; “Gentiles” was seen a pejorative term, equivalent to sinner and unclean (cf. Matthew 18:17, Acts 10:28). The Israelite would have had little reason to envision his neighbors in a universal sense; everything in his upbringing and culture privileged his fellow Israelites. This is likely true of Sheila Butler as well.
Jesus immediately perceived the two issues behind the question, and spoke to the real issues in a parable (Luke 10:30-36). Jesus spoke of an unfortunate Israelite who fell among robbers and left for dead. Exemplary members of his people, a priest and a Levite, perceive his condition, but not wanting to become unclean they passed him by.
Then someone came by who was not one of his people: a Samaritan. For Israelites, Samaritans were half-breeds, people who claimed a relationship with YHWH as their God of covenant who actually derived from the nations the Assyrians introduced into the land of Israel: when they were not active opponents of the Israelites of Judah, they remained a perpetual reminder of the exile and humiliation of Israel (cf. 2 Kings 17:24-41). John put it mildly when he said Jews have no dealings with Samaritans (John 4:9).
The Samaritan would have known all of this; he would have also perceived the injured man to be an Israelite. And yet the Samaritan was moved with compassion toward the injured Israelite, bound up his wounds, poured oil on them, and brought him to lodging, giving the money he had and pledging a bit more if necessary.
And then, Jesus’ question: among the priest, the Levite, and the Samaritan, who proved to be the neighbor to the Israelite who fell among the robbers (Luke 10:36)?
There was no escape. The Israelite lawyer, no doubt, did not like the answer, but it was the only answer which could be given. He could not bring himself to say “the Samaritan”; instead, he says, “the one who showed him mercy” (Luke 10:37). Jesus told him to go and do likewise (Luke 10:37).
The Israelite’s rationalizing question suffered from two flaws: not only was it an attempt to be restrictive of a broader command of God, it betrayed a person more interested in drawing lines than fulfilling the command. Jesus chose the characters of His story deliberately: priests and Levites were to minister to the Israelites and should have known the Law and its expectations, and yet they did nothing, more concerned about their personal cleanliness than the welfare of a fellow member of the people of God, prioritizing the cleanliness code over displaying love and mercy. Today we speak highly of “good Samaritans”; to Israel, there was no good Samaritan, and to see a half-breed prove more righteous than priests and Levites would stick in the Israelite craw.
The modern version of the story tells itself. A good Christian family, broken down on the side of the road, is assaulted by a motorcycle gang and left for dead. A deacon of a local Evangelical church drives by, sees them, but has to get his family to church on time; a pastor and his family drives by as well and likewise keeps going. An undocumented El Salvadoran immigrant drives by and sees the family in a terrible condition. He has compassion on the family, stops, and gives aid and assistance.
We also do well to notice how Jesus framed the indicting question: who proved to be neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers? He did not ask who his neighbor was; by common agreement, the priest and Levite were both neighbors by virtue of being fellow Israelites in close geographic proximity. Jesus is not interested in that. He is interested instead in who proves to be the neighbor: who loved his fellow man as himself?
It was the Samaritan. In our modern update, it is the undocumented El Salvadoran immigrant. It is not about what we profess. It is about how we act and what we demonstrate by our behaviors.
It would be easy to heap up scorn on Sheila Butler; such would be misguided. Her greatest fault is in speaking explicitly what is most often maintained implicitly, with coded language and an attempted bifurcation between certain political ideologies and spiritual realities. In terms of these issues at least Sheila Butler maintains a civic religion, an explicitly American faith, presuming America as a Christian nation with Americans as a privileged and chosen people. We could chastise Sheila Butler for this, but we do better to recognize that Sheila Butler believes these things because she was taught these things: perhaps not always explicitly, but certainly implicitly. People are far better at teasing out the implications of the things that are taught than we would like to admit. She, after all, did not come up with all of this out of nowhere.
Christianity was never meant to be a civic religion; Jesus is Lord of lords and King of kings, reigning over a transcendent Kingdom over all nation-states, and the exclusive property of none of them (Colossians 1:13, Philippians 3:20-21, Revelation 19:15-16). God loves undocumented people as much as American citizens. We are to prove to be neighbors to anyone and everyone: we must give precedence to fellow Christians, yet must do good to all (Galatians 6:10).
Yet we are all liable to the same error of the Israelite lawyer and Sheila Butler: taking a commandment of God and adding qualifiers to it which He did not establish and did not imagine. YHWH said for Israelites to love their neighbors as themselves, and it did have implication for the foreigner and sojourner in their midst; the Israelite lawyer had no justification to limit the command to fellow Israelites. In teaching this Israelite lawyer Jesus made it plain to His people they must prove to be neighbors to anyone and everyone (Luke 10:30-37); Sheila Butler, and those who taught her, have no justification to limit “neighbor” to their fellow Americans.
Jesus pronounced many commands people prove more than willing and able to circumscribe in ways which did not enter His mind or imagination. These are difficult commands, explicitly countercultural: turn the other cheek. Leave vengeance to God. Do good to everyone. Love everyone. Give without expecting to receive in return. Suffer without responding in kind (cf. Matthew 5:20-58, Luke 6:27-42; cf. Romans 12:17-21, 1 Peter 2:18-25).
Our culture and upbringing will give us reason to think it extreme to believe Jesus meant such things without qualification. Plenty of preachers and teachers will prove all too willing to provide those qualifications and to make fine distinctions, all of which are designed to justify themselves. People like to hear it; they like to have their consciences thus assuaged.
It is just as wrong to add to the Word of God as it is to take away from it. It is not for us to qualify or limit the commandments God has given in Jesus; it is given for us to accomplish them. May we all prove to be neighbors to our fellow man of any and all nationalities, and seek to embody all of the commands of the Lord Jesus, however counter-cultural and counter-intuitive, so that we may glorify Him and obtain the resurrection of life!
Ethan R. Longhenry