Several years ago a young man was killed on a motorcycle in center city Indianapolis. His family did not attend church but there was a Catholic Church in their neighborhood. The funeral director called the pastor in the name of the family to see if the funeral could be celebrated there even though the family was not Catholic. The priest replied that the community would be honored to host the funeral and asked if the family would like to have a fellowship meal afterwards. The following morning the priest got a call from a parishioner demanding to know why he was having the funeral of someone who wasn’t Catholic. The priest’s answer was simple: “We do not bury a person because he is Catholic; we bury a person because we are Catholic.”
The conversation between the irate parishioner and his pastor is today’s gospel story set in modern times and testifies that just because we have heard the so-called Good Samaritan parable a hundred times doesn’t necessarily mean that we “get” it.
In the gospel scene today a professional interpreter of the Mosaic Law challenges Jesus with the question, “Teacher, if I want to make sure I am one of the people of God and thus share in the inheritance of God, what do I have to DO?” Jesus knows that you can win an argument but lose the person, and so he asks the lawyer a question in return: “You are an expert in the Law of Moses. What does the Law say?” The lawyer answers with the traditional answer: “Love God with your whole heart, soul, mind and might. Then love your neighbor as you love yourself.” “DO this,” Jesus says, “and you will share in the inheritance of God.”
But the lawyer persists in trying to best Jesus. “Who is my neighbor?” This would not have been a dumb question if you were a Jew living in inter-testamental times. The word “neighbor” in the popular and religious sense was used to designate someone who belonged to one’s family or ethnic community. This is important in understanding Jesus’ parable. Samaritans were not “neighbors” to Jews in the religious sense. Samaritans had opposed the rebuilding of Jerusalem; they were forbidden to worship in Jerusalem, and some rabbis said that accepting help from Samaritans delayed the coming of the Messiah. The lawyer was asking, “How can I recognize those who have a true claim on my loyalty and my assistance? How can I spot someone who is of the People of God so that I can love them?”
Jesus answers with a story and a question. The story is deliberately crafted to challenge the popular definition of “neighbor” and the question explodes the notion of who belongs to the People of God, those who do mitzvah, the loving deed. In Christ’s parable the one who does the loving deed is not the priest or Levite. They obey the scriptural laws of Leviticus and keep their distance from a (presumably) dead body, so that they will not be ritually impure. They keep the commandments, but they do not do mitzvah, the loving deed. It is the Samaritan – the infidel outsider, the half-breed, the non-believer – who acts a son of God. The Samaritan’s charity is not limited by religious laws. He rescues his sworn enemy. His love is unbounded in imitation of the God who lets his sun shine and his rain fall on the just and unjust. And the Samaritan’s love is not reserved for certain circumstances; it is a continuing way of life. “Take care of him and, when I come back, I will repay whatever more you spend.” The Samaritan does not save the man because the man is his neighbor, he saves the man because he chooses to be his neighbor.
“Which of these was neighbor to the man in the ditch?” Jesus asks. “The one who acted with mercy,” answers the lawyer. A whole world of stereotypes and traditional boundaries is shattered with this answer. And we hope that the lawyer took a small step toward conversion. A bending of the heart and imagination toward the mind of Christ. “Neighbor” is someone we choose to be. We do not bury people because they are Catholic, we bury people because WE are Catholic.