In the context of today’s Gospel reading it is instructional to try to understand the perspective of Jews in the time of Jesus. The conversation that Jesus has with a “scholar of the law” is suggestive of a lawyer well versed in the details of the law and Jewish tradition. To a first century Jewish audience, particularly to a scholar of the law, Samaritans were despised and considered “others” to be avoided.
When the lawyer asks “what must I do to inherit eternal life” Jesus confirmed that loving the Lord wholeheartedly and loving your neighbors (the law) was the path to salvation. But in answering the lawyer’s question “who is my neighbor” Jesus adjusts our perspective not just to see the perspective of the victim of robbers but also to the “other”– the Samaritan. Seeing the Samaritan in this light was an admonition to the lawyer to be open to recognize even those we have stark and difficult conflicts with as our neighbors—in addition to those who are more obviously in distress.
It is also informative that when asked among the Levite, priest and Samaritan who was a neighbor to the man who was robbed the lawyer does not say the “Samaritan” but instead “the one who showed him mercy”. Perhaps it is because the Jews considered the Samaritans the unclean ones for the north that he would not name the Samaritan as such—but the lawyer cannot deny that Jesus named the “other” as the Good One in the parable.
The answer “the one who showed mercy” was well accepted by Jesus for His response was “Go and do likewise”. There is a symmetry to the original question “what must I do to inherit eternal life” and the admonition to “Go and do likewise”. In the final analysis the answer is about mercy.
Mercy is about more than forgiving a debt or a slight. It is about kindness, strength, generosity and pardon. Mercy is a word at the heart of many of our prayers and petitions and it is our intercession before God when call upon His steadfast love and support.
Still many times we struggle with the question of who is our neighbor. The answer lies very close to us if we only center ourselves to listen. In Deuteronomy, Moses encourages us not to look too far for God’s commands to us for it is not mysterious, in the sky or across the sea but something already in our mouths and hearts—it we only listen and carry it out.