Each time I encounter a parable of Jesus, I find something new. These short, intricate, simple-yet-complex stories use everyday situations and characters to shed light on powerful ideas at the core of Jesus’ message. This time, as I look at the parable from this week’s gospel, I am struck by how Jesus reframed the question with his story.
A lawyer (who specialized in religious rules and practices) asks Jesus, “what must I do to inherit eternal life.” Jesus replies by asking what the law says. The lawyer quotes a summary of the 10 commandments and all the law that has come from them: “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.” Jesus affirms this answer and tells the man “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” The parable comes when the man (who is trying to justify himself) asks, “Who is my neighbor?”
Jesus tells a story about a man who was robbed on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. It was a dangerous and winding road where there robbers could easily hide and ambush travelers. This man was attacked left half-dead. Two respected religious leaders came by, one after the other, and did nothing, passing by on the other side of the road. Then a Samaritan man saw the man and was gripped with compassion. He was an outsider, part of an ethnic and religious minority despised by the Jewish community. This Samaritan stopped, tended the man’s wounds, loaded him onto his animal and took him to an inn. There, the Samaritan man continued to care for the man and when he had to leave the next morning, he left instructions with the innkeeper for continued care of the man, money to cover costs, and a promise to return and pay more if needed.
Then Jesus asked the lawyer, “which one was neighbor to the man?” When the lawyer replied, “The one who showed him mercy,” Jesus tells him, “Go and do likewise.”
The lawyer’s question was about his own future, his own ultimate outcome – how he could gain eternal life. Jesus didn’t answer that question, but instead lay out the principles for a full and abundant life her and now. Jesus invites the lawyer and us to define neighbor in the widest possible terms. He invites us to see the needs of our neighbors with compassion and, then to respond. Eternal life is beyond our control, but we can live now in ways that transform the misery and sorrow that surrounds us and helps us and our neighbors truly live.
Jesus had a habit of not answering the questions he was asked in the Gospels. Instead, he reframes and redirects his hearers (us included) to the issue and point that truly matters. Here, neighbor is defined as broadly as possible, and the unexpected outsider is the source of loving merciful action. That is an abundant life, indeed.