I grew up in the 70s and 80s. My preschool days were filled with old school Sesame Street. You know, back before that cheerful little Elmo came along. Back when Cookie Monster gobbled cookies shamelessly, without worrying about carbs or gluten. Also on my preschool must-see-TV list — Romper Room. And since I was a Jennifer born in the early 70s, I was pretty much guaranteed that Miss Sally would see me in her magic mirror. And, of course, my preschool memories include Mr. Rogers feeding the fish and singing Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
Never once, even in my pre-abstract-thinking, most literal years, did I think Mr. Rogers wanted me to pack up and move into his neighborhood next to Mr. and Mrs. McFeely and down the street from Handyman Negri. No, I always understood he was inviting me to be his friend. As Mr. Rogers looked into the camera and sang, “It’s a beautiful day in this neighborhood, A beautiful day for a neighbor, Would you be mine? Could you be mine? . . . I have always wanted to have a neighbor just like you, . . . Won’t you please, Won’t you please, Please won’t you be my neighbor?” I knew he was inviting me to be his friend, to spend some time together, to be connected – even if only through a television.
Of course, I wasn’t raised solely by television. My mom also read books to me, and my parents taught me Bible stories. And I went to church every Sunday morning. In that tiny Methodist church built by long-dead family members and heated by a rustic pipe stove, I learned to pray The Lord’s prayer and to recite John 3:16. I learned about Noah and Moses. I learned about Jesus and the miracle of a few fish and loaves. And I learned about the Good Samaritan.
You probably learned this story too. Most of us are familiar with the story of the Good Samaritan in the Bible. Luke recounts it in his gospel, chapter 10.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about this story pretty often. And I’ve been thinking about it this week, especially, as a large caravan of Central American migrants hike north through Mexico to get to the southern border of the United States, where they will seek asylum.
As a follower of Jesus, what should my attitude toward these migrants be? Are they my neighbors?
In Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan, he tells about a man traveling on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. Thieves attack him, stripping him of his clothes, beating him, and leaving him half-dead. A priest walks by and doesn’t help. A Levite walks by. He doesn’t help either. Finally, a Samaritan see the man, feels compassion for him, and stops to bandage his wounds and help him. The Samaritan even loads the wounded man onto his donkey and carts him off to an inn where he cares for him, then pays for his lodging as he recuperates.
First, it’s important to understand who Samaritans were and how they were perceived by the Jewish people in Jesus’ listening audience. In my preschool and elementary school Sunday School classes, I understood this story on a very basic level to mean, “Be nice to everyone. Stop and help people who are hurt.” And that is certainly an accurate understanding of the text. But a fuller understanding comes when we learn about Jews and Samaritans and their relationship.
Dr. Amy-Jill Levine explains in Biblical Archaeology that Samaritans weren’t only marginalized people or outcasts; they were the passionately-hated enemies of the Jewish people. Dr. Levine explains,
The parable offers . . . a vision of life rather than death. It evokes 2 Chronicles 28, which recounts how the prophet Oded convinced the Samaritans to aid their Judean captives. It insists that enemies can prove to be neighbors, that compassion has no boundaries, and that judging people on the basis of their religion or ethnicity will leave us dying in a ditch.
The story isn’t just about person doing a good deed. It’s noteworthy that Jesus made the hero of the story a Samaritan, someone his listeners would have hated or rejected. It’s also noteworthy that the priest and levite walked right on by, choosing not to stop and help someone in need.
Next, it’s important to think about why Jesus was telling this story. Luke writes in chapter 10, verse 25, “On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus.” So Jesus has been traveling and teaching. And we know that scribes and Pharisees and lawyers – religious and community leaders of the day – would try to ask Jesus trick questions. They wanted to discredit Jesus, at the very least, or trick him into saying something that could lead to his arrest or death, at the worst. So this lawyer stands up and asks Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Jesus does that very Jesusy thing by answering a question with a question. “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?”
Then the lawyer answers, “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 love your neighbor as yourself.”
To this, Jesus simply answers, “You have answered correctly. Do this and you will live.”
But Luke writes, “But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?'” The Amplified Bible says it this way, “But he, wishing to justify and vindicate himself, asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?'”
That’s when Jesus does that other Jesusy thing of answering a question with a story, a parable. So Jesus told the story, then he asked the lawyer, “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” And the lawyer rightly answered, “The one who had mercy on him.” Finally, Jesus simply says, “Go and do likewise.”
In this story, Jesus illustrates that the perceived good guys may not always be the heroes, the ones who do the good things. The priest and levite were supposed to be the good guys, but they weren’t. They wouldn’t touch a beaten, bloody man because he was unclean, and they were too worried about following the outward letter of the detailed Law, rather than being guided by the spirit of the Law – loving your neighbor as yourself. The bad guy, the despised enemy, is the good guy. The Samaritan is the one who shows mercy. He is the neighborly one, the one who truly loves his neighbor as himself.
We can’t know for certain, but perhaps the religious lawyer was trying to justify himself because he harbored hatred against people who were Other and he was looking for a reason to discount them as neighbors. Maybe he was looking for a loophole – I don’t have to love those Samaritans. I don’t have to love that tax collector. That prostitute certainly isn’t my neighbor. Those Roman soldiers aren’t really my neighbors; they aren’t from my neighborhood at all. I don’t have to love them. As long as I love the people who believe as I do and look like I do and worship like I do and belong to the same sect that I do, I’m good. Those are my real neighbors.
And doesn’t this seem familiar? Isn’t that what we’re hearing so many people on the religious right say today — These immigrants aren’t our neighbors. They don’t belong here. And besides they aren’t following the law. We can so easily use the law as an excuse to exclude – like the priest and the levite did to justify not touching a beaten, bloody, unclean man on the side of the road.
But I don’t think Jesus wants us to use man-made boundaries as an excuse to ignore suffering and refuse help. I think Jesus was pretty clear that geographical origins or similarities in ethnicity or religion or physical appearance do not define the word neighbor. That much has been clear to me since I was a little girl reading Bible story picture books and watching Mr. Rogers.
Honestly, I don’t know what we’re going to do when all of these thousands of migrants finally show up at the border of this country. I don’t have all the answers. But I do know that, as a follower of Jesus, my response has to be rooted in loving these neighbors as much as I love myself. My response has to be rooted in love and compassion and mercy. Jesus’ teachings and example leave me no alternative.