One of the best-known parables of Jesus, the story of the good Samaritan, is his response to a specific question: Who is my neighbor? The conclusion usually drawn from this parable is that everyone, even the foreigner or a despised person, is my neighbor; ties of blood or nationality do not matter in fulfilling the commandment “to love thy neighbor as thyself.” That conclusion may be true enough of the whole of Jesus’ teaching, but it seems to me to be slightly off the central theme of this parable. The actual point of the parable is that it is the person who shows mercy to me who is my neighbor, no matter who that person may be.
As recorded in Luke 10, a lawyer, someone well-versed in the Torah and its commandments, stands up to “test” Jesus by asking him, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” He is not necessarily hostile but has heard Jesus’ words about eternal life and asks what is implied. It is an invitation to open a debate in the traditional rabbinic mode.
Jesus, like good teachers in every age, returns the question to him. “What is your interpretation of the Law? How do you read?”
The lawyer answers with the “creed” of Judaism from Deuteronomy: “love God with all your heart and soul and strength and mind,” and, from Leviticus, “love your neighbor as yourself.”
Jesus indicates that he earned an A. “You have answered rightly; do this and you will live.” Conversation concluded; next question, please.
But the lawyer wants to justify himself, as we are told, and so, just to make sure he is on the right path to eternal life, or perhaps to argue with whatever Jesus says, he asks a follow-up question: “Who is my neighbor?”
After all, although every Jew knows who this God is that one is supposed to love, it is not necessarily clear exactly who one’s neighbor is: family, kin, fellow Israelite, fellow townsman, and so forth. To whom do I owe a duty of love, concern, help, or whatever else I am able to give? Everyone who was listening was surely eager to know what Jesus, the acclaimed teacher and healer, would have to say.
This is not a frivolous question but a perennial and serious subject of moral philosophy and of most religions. Hinduism and Confucianism, for example, teach clear levels of kinship or caste that determine one’s duty to others in strict priority of family ties, race, occupation, and station in life. The character of Isabel Dalhousie, PhD, the heroine of Alexander McCall Smith’s delightful series of mystery novels set in 21st-century Edinburgh, is a modern example of a strictly secular preoccupation with the limits of one’s duty to others. She edits a scholarly journal called The Review of Applied Ethics and believes in giving “moral attention to everyone,” often getting herself into compromising, amusing, and even dangerous situations in so doing. She wonders what her geographic boundaries of concern should be:
If we lived in a global village then the boundaries of our responsibility were greatly extended. The people dying of poverty, the sick, the dispossessed, were our neighbors even if they were far away. And that changed a great deal.
Jesus answers the lawyer’s question by telling a parable, as he so often does, instead of giving a didactic reply. We still have to figure out just what the meaning is, just as the original hearers did. He tells the story of a man, presumably a Jew and thus a kinsman of his listeners, who is set upon by thieves as he journeys to Jericho. He is robbed, beaten, and left for dead along the road. Along come two fellow Jews, first a priest and then a Levite, both of whom know the Torah and who would be expected to carefully observe its laws. First one and then the other passes by the wounded man on the other side of the road. Jesus does not tell us why they ignore the suffering man, just that they do.
The third traveler to come down the road is a Samaritan, a member of an ethnic group looked down upon by Jews as racially impure and “theologically challenged,” although they are geographically what Isabel would call “neighbors” of the Jews in Judea and Galilee, and definitely kin. Unlike the other travelers, he takes pity on the stricken man and helps him with such amazing generosity that the Fathers of the Church interpreted him as a figure of Jesus himself: as St. Paul says, “while we were yet sinners Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). The Samaritan stops, administers first aid, puts him on his own donkey, takes him to an inn (now he is walking instead of riding), spends the night taking care of him, and, as he leaves, pays in advance for further stay and care, promising to return and pay any extra expense.
What a story!
Jesus ends the parable, not with a moral, but with a question to the lawyer, mirroring the question How do you read? at the beginning of the encounter: “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell among thieves?”
The lawyer then answers, “The one who showed mercy to him.” Then Jesus issues an imperative at last: “Go, and do thou likewise.”
Now some commentators say that the lawyer could not bring himself to say the word Samaritan, so he says “the one who showed him mercy” as a circumlocution. But I think he “got it.” Learned priest or Levite, coreligionist, kinsman, foreigner, Samaritan, or just “not quite our class, dearie” — it makes no difference when you are lying in the ditch. Only that someone shows you mercy.
The parable is not a teaching about what my duty is to others and how geographically or genealogically far that should extend, as Isabel worries, but about how I recognize my neighbor. The answer is that the person who shows mercy to me is my neighbor. Consider who has done that in your life and you will find your neighbor. And that is whom you should emulate in showing mercy to others, regardless of affinity.
That is what Shetania Taylor learned and eloquently spoke of recently. A black woman, she brought her sons to what was supposed to be a peaceful protest march in Dallas, but the theme of the protest was against police mistreatment of African-Americans. When an assassin who said he wanted “to kill white people, especially white policemen,” started shooting at police officers who were guarding the protesters, she was hit by a bullet in the leg. Since she was unable to run away she fell down to shield her son, and was herself shielded by (white) police officers. Later, as she told reporters of her ordeal, she wept and said,
The officer got on top of me and covered me and my son. Another cop was at my feet and another stood by us and protected us. I saw another get shot in front of me. … I am so thankful. … Thank you [cops] for being heroes.
Who proved to be a neighbor to the woman who found herself in the line of fire of an assassin aiming at police?
It does happen in real life, and it did happen for all of us with the sacrifice of our Lord Jesus Christ upon the cross. We are supposed to be a neighbor, not by various methods of figuring out who our neighbor is, but by showing mercy when mercy is needed, as we have been shown mercy by others countless times in our lives.
In the end, that is what we all ask for.
Lord, have mercy.
 Alexander McCall Smith, Friends, Lovers, Chocolate (Anchor, 2006), pp. 82-83. Smith is best known for The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency Series.
 As quoted in the New York Post, July 10, 2016.