Jesus, when asked by a “scholar of the Law,” what he must do to inherit eternal life, threw the question back into the scholar’s court. “What is written in the Law. How do you read it?” The answer was right on the tip of his tongue. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, (Deuteronomy 6:5) “and your neighbor as yourself.” (Leviticus 19:18) But knowing the answer and putting it into practice are two very different things. So, the scholar, “to justify himself,” asked Jesus a second question: “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus gave him a very down-to-earth example. He told him a story.
The story takes place along a 20 mile stretch of road that runs from Jerusalem, about 2,300 feet above sea level, to Jericho, about 1,300 feet below sea level. It’s a rough road with lots of twists and turns, and plenty of places for robbers to hide. A very imprudent man decided to walk the trek alone. Sure enough, he was attacked. Not only was he robbed but badly beaten and left for dead.
Jesus then inserted two people into the story. The first was a priest. At the time, many priests and wealthy citizens lived in Jericho. It was a pleasant oasis and was far less crowded then the Holy City with its continual stream of pilgrims. Yet it wasn’t so far from Jerusalem to discourage the periodic trip to serve at the temple. On his way to perform his ritual duty, the priest looked over at the man, but presuming that he was dead, didn’t dare go over to check on him lest he make himself unclean by touching a dead body. He would remain ritually impure for seven days and so be unable to fulfill his duty at the temple.
The second person to walk down the road was a Levite, a man assigned to a lesser role in the temple cult. He looked over at the man and, like the priest, made the decision to move on to Jerusalem without getting involved in this messiness. With these two examples Jesus was turning a subtle light on an important moral question. Is caring for someone in need less important than fulfilling a religious ritual?
The story continues with the appearance of a Samaritan businessman. The Samaritans were despised because they had broken from the Jewish communion when they erected their own temple on Mount Gerizim in Samaria, the area between Judea in the south and Galilee in the north. This man had no hesitation. He immediately went over to him. Discovering that he was still alive he proceeded to clean his wounds with wine, seal them with some oil, and bandage them. He put the man on his own animal and brought him to a local inn that he would regularly frequent. After caring for the man overnight, he paid the innkeeper up front to cover the length of the victim’s stay, promising when he returned again, to pay for any added expenses if the man needed to stay longer.
The priest, the Levite and the Samaritan had no idea who this man was. He had gotten himself into trouble by traveling along a dangerous road by himself. He had been left to die along the side of the road. All three men saw him. All three recognized his distress. Jesus then hit the “scholar of the Law’ with an easily answered question. “Which of the three, in your opinion, was neighbor to the robbers’ victim?”
On the way home from Mass today take note of the people you see who are in distress. Are any of them your neighbor?