“Love your neighbor as yourself.” If there’s one moral command found in almost all religions, this is it. From Judaism to Taoism, Buddhism to Hinduism to Islam, this Golden Rule is ubiquitous.
Christianity, of course, places the precept at its very core. Proof of that emphasis can be seen in today’s Gospel, which begins with Jesus fixing this rule as a requirement for eternal life. However, the command to “love your neighbor” takes an odd twist when a scholar hears it and asks a natural follow-up—“And who is my neighbor?”
What an important question.
In lieu of a direct answer, Jesus tells a story. A man is stripped, beaten, and robbed, left to die on the side of the road. To his great luck, a priest happens to walk nearby. Hearing this, most of Jesus’ listeners would have expected the story to finish here. This priest was surely the hero, the one who would tend to the beaten victim and save the day. But to their great surprise, the priest walks right on by.
Next, a Levite encounters the man. Surely this must be the hero, listeners would surmise. He would do what the priest neglected. Yet he too walks right on by.
Following these calloused travelers, a Samaritan man enters the scene. Immediately there would have been shock and confusion. A Samaritan? Are you serious? For most Jews, Samaritans were detested as heretical half-breeds. They couldn’t possibly be the heroes of the tale.
Yet the Samaritan, moved with compassion, stops, binds the poor man’s wounds, and takes him to a hotel. There he leaves the victim in good hands and offers to pay whatever it takes to nurse him back to health. In doing this, he clearly demonstrates the proper response to both suffering and destitution.
And that’s where most of us stop listening. The majority of us moderns have heard this story plenty of times. We’re familiar with the characters, we know the plot, and we assume we get what Jesus was trying to say. So like the priest and like the Levite, we continue on our way.
But that’s a big mistake. The danger of this over-familiarity is that we can miss explosive truths buried right beneath the surface. And there is a major one here.
Jesus doesn’t finish the conversation with the Samaritan riding off into the sunset, ending with a clear answer to the scholar’s query. Instead, Jesus fires off his own question:
“Which of these three, in your opinion, was neighbor to the victim?”
Read that again and carefully take it in. In phrasing his question in just this way, Jesus is proposing something radically new.
To unpack it, though, we first need to peek into Catholic social teaching. Within this rich body of wisdom there’s a theme known as ‘option for the poor’. The idea suggests that in any situation—any relationship, any interaction, any political move—our choices should be measured by their effects on the poor.
For instance, how will this legislation affect the most impoverished? How will building this new housing development concern the most vulnerable among us? How can I order my job, my family, and my life so as to best serve those in need?
Answering any of these questions requires that we first see the world through poor eyes.
Which takes us back to the Gospel.
In his question, Jesus introduces a subtle, yet brilliant, nuance. He doesn’t ask which of the three travelers rightly saw the victim as a neighbor in need—he asks just the opposite.
Jesus questions which of the three visitors did the beaten victim see as his neighbor.
In phrasing it this way, Jesus is inviting the scholar to enter into the victim’s world and gaze out through his eyes. Instead of pondering despair from afar Jesus beckons him to climb right in.
And the scholar does just that. He answers correctly that the neighbor was “the one who treated him with mercy”. By his response, the scholar takes an ‘option for the poor’ and thereby sees reality through the correct lens.
This Gospel episode is deeply volatile precisely because Jesus’ question subverts the rules of compassion. It strips charity from our own control, snapping the reins from our hands. Jesus’ words mean that we don’t decide where to direct our love—others do.
This subversive shift then reveals the Golden Rule in new light. The rule no longer impels us to ask, “And who is my neighbor?” It now forces us to wonder, “Whose neighbor am I? Who needs me?”
The answer to that question is always driven by someone else—it must be steered by ‘him’, or by ‘her’, or by ‘them’. In the words of St. Thomas Aquinas, it must come from the ‘other, as other.’
So look around. Who is reaching out to you in silence or in screams? Who is grasping for you as their ‘neighbor’ whether you think you are or not?
In blowing up our understanding of ‘neighbor’, Jesus also creates a whole new neighborhood. In this new, subversive community, it’s the poor, the needy, the crushed, and the hurting who steer the wheel of love. The rest of us go where they please, mere passengers on the journey of compassion.
In this new world, we no longer choose our neighbors. They choose us.