When Your Neighbor and Your Enemy Are the Same Person

When Your Neighbor and Your Enemy Are the Same Person

The Parable of the Good Samaritan is one of Jesus’ more famous teachings—so much so that we regularly refer to bystanders who intervene in times of emergency as “good Samaritans.” 

But perhaps this story has become so familiar that we fail to grasp how scandalous it is. After all, to the ears of the Jewish teachers to whom Jesus was speaking, the phrase “good Samaritan” was a contradiction in terms, an oxymoron. 

As the story goes, a man is traveling on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho when he is attacked by robbers. After beating the man to within an inch of his life, the robbers take everything from him, including the shirt on his back, and leave him for dead on the side of the road. 

Soon, a priest who is traveling on that same road happens upon the man. Surely, this man of God and pillar of the community would help! But that’s the thing. He doesn’t. He steps to the other side of the road so as to avoid the man. Later, a Levite—a man from the priestly tribe of Israel who helps to mediate God’s presence among his people—likewise avoids getting too close to the man. 

But then a Samaritan walks up. Now, there was no love lost between Jews and Samaritans. While both groups were descendants of Abraham, the Jews saw the Samaritans as culturally compromised, the result of generations of physical and spiritual miscegenation. 

And yet, this Samaritan man becomes the hero of the story. He is the only one willing to stop and help the man, dress his wounds, and take him to be cared for at a nearby inn. The Samaritan even pays for the man’s stay and healthcare expenses. 

“Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers,” Jesus asked his listeners. And the reply came, “The one who showed him mercy.” 

We are instructed to do likewise. 

What we often forget is that this story was sparked by a question that was somewhat hotly contested among the Jewish teachers of the day: Who is my neighbor? 

In fact, Luke tells us that the man who asked the question was “seeking to justify himself” in its asking (Luke 10:29). 

The teachers of the law knew that God had called them to love their neighbors. In fact, they saw it as one of the cardinal virtues of their community. But as a persecuted people living under Roman occupation, they had become somewhat precious about who they were willing to count as their neighbor. 

Surely, Roman citizens weren’t their neighbors—and certainly not Samaritans. Even some of their fellow Jews might not make the cut, people like tax collectors and other social outcasts who had either colluded with Rome or failed to uphold the teachings of the Hebrew Scriptures. 

And so when this man asked Jesus who his neighbor was, what he was really asking was who his neighbor wasn’t. He was looking for permission to tighten his circle of neighbors and widen his circle of enemies. Because if he could count certain groups of people as his enemies, then he would not be required to love them as himself. 

Jesus turns the question on its head. 

To this day, we make the same moral calculation as this man trying to justify himself. Who is my neighbor, really? We even imagine that we are loving our neighbors by virtue of hating our enemies—those whose political and ideological stances we believe to be not only evil but downright dangerous. 

If we hate the right people, fear the right people, express outrage toward the right people, then we are loving our neighbors by protecting them from the harm of our enemies. 

In other cases, those we count as enemies are simply people that we genuinely dislike. Surely, God isn’t calling us to lay down our lives for people who seem to prioritize making our lives more unpleasant. 

But in the words of G.K. Chesterton, “The Bible tells us to love our neighbors, and also to love our enemies; probably because generally they are the same people.”

To put it another way, God loves the people you hate. And you should too. 

In the economy of God’s kingdom, there is no us and them. There is only us. Everyone with whom we come into contact is our neighbor, even and perhaps especially, our enemies. 

Who do you count as your enemy? This is the person to whom God is calling you to be neighborly. To love them in the truest sense of the word. 

Sometimes, we get confused about what love is supposed to look like. We think that loving others entails simply “telling them the truth.” So our version of “love” entails yelling at people on the Internet about theology and politics, refusing to learn people’s stories, and doing everything we can to ridicule and marginalize the people who disagree with or otherwise annoy us. 

This is certainly not the way I want to be “loved.” 

To me, being loved means being valued even when I disagree. To me, being loved means being cared for even when I’m flat out wrong

And while it is true that love “rejoices with the truth,” that’s not the only thing it does. It is also kind. It “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Corinthians 13:7). 

And if we are not willing to bear another’s burdens, then we have not earned the right to tell them why they’re wrong. 

Neighbors show mercy. They bind wounds. They cultivate wholeness and connection. And they show up when the religious people don’t. This is a scandalous story. 

Infinitely more scandalous is the fact that Jesus died for me, his enemy, so that I might have abundant life in him. Yes, he came speaking hard truths. But when it comes to loving me as himself, he has never wavered for a second. 

May we go and do likewise.


This Post Has One Comment

  1. Teriko

    That’s was an eye opener thank you. I pray I can live up those standards. It is helpful.

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