Lent Reflection – Do I limit who I will be a neighbor to?

4 min. to read.

We’re up to the 14th day of Lent. As a part of my practice this year, I’m reading Brian Zahnd’s Lent devotional, The Unvarnished Jesus. I journal on the scripture he’s selected and his reflection, then I post daily (or near-daily) meditations that emerge from this.

Luke 10:25-37 is the scripture today. In yesterday’s reading, Jesus was denied hospitality by a Samaritan village because he was Jewish. In the next chapter of Luke, Jesus tells a story that makes a Samaritan the hero and provides the model for Christian ethics.

The setting is a conversation between Jesus and a professor in Biblical studies. (Well, an “expert in Torah,” but imagine a college lecturer who teaches scriptural interpretation, and you’re close.) This expert asked Jesus what was necessary to inherit eternal life. In reply, Jesus asked him what he reads in scripture, and the man recited the high standards found in Leviticus. Love God with all you are and have, and love your neighbor as yourself.

Jesus concurs, but the man wasn’t done. He already knew these passages. What he really wanted was more nuance. He asked, “Who is my neighbor?” This was not an innocent question. He and Jesus had just agreed the highest standard was to love your neighbor as yourself and that all of eternity hung on this. The man wanted to know who specifically counted as his neighbor. Essentially he was asking, “Who exactly am I obligated to love?”

Jesus’ answer to that question was this parable. A man finds himself in a dire situation through no fault of his own. He’s desperate and will likely die without help. Three different people pass by. The first two pass by and ignore the dying man. To make matters worse, those first two are a priest and a Levite, men Jesus’ audience would reasonably expect to be on the front lines of caring for those in need. The third to come along is a Samaritan. With the generations-long animus between Jews and Samaritans, the crowd might have expected the Samaritan to loot the man’s body and leave him for the crows. Instead, the Samaritan treated the injured man’s wounds, transported him to the safety of an inn, and arranged for the man’s medical treatment with a blank-check promise to pay all the costs.

The parable likely stung the expert and the crowd listening. The wrong person was the hero. In fact, the hero was exactly the kind of person they would like to exclude from the circle of love and care. When Jesus asked the closing question, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers” the expert couldn’t even bring himself to say “Samaritan.” Instead, he named the good neighbor as “the one who showed him mercy.”

In this story, Jesus reverses the expert’s question. “You’re asking ‘who is my neighbor’ because you want to know who it’s OK for you to leave outside the circle of your love. I’m telling you to focus your attention on being a neighbor to anyone in need. The circle of love extends to everyone. No longer can you consider yourselves within God’s standards if you only love your family, or your tribe, or your nation, or the people who agree with you. The circle includes even those you think don’t deserve it. Even people you consider to be enemies!”

Lent invites us to let go and release those things that keep us from an encounter with Jesus. Do I use scripture to limit the scope of my obligation to love? Am I searching for ways to be technically obedient to God without having to love or serve the people I disagree with? Do I have limitations on who I consider to be my neighbor? Any of these paths will limit my encounter with Jesus because Jesus makes a point to tell us that we will find him among those in need.

Lent invites us to let go of our limits on who we are willing to care about. This way is life.

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