In this parable, there is a "young lawyer" who is seeking to test Jesus by asking him what he must do in order to achieve or receive eternal life. Jesus, like he often does, responds to a question with a question. "What does the law say?" The man gives his answer, to love God with our soul, mind, and strength neighbor as our self. And oddly, enough, Jesus says he is correct. There is nothing more that the man needs to know than what he already knows in his mind. However, the man dives further and asks, "Who is my neighbor?"
To this question, Jesus tells this parable. A man, going from Jerusalem to Jericho, is attacked by robbers, beaten, and left for dead. After the incident, a Priest, traveling the same road sees the man, crosses to the other side of the road and walks by. Then a Levite traveling the same way sees the man, crosses to the other side of the road and also passes by without helping. He tells of a priest and a Levite who you would think would stop and help does the opposite. The law requires the tending of the sick and the burying of the dead whether they are neighbor or stranger. And if he was dead, it was their responsibility to bury him. They did neither. Like any good listener to a good story, things happen in threes. If a priest and a Levite would not help, then surely the third, the average Israelite would be the one to stop and help. However, the third person in Jesus' story is not the expected. He skipped right over the regular Israelite and went to the Samaritan. The Samaritan, a foreigner, someone who is constant political and religious strife with Jews at the time is the one that stops. To understand what is going on here, it helps to think about the animosity between Catholics and Protestants in Ireland. There are some that would rather die in a ditch than be helped by "Them".
However, Jesus' in telling this parable changes the question about who is a neighbor from a who answer (this group or that group) to a what question. What does a neighbor act like? Martin Luther King Jr gives an amazing interpretation of this passage when he says, maybe they were afraid for their own safety. "If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?" The Samaritan, on the other hand, looked at the man and asked himself, "If I don't stop to help this man, what will happen to him?" Being a neighbor is no longer about who is nearby or who is a part of the right group, but instead about the actions, one takes. What does a neighbor do? What a person does makes them a neighbor. It is the one who feels compassion, but then moves that compassion through the body to works of mercy and Jesus' command is to go and do likewise.
Yesterday's mass shooting in Pittsburg has caused me to look at this parable in a different light. Last night I spoke about the unfortunate reality that the forces of evil and wickedness in our world are alive and well. As much as we long to see the day where they are not and there will not be robbers, rapists, or rampaging shooters. We do not yet live in that day. If that were the end of the story, we would be in a sorry state indeed. The Christian answer, the message of hope, is that even in the face of such hate and suffering, those things do not have the final word. The final word in this parable is not that someone was attacked and left for dead. No, the final word is that there are people in this world who will tend to the wounded, will stop and pick up those who are left for dead, and who will ask the question, "If I don't help, what will happen to them?" Jesus message of hope to the world is demonstrated by his followers going and doing likewise.