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But he…said unto Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”  “Which now of these three, do you think, was neighbor to him that fell among the thieves?”  and he said, “He that showed mercy on him.” Then said Jesus unto him. “Go, and do likewise Luke 10:29, 36-37

The story of the “Good Samaritan” was told in reference to the fundamental questions posed by a lawyer to Jesus as to how eternal life is to be inherited and who is the “neighbor” whom we are called to love as ourselves. In the Greek text the exact rendering of the question would be “who is close to me?” This last question becomes the interpretive prism for the whole story that follows in Luke’s account.

We live in an age where problems that traditionally were solved by “authority” communities, in the context of a web of personal relationships, now are submitted to the “law.” Local and personal institutions are disappearing, and lawyers and the judges are called to address conflicts in the context of ever more intrusive web of legal, impersonal ties and relationships. This Samaritan story is vital here because it demonstrates our limits—providing a basic rule of thumb to maintain the necessary spiritual “checks and balances” in our life.

Whom should I love as myself in the context of my love to God? The young lawyer’s question is unsettling and provocative: “Which now of these three, do you think, became neighbor unto him…?” “Which of the three has come to be close,” or “has become the one who came close to the man who fell among the thieves?”

If the main issue here is “who is the neighbor whom we should love?” then what is it that Jesus points to by phrasing his question that way? The final question of Jesus wasn’t phrased as that lawyer might have expected it to be: “Which now of these three, do you think, loved his neighbor?” meaning that the neighbor should be taken to be the man who fell among the thieves. His question surprisingly was phrased: “Which now of these three, do you think, was neighbor unto him that fell among the thieves?” The question suddenly becomes not who is in need, but rather who shows mercy unto me—and thus becomes my neighbor! And this explains why the lawyer replied to Jesus, “He who showed mercy on him.” The neighbor then is the one who shows mercy; here it is the Samaritan, not the person who received the assistance of the Samaritan! Let us go back to the interpretive prism that gives meaning to this story—that is the question: “Who is my neighbor [whom I should love as myself]?” We now have a change of perspective. If the neighbor to the man who fell among the thieves was the Samaritan, as we saw it to be the case, the man ought to love the Samaritan as his own self!

The text suggests not that we find neighbors to serve, but that we become neighbors by serving, by ministry. Jesus, then, encourages the lawyer—and us—to do likewise. Allow ourselves to be at the receiving end, as a neighbor. Love received before love given; encouragement and healing received before encouragement and healing administered to others; the washing of our feet before washing the feet of others.

It appears that Jesus turns around the roles for the young lawyer listening. The lawyer has to identify himself with the poor distressed traveler, and the “traveler” suddenly is called to identify in the person of the Samaritan the “neighbor” whom he should love as himself!

That way four fundamental things are renewed in our life. First, our attitude when we come to serve others is one of outpouring of that which we have received in Christ directly or indirectly through people who come to us as benefactors. As lawyers we are called to approach the needs in a similar attitude; learning to listen more, learn from those we are coming to serve and approaching to help and not use.

Second, it is okay to recognize that we can step back and recharge our batteries occasionally, so that we can be more effective. Needs are ever present, but we cannot be always available; and we will be available only if we are no always present.

Third, we can now free ourselves from the destructive influence of those “priests” and “Levites” in our lives, because we experience this all-inspiring love in Him. He bound up the brokenhearted (Isaiah 61:1); the personification of the “good Samaritan” for us, Jesus Christ, can heal our wounds and deliver us back to life whole.

Fourth, we can “go and do likewise.” How many “close to us,” our family friends, parents, strangers who became “neighbors” to us are waiting to experience this liberating service of Jesus through us—a service that will restore them in Christ Jesus?

Vassilios Tsirbas

– This article comes from AI’s “No Higher Calling,” a devotional for lawyers.

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