It is interesting to notice how Jesus answers people when they put direct questions to him. Today’s Gospel is a case in point. He is asked “Who is my neighbour?” and he doesn’t answer, but instead tells a story. He tells the story of the Good Samaritan, perhaps the best-known parable of them all.
Yet the story doesn’t answer the question and perhaps that’s because Jesus is looking into the heart of the questioner and knows that he needs to pay attention to a much more important question.
To get to that, we have to go back to the beginning. The whole scene begins with the man asking another question. “What do I have to do to inherit eternal life”. On the face of it, he wants to know how to get into heaven. That is how we hear it today but in the first century world of the Jewish people he is asking how to fully belong to the community of God’s people: “What do I have to do to be a good Jew?” However, we know he is a “lawyer” – that is an expert in Torah, the Law of Moses, and therefore he already knows the answer. Jesus points this out to him by putting the question back to him and, of course, he gets the answer right! Love God and love your neighbour. However, he persists in his search as though he was asking a technical question about some knowable fact or piece of information, some doctrine that will cover everything. So now Jesus the teacher continues the lesson which becomes an invitation to self-knowledge.
Listening to the story, the lawyer gradually sees his segregated world view being dismantled as the expected good guys fail and the villain becomes the hero. He painfully learns that the question that matters is not “Who is my neighbour, but what kind of neighbour am I?” He is told to become the kind of neighbour that the Samaritan is, someone moved by compassion for a brother or sister in need and to “go and do likewise”.
The scene begins with a religious person who thinks that he has an important theological question to ask, and it ends with him being challenged with a life lesson that turns his world on its head and leaves him with a much more important question: “What am I doing about the people lying half dead on the road to Jericho?”
Remarkably, the question still stands!
(For great commentary on the Good Samaritan read Chapter 2 of Pope Francis’s 2020 Fratelli Tutti encyclical.)