Martin Luther King, Jr. preached about one who responded in the name of love. His exemplary life will always be a flashing light to plague the complacency of humankind. His goodness was not in a passive commitment to a particular creed, but in his active participation in a life-saving deed. Not in a moral pilgrimage that reached its destination, but in the love ethic by which he journeyed in life. He was good because he was a good neighbor.
The ethical concern of this man is expressed in a magnificent little story. It begins with a theological discussion on the meaning of eternal life and concludes in a concrete expression of compassion on a dangerous road.
A man, who had been trained in the details of Jewish law asks Jesus a question, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus’ retort is prompt: “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” After a moment, the lawyer recites articulately: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” Then comes the decisive word from Jesus: “You have given the right answer; do this and you will live.”
Well, the lawyer wanted to justify himself and show that Jesus’ reply was far from conclusive, so he asks, “And who is my neighbor?” The lawyer was asking the question trying to turn the conversation into an abstract theological discussion. But Jesus, determined not to be caught in the “paralysis of analysis,” pulls the question from mid-air and places it on a dangerous curve between Jericho and Jerusalem.
He told the story of “a certain man” who went down from Jerusalem to Jericho and fell among robbers. They stripped him, beat him, and left him for dead. By chance, a certain priest appeared, but he passed by on the other side. Later, a Levite also passed by. Finally, a certain Samaritan, a half-breed from a people with the Jews had no dealings, appeared. When he saw the wounded man, he was moved by compassion, administered first aid, placed him on his horse, and brought him to an inn and took care of him (Luke 10:25-37).
Who is my neighbor? “I don’t know their name, ” Jesus is essentially saying. “Your neighbor is anyone toward whom you are neighborly. Anyone who is in need along life’s road. They are neither Jew nor Gentile; neither Arab or American; neither of color or white. Jesus defines a neighbor, not in theological terms, but in a life situation.
What constitutes the goodness of the Samaritan? The Samaritan was good because he made concern for others the first law of his life. He has a piercing insight into that which is beyond the external accidents of race, religion, gender, and nationality. One of the great tragedies of our long trek along the highway of history has been the limiting of neighborly concern for tribe, race, class, gender, or nation.
The devastating consequences of this narrow, group-centered attitude is that it doesn’t matter what happens to people outside the group. If an American is only concerned about America, they will not be concerned about the people of Asia, Africa, the Middle East, Europe, or Central and South America. Isn’t that why the murder of a citizen of your own nation is a crime, but the murder of the citizens of another nation is an act of heroic virtue? If corporations are concerned only with profit, they will pass by on the other side while thousands of working people are paid pennies a day to work in inhumane environments.
The real tragedy of such narrow provincialism is that we see people as entities or merely as things. Too seldom do we see people in their true humanness. A spiritual myopia limits our vision to external accidents. When we see people as Jews or Gentiles, Christian or non-Christian, Latino or white, gay or straight, we fail to see them as fellow human beings made from the same basic stuff as ourselves, molded in the same divine image.
I imagine that the first question the priest and Levite asked themselves was, “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?” But by the very nature of his concern, the Samaritan reversed the question: “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?”
The Samaritan went beyond the call of duty. It would have neen easier to pay an ambulance to take the unfortunate man to the hospital, rather than risk having his neatly trimmed suit stained with blood. Instead, after tending the man’s wounds, he put him on his horse, carried him to an inn, and left money for his care, making it clear that if further financial needs arose, he would gladly meet them. He went the second mile. His love was complete.
The Good Samaritan represents the conscience of humankind because he did it all in the name of love. Fear, prejudice, pride and irrationality are all barriers to a truly integrated society. They can only be removed by the invisible, inner law which etches on our hearts the conviction that all people are neighbors. And that love is our most potent weapon for personal and social transformation.
I – you -we cannot ignore any wounded person on life’s Jericho road because they are a part of me – you – us and I – you- we are a part of them. Their agony diminishes me – you – us and their salvation enlarges me – you -us.
The legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. calls us to reach into and beyond ourselves and tap into the transcendent moral ethic of love. Love, truth, and the courage to do what is right need to be our guideposts on this lifelong journey. We can overcome all in the Name of love.