Who Is My Neighbor?
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins
Luke 10:25-37; focal verse, v 29
This story is called "The Good Samaritan." We might rather call it "The Right Question." Why this strange name? Look at the way Jesus handles the young man's question, "But who is my neighbor?"
The First Question: A Hidden Agenda
The young man has a hidden agenda in the question. And his question anticipates a certain type of answer. He seems to expect that when he gets the simple answer to "Who is my neighbor?," he will have a simple, limited range of moral and social responsibility. Then he can lay off on Jesus the definition of his limitations.
In other words, he wanted an easy answer that would absolve him of the decision-making responsibility in life. Jesus fails to let him get away with that. He refuses to answer his question directly. Jesus does not accept the limitation inherent in the young man's question.
The Right Question: Refocusing
Instead, Jesus answers the question in such a way that it changes the question. Jesus refuses to accept the question as asked. He responds with the story of the Two Bad Jews* and the Good Bad Guy. This story leads the hearer (and for us, the reader) to refocus on the principle involved.
The young lawyer asked, "Who is my neighbor?" Jesus, instead, answers the question, "Who must I be a neighbor to?" or "How can I be a good neighbor?"
The answer to this question is not an easy, limited question, which can be legalistically and irresponsibly fulfilled. The answer to "Who am I to be a neighbor to?" is "Everyone who needs a neighbor"!
Another restatement might be:
Question: "What must I do to be a good neighbor?"
Answer: Do what neighbors do!" (Do what you would like your neighbor to do for you.")
The Challenge to Change
Jesus changes the question, which requires us to change our perspective. Jesus goes to the assumptions, to the intentions. When our intentions and assumptions are wrong, Jesus does not let us get by with that. He helps us ask the right question. He gets us back on track.
The answer may not be easy, but it will put us back on track. We should challenge ourselves by questioning the assumptions behind what we are asking, and the implications of what we are saying.
Application -- Cross-Cultural
What does this mean in everyday real life? Let us put this in a different context, interpersonal communication.
The First Assumption: Information
We might commonly ask, "How can I communicate what I know?" That is, perhaps, what language do I need to know?
This assumes we are ready to communicate except for the delivery vehicle, the medium. But this assumes nothing must happen to the communicator to enable communication.
The Right Question: Relationship
The word "com-munication" indicates a reciprocal action, a two-way exchange. This "com" is the same as in the words common, community, and other common words. The prefix com means "with." This usage is still current, as we say we communicate with someone. This focuses on a component of involvement, or relationship.
So we now have a new question. After we adjust our assumptions, the
equivalent refocused question to the one Jesus poses might be stated as:
"What must I do to communicate with other people?"
"Who do I need to be to communicate with this person?"
The Challenge to Change: Refocusing
This challenges us to evaluate ourselves. This new focus helps us turn from the easy, limited answers to look at our assumptions, our own intentions. As with the young man, the refocused question helps us evaluate who we are, who God asks us to be, and what our attitude should be toward those we communicate with.
In the challenge he posed to the young man, Jesus asks us to focus on the people who need us, and the changes we must make to meet that need, not on our convenience. He calls on us to reach for the heights of moral responsibility, not to settle for easy answers.
The focus is on God, then on the people -- not on our knowledge.
Conclusion: Redefining the Question
Also in Luke 6:9ff, Jesus changes the perspective, redefining the question. Jesus challenges our assumptions and asks us to rethink things from his perspective. Jesus challenges our accepted view of the situation, and challenges us to be like him in our approach to the problem or task at hand.
This is a strong and clear approach to communication. It is not easy, and it requires personal vigilance and moral responsibility in our interpersonal relationships, in our interpersonal communication.
* My friend Donald N. Larson used to title this story "The Two Bad Jews."
last updated 02 December 2000
Copyright © 2000 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use. Other rights reserved.
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