How does a collection of houses and the intersection of a few streets become a neighborhood?
Around the corner from our house, on Lombard Street, a number of homemade signs have appeared on two front doors. At first they spoke vaguely about clean sidewalks and parking: “Please use the city approved garbage cans. Pickup is on Tuesday—please don’t put out garbage on other days. Use the alley instead of the street to keep the sidewalk clear.” I didn’t think much about them until I learned that the signs were placed by a disgruntled “neighbor” on someone else’s house. Really?! Now that person has put up her own signs: “We are in a pandemic! Please use your time and energy on something productive. Instead of complaining, take up a hobby.” And then this: “You don’t care about trash. You care about race. Black lives matter.” It’s messy and personal and honest and strangely hopeful at once—hard to read it on posters that everyone can see, but reflective of the big issues and nitty gritty behaviors that build community or tear it down. Other people on the street are reaching out to see how they might help, and I hear folks wondering about long-term pain and common values and how to be a neighbor. “Both houses are hurting,” is how one person described it at a neighborhood meeting.
A young lawyer asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life, and true to form, the Teacher has the interlocutor answer his own question. “What is written in the law,” Jesus asks him, “How do you read it?” And the fellow says, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and strength and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.” “You’ve got it right,” Jesus says. “Do this, and you will live.” But because the narrator has framed their conversation as a “test,” the lawyer usually gets a bad rap—he is more interested in receiving a favorable judgment for himself and his case than knowing the truth, readers argue, or he wants to expose Jesus in some way or trip him up, others suggest. I don’t think so. Their criticism of the man is grounded in the next line of the story: He asks who is my neighbor “in order to justify himself.” Readers of the English translation stumble at his seeming desire for a way out, a workaround that lets him quibble with the definition of “neighbor”—after all, the naughty schoolboy or corporate executive seeks to “justify” his actions when he knows he has done something that doesn’t measure up. But the primary definition of the Greek word is about how to be made righteous, not how to appear good or be considered righteous by someone else. The lawyer actually asks, “So that I can become the person I ought to be, who is my neighbor?”
Jesus’s parable calls us to show mercy to the man “in the ditch” on the road to Jericho, which seems like an obvious point until one realizes who helps whom in the story. The religious leaders hurry by, so caught up in their systems of righteousness that they neglect to do the right thing. (The young lawyer inside each of us is starting to squirm now.) The man who does stop to help the injured fellow is a Samaritan, part of a tribe of people who have been marginalized and made to feel less than. (Now the reader is shocked. “I don’t want a ‘Samaritan’ to offer me assistance! Maybe I can stretch to help ‘those people,’ but how in the world could someone like that help me?”) Who is your neighbor?
Is it any accident that it is a wounded person sees the other person’s wounds, and responds in Jesus’s vision? Both houses are hurting, right? And of course the folks who walk by in the story without helping are hurting, too, but something keeps them from acknowledging long-term pain and common cause. The picture the parable paints is this: the practice of vulnerability is what gives rise to mercy. The ways we are wounded is our access to compassion.
And the story calls us to not settle for systems that perpetuate some folks spending their lives in the ditch or being beset by one kind of robber or another. Fifty years ago Martin Luther King asked us not to settle for offering mercy, but to reimagine and rebuild the Jericho road itself. In a conversation with Andre Young, King said: “I am tired of picking up people along the Jericho Road. I am tired of seeing people battered and bruised and bloody, injured and jumped on, along the Jericho Roads of life. This road is dangerous. I don’t want to pick up anyone else, along this Jericho Road; I want to fix… the Jericho Road. I want to pave the Jericho Road, add street lights to the Jericho Road; make the Jericho Road safe (for passage) by everybody….”
How does a collection of houses and the intersection of streets become a neighborhood? Will you help me build it?