“Defining Neighbor” is the subheading the late Eugene Peterson, author of The Message, gave to his paraphrase of Luke 10:25-37. Some revile The Message version of the Bible, preferring the poetic familiarity of the King James. Peterson was purposeful, stripping away indecipherable layers so that younger generations could access the Good News. “Defining Neighbor” makes more sense to people who have no concept of a “Samaritan,” ancient or modern, good or otherwise.
Twenty years ago, as I entered public ministry, I knew people would have wide-ranging experiences of faith and familiarity with spiritual practices. Seeking common ground in hymns, texts and prayers, I often returned to “The Good Samaritan.” Even the secular world draws on the story, with television, movies and even laws dubbed “Good Samaritan.”
A scholar quizzed Jesus: “How do you define neighbor?” The characters unfold: an injured traveler, robbers, a priest, a religious leader and a foreigner — the Samaritan.
Jesus answered the question by asking a question: “Who was a neighbor to the traveler left beaten?” It was easy for the scholar to answer — the Samaritan, who treated the sick, injured person kindly.
Called to a room, in my first weeks of ministry with the dying, I sat down with a daughter plagued with grief and guilt. She was weighed down by many responsibilities and the anticipation of her loved one’s death.
I remember her face, folded with furrows of doubt and sadness as the questions spilled from her.
How could she allow her parent to die without being the sole, hands-on caregiver? How could she leave her beloved parent in a center and trust its nurses to do what she ought to do as a daughter?
These are tough questions.
Such questions are loaded with preconceptions and projections, as well as deeply held beliefs. The answering must come in layers at a time. We would have time for each layer in the days ahead.
She was so shrouded in worry that I knew we needed to begin with a story. So I took a deep breath and invited her to join me.
I asked, “Do I understand that your parents raised you in church and a Christian home?” “Yes,” she replied. “Do you recall some of the stories you learned?” “Yes,” and she named a few.
“Do you know the Good Samaritan?” “Of course,” she said. She gently named the characters and the plotline. I could see the tension easing in her posture.
“Ah … do you recall one more whom you and I have not yet named?” She quieted and thought. She smiled: “The innkeeper.” I nodded. “You have many responsibilities: caring for your parents, for your work, for yourself.”
The Good Samaritan was wise. He didn’t take on the entire, extensive care of the ailing man. He sought help from another.
“The innkeeper,” she repeated.
“As you move along this journey with your loved one, you will still need to go about your life. You can entrust your loved one — in part — to the staff at this center, aided by the skills and support of your hospice team and your congregation. Like the Samaritan, you can come back and check in on things — regularly, daily, if needed. You can call. We will call you.”
It’s a difficult thing for a person to decide that it is time to seek the care of a senior living community, a nursing center, homemaker services, home health and even hospice nurses, chaplains, social workers, aides and volunteers. But these folks are like the innkeeper in the story. These folks are also part of who Jesus defines as “neighbors.”
How do you define neighbor?