Have you ever noticed that sometimes, Jesus doesn't quite answer the question that He's asked? And yet, there's something in our human nature that makes us believe that He did and just move on with our lives like the whole matter is settled, just like that.
One of the places that this comes up most strikingly is in the story of the Good Samaritan.
Jesus is sitting around talking with some men who consider themselves learned. Not only learned, but elite. These guys are pretty sure they are better than everyone else. And one of them, wanting to be proven right in his understanding and superior moral knowledge, asks the question, "How do I gain eternal life?"
Jesus turns his question back on him and asks him how he thinks he can gain eternal life, and the man has a quick response - of course, love your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength and love your neighbor as yourself.
But, not wanting things to be so simple, he goes on to ask another question: who is my neighbor?
In response, Jesus launches into the parable of the Good Samaritan.
We know the story. A man is traveling along a dangerous road, a road so dangerous that at just the mention of it, everyone in the audience knew the peril that the man (and anyone who might stop to help him) was in. He is beaten, robbed, and left on the side of this road for dead when three men come passing by. The first is a priest, and then there is a Levite, and finally a Samaritan. Two of these men, wrapped up in their own self-interest and perhaps even clouding this self-concern in holy-sounding language, cross over to the other side of the road and ignore the wounded man. The third man, a despised and detested Samaritan, however, helps him.
The Samaritan takes the man, bandages his wounds, puts him on his donkey, and takes him to the nearest inn, even paying the tab for the man's stay and care and promising more if what he's given is not enough.
We read this story and we say, okay, my neighbor is the one in need of help. My neighbor is anyone who could use my assistance. My neighbor is every beaten, robbed man lying in a ditch. My neighbor is the one I am in a superior position to, the one to whom I am able to stoop down and give of my vast wealth of resources. All of a sudden, when we ask who our neighbor is, we get the idea that it's anyone who makes us feel wealthy and blessed.
But that's not what Jesus said. In fact, Jesus never told the man who his neighbor was.
At the end of this story, Jesus turns the question and asks something so similar that we miss it if we're not paying attention, but it's actually a very different question. Jesus asks, "Which of these men - the priest, the Levite, or the Samaritan - was a neighbor to the wounded?"
It's subtle, but it's important. Jesus didn't say, "To which of these men was the wounded a neighbor?" He didn't ask who had a connection with this man, who was supposed to stop and help him. Rather, He asked which of these men chose to be a neighbor to the wounded.
Who is my neighbor? the man asked.
Jesus answered, Who will you be a neighbor to?