Politicians and theologians in the United States frequently turn to the writings of the Christian Bible for guidance on contemporary political issues. Often this requires some stretched or complicated logic, and, at times, texts from the Torah have to be weighed against Jesus’ teachings in the gospels or Paul’s paranetic guidance in his epistles. This is hardly surprising, since the writings in our Scriptures span over a thousand years of different political events, all of which took place in times with radically different questions from our own. Applying those texts to modern circumstances requires some skill and effort.
That is why the question of the Christian response to the Syrian refugee crisis is so refreshing. It’s one of the few times where we have clear, unambiguous, explicit guidance from Jesus about what is expected of those of us who claim to be Christians. That guidance is found in what is perhaps Jesus’ most famous parable, that of the “Good Samaritan” found in Luke 10:25-37. The story is so widely known that in popular, secular culture, someone who goes out of their way to help a stranger is often called a “Good Samaritan.” News reporters and the general public, however, would probably think twice about using the phrase if they knew how Jesus’ original audience would have heard it.
The northern and southern regions of what was – for a brief time under Kings Saul, David, and Solomon – a united kingdom had a long history of enmity and conflict. After the death of Solomon, the northern region formed the Kingdom of Israel, and the southern region formed the Kingdom of Judah. Samaria was the capital of Israel, and Jerusalem the capital of Judah. Over time, religious practices increasingly diverged, with what would become modern-day Judaism centered around Jerusalem and its temple. By the time of Jesus, Jews had over eight hundred years of fractious, sometimes violent, conflict with Samaritans. They hated each other for political, ethnic, and theological reasons. Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem viewed Samaritans as polytheistic pagans whose scriptures and practices were, at best, a perversion of the true worship and commandments of God.
Jesus’ own teaching on scripture and practice indicate that, as an orthodox Jew, he agreed with them (see Matt 5:17-18 as an example). In fact, Jesus’ religious movement was so completely entrenched in Judaism that his closest disciples taught for years after the crucifixion that you had to convert to Judaism if you wanted to be saved (they changed their view after the Council at Jerusalem). With that in mind, and considering the centuries of hostility and conflict, if you want to hear how Jesus and his audience heard the word “Samaritan,” imagine how an evangelical Christian living in the United States would hear “Muslim.”
So, with that as our historical framework, let’s look at the parable of the “Good Muslim.” It begins when someone comes up to Jesus and says, “I want to inherit eternal life. What do I need to do?” At this point, anyone who went to the Sunday School I went to as a child knows the answer is, “Accept Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior!” Jesus, however, gives a very different answer. As a good teacher, he first asks the student, “What’s your read of Scripture?” The response is, in brief, “Love God and love your neighbor.” Jesus answers, “That’s right!”
Apparently it occurred to the person asking the question that if “neighbor” meant more than just the people who are like us and whom we like, “loving” them might be a bit too much to ask, even if the reward is eternal salvation. Their follow-up question is, “So, um, who exactly is my neighbor?”
Jesus responds with a story. I’ll paraphrase it here. A deacon from a church in Nashville came to Atlanta for a religious conference, and was staying at a hotel near the airport. As he was walking back to his hotel from a nearby restaurant, three strangers held him up at gunpoint. They took his wallet, his smartphone, his wedding ring, and then, just for fun, made him strip naked and beat him so badly he couldn’t walk. They left him there, bloody and naked on the sidewalk.
The pastor of the local First Baptist Church was attending the same conference, and was on his way to the restaurant the man had just left. He saw the poor deacon lying there, bleeding, and immediately crossed the street, not wanting to get involved. He was afraid that the man might be an HIV-positive homeless person, and that he would be exposing himself to the disease if he got too close. A Roman Catholic priest, also there for the conference, saw the bloodied, crying man and thought it might be a trap of some kind. What if, knowing there was a religious conference in town, a bunch of thugs had disguised one of their own as a crime victim, hoping to lure a naive clergyman into coming over so that they could ambush the do-gooder? The priest decided to play it safe, and crossed the street as well.
The third person to come along was a Muslim man who was staying at the same hotel, waiting out a layover on his international flight. It had been a long day for him. The hotel was full of impassioned Christians all attending workshops on “Muslim extremism.” The looks and attitude he had been getting from the guests had not been exactly kind. None of that mattered, however, when he saw the battered man, crying in pain, by the side of the road. The Muslim man immediately took off his shirt, tearing it into bandages to stop the blood from the other man’s wounds. He then picked up the stranger, summoned a cab, and took him to the nearest hospital. At the hospital, the Muslim man gave his credit card, to make sure that the injured deacon would get the best possible care despite his lack of identification or insurance card.
After telling the story, Jesus asked his audience, all good, faithful Christians, “Who is the one who loved his neighbor in this story? Who is the one who will have eternal life?” They knew the answer before he even asked: The Good Muslim.
The parallels are less than subtle. When we look at a Syrian, Muslim refugee we see someone who is politically, ethnically, and theologically a “stranger.” Jesus makes it extraordinarily clear, however, that there is only one way to see them: as our neighbor. Knowing that, Jesus’ command is clear. “Love your neighbor as yourself” is, along with loving God, the heart of all God’s commandments (Mark 12:30-31; Matt 22:37-40). Simply put, if a person claims allegiance to the teachings of Jesus, there is no other option than to help someone in need, no matter how different they may be from us, no matter how much we may dislike them, even if we think it’s a trap or dangerous, and even if they are our sworn enemy.
Few of us live up to that command perfectly, and I sincerely hope that God will be more merciful to us (in our failures to love one another) than we are toward those whom we are commanded to love. Let us pray that is the case, because, in the gospel of Matthew, when Jesus taught about who would be saved, he did not say anything about what people believed regarding who was their “personal Lord and Savior.” Jesus gave only one criteria: those who help vulnerable people when they are in need are the ones who are saved (Matt 25:31-46).
Our political leaders are quick to claim religious justification for the policies that serve their interests. They would do well to remember Jesus’ words of caution. Simply claiming to act in his name is not enough (Matt 7:21-23). Jesus expects us to act, not according to some bigoted stereotype of what we think it means to be a Christian, but in accordance with his clear and unambiguous teaching that every single person is our neighbor, our brother or sister.
An entire nation of people very different from (yet remarkably like) us is lying, bloody, by the side of the road. We can cross the street and pretend it’s not our responsibility, or we can take the risks and costs on ourselves to help. For those who rely on secular sources of guidance, the appropriate response may be more complex or nuanced, but for those who claim the label “Christian” the choice is clear. Like the Good Samaritan, we must find a way to help, even if it means reaching deeply into our national resources of ingenuity and wealth to do so safely, effectively, comprehensively, and quickly. It’s the neighborly thing, the loving thing, and the Christian thing to do.