(based on Luke 10:25-37)
I find the troublesome rabbi sitting on the synagogue steps. He is surrounded by a group of his followers, dressed in worn, homespun robes. Mostly fishermen, I’ve been told. The rabbi is saying something that causes them to break into hearty laughter. Not so much a teacher as a jester, it appears. This Jesus might do well entertaining in the courts of Herod. He would stir up less trouble there. He wouldn’t be sweeping up simple folk with his radical ideas.
One of the followers notices me and, at his whisper, the laughter hushes and the men turn to watch my approach. I lift my chin and smooth my fine, tasselled robe. As a scholar of some renown, I am used to men’s attentive silence. What I don’t expect is the jolt of discomfort I feel as the rabbi’s gaze meets my own.
He is young, a mere carpenter from backward Nazareth. In a battle of words—or authoritative stares—my years and standing should give me the upper hand, but surprisingly I find myself lowering my eyes at his regard.
I greet him and carefully clear my throat to continue. Other scholars and Pharisees have asked this Jesus questions to trick him, but that’s not my intent.
“Rabbi, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Mine is a common enough question. It’s one for which even lesser rabbi’s like him will have an answer. I want to use it to get the measure of this man, to ascertain his knowledge and understanding of our Scriptures.
“What is written in the Law?” he replies, and again I find myself staring into his knowing eyes. “How do you read it?”
Every day men seek me out with their questions. They come for answers, relying on my detailed knowledge of the Law to guide them. I’ve always believed it to be my God-given duty to impart this knowledge to them, to keep them on the path of compliance. Normally, I enjoy my role as one of Israel’s experts of the law, but the way the rabbi has turned my own question back on me is disconcerting. Almost as if he is examining me, the way I had intended to examine him.
I again clear my throat before smoothly reciting the words following the Shema, words known to us scholars as the V’ahavta. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind.” Then, perhaps out of a desire to impress him, I add, “and love your neighbour as yourself.”
The rabbi nods solemnly. “You have answered correctly. Do this and you will live.”
A surge of anger wells up in me. I have come to test him, not to have him tell me my answer is correct, as if he can possibly know more than I do.
“And who is my neighbour?” I ask tersely. The question has stumped enough of my fellow scholars that I expect this young rabbi to fumble for words.
Instead, he gazes into the distance and says, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into the hands of robbers.”
The rabbi has a rich timbre to his voice which—with his adeptness at weaving words together—brings the scene to life in a surprising way. As he speaks, I am drawn onto a road winding steeply down into the desert, its uneven surface rough under my feet. I can almost sense the sun burning my arms and taste the grit churned up by the wind. My heart jolts with fear at the sight of bandits, slinking out from behind the high rocks, with their leering grins. At the mastery of the rabbi’s storytelling, I am the one they attack and strip and leave for dead. Completely helpless and alone.
The rabbi’s words continue. “A priest happened to be going down the same road…”
A man of God! In my mind I see him coming—a stately man with a fine beard, dressed in a white linen tunic and turban. But the priest only casts my bloodied body a cursory glance before quickly looking away and giving me a wide berth.
I understand almost instantly. He thinks I am dead or perilously close to it! How often haven’t I taught on corpse impurity, even reciting the exact words of Moses? Anyone out in the open who touches someone who has been killed with a sword or someone who has died a natural death, or anyone who touches a human bone or a grave, will be unclean for seven days.
The rabbi’s words continue. “So too a Levite, when he came to the place…”
A Levite! Not a religious leader, but still a man of some standing in our community. He does not have to stay clean for temple duties, so surely he will stop to show compassion? Yet, at the rabbi’s words, I watch the Levite give me a long, curious glance before passing me by.
The rabbi’s words continue. “But a Samaritan, as he travelled, came where the man was…”
A Samaritan! I feel the familiar aversion at mention of the unclean mixed race. Yet, this Samaritan stops and looks at my crumpled body on the side of the road. He dismounts his donkey and kneels over me, putting his ear over my mouth to hear if I still breathe. Then he rises to fetch wine and oil from his saddle-bag. I imagine the sting as he pours the wine on the wounds, followed by the soothing warmth of the olive oil. He tears strips from his robe to use as bandaging, before lifting my helpless body over his donkey. Then he slowly and carefully leads the beast and its burden all the way to Jericho.
The first inn we reach is filled with the busy-ness and babble of travellers seeking lodging for the night. Many of my countrymen cast hostile glances at the Samaritan, but his coins procure us a room, where he tends to my wounds throughout the night.
The next morning, he gives two more silver coins to the inn keeper. “Look after him,” he says, “and when I return, I will re-imburse you for any extra expense you may have.”
I’m still marvelling at this open-ended generosity, when I become aware of the silence. The story has ended, the word-woven magic broken as suddenly as it began. I’m back at the synagogue, staring into the eyes of the rabbi.
“Which of these three do you think was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robber?”
His voice is soft, yet his question is piercingly sharp. It cuts through all my knowledge and every law I recite with supreme confidence. It slashes right to my heart, so like the unresponsive priest’s and the uncaring Levite’s.
So unlike the Samaritan’s.
“The one who had mercy on him,” I say primly, trying to retain the façade of a lifetime of holiness.
But I see in his eyes that he sees the truth. That love is a law I recite with my lips but has seldom reached my heart or hands.
Still, his words are surprisingly gentle. Loving, even.
“Go and do likewise.”
Which of these three was a neighbour? is from a new collection of short stories based on the questions Jesus asked. Read other stories in this collection:
Why do you call me good?
Do you truly love me?
Do you want to get well?
Where are the other nine?
Why are you so afraid?
Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?
Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord’ and do not do what I say?
Image: Ferdinand Hodler, The Good Samaritan, 1885, Kunsthaus Zürich, Switzerland