Every Thursday morning we held a Bible Study in the church kitchen of a small rural church I served between 1988 and 1994. Stories were told and memories of earlier days shared. What surprised me most about the history of the area were stories of World War I. The church was located only a few miles from a large German community which had at first questioned the wisdom of going to war with Germany. That question drew the attention of state and federal authorities, making the whole area suspect. Mail was scrutinized for signs of treason. The parents and grandparents of my class members had lived under constant threat of making a wrong comment, angering a neighbor, or being perceived as less than supportive of the war. Fear of these German immigrants had a grip on the nation.
World War II brought additional scrutiny, but at a lesser scale. Another ethnic group was arousing more fear . . . Japanese Americans. We would build Internment Camps, for almost 120,000 Japanese. Of those 80,000 were second generation Americans. In 1980 an investigation into the camps revealed that racism, and not national security, had led to their creation. Prejudice had led our political leaders to wrongly assume these citizens were just not American enough to trust.
The furor over a decision to take in 10,000 of the hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees, adrift and in desperate need, has challenged my understanding of the country I call home. I fear for the soul of our nation as the conversation about receiving Syrian immigrants has become more and more hostile. Politicians have in turn said, they would forcibly return Syrian refugees, or only allow Christians to enter our country. A mayor even suggested we create a new set of Internment Camps.
Jesus was once asked, “Who is my neighbor?” He responded by telling the story of a man from Jericho on his way to Damascus falling among thieves. (Luke 10:25-37) Jesus’s first listeners would have been aware of the dangers of traveling from Jericho to Damascus. One would not take the trip alone unless absolutely necessary. As the story unfolds, first a priest, then a teacher of the law saw the injured man, but decided to ignore him. Stopping to help the injured man would put anyone who did so at risk. This was a dangerous road. The threat of more robbers hidden behind the rocks could not be discounted. Then a Samaritan came along the path. He also would have been anxious about unseen bandits still in the area, but he, in seeing the injured man, went to him. This stranger of a different culture and religious tradition, bound up the man’s wounds and took him to an Inn where he continued to care for the man.
Jesus was not unaware of fear that would keep us from loving our neighbors. I think he told this story to remind us that there are times when we simply need to face our fear and do the right thing. Jesus cuts to the heart. He tells us what we need to hear and not what we want to hear. Jesus speaks truth to power . . . truth to callousness . . . truth to our prejudices and biases . . . truth to our fears. He cuts through our defenses, to the reality which lies behind. The Samaritan confronted his fear, then crossed cultural and religious obstacles to care for a wounded man.
In the end Jesus says, “It’s about love.” Love for God . . . Love for others. He reminds us that we are loved by God. Our best response to that love is to reach out in love to those who most need our care. As Jesus ended his story about the man we refer to as the Good Samaritan, he asked the one who had posed the original question, “Who then is the neighbor?” The response was immediate, “The one who showed him mercy.” Then Jesus said, “Go and do likewise.” Does Jesus ask any less from us?