I grew up in Little Rock, Arkansas. The hometown of my youth had segregated schools, racially separated water fountains, entrances to the local theater separated according to race, and sitting in the back of the bus if you were black. It was a big deal when LR Central High School integrated, and a cultural sea change began.
It’s no surprise to me that formal debates were a common means for taking on your opponents and proving them wrong. My parents would take me to religious debates at a large local auditorium. The air was charged like at a high school football game. The object was not to learn something new but rather to crush your opponent and make him look like a fool.
There was a faux politeness demonstrated at these debates. “Brother” this and “Mister” that. But this was bare knuckle brawling. Sarcasm and name calling often accompanied the reasoned arguments.
Segregation and religious debates seem like very different subjects, but they come together in an interaction that Jesus had with a lawyer in ancient Jerusalem over what one should do to inherit eternal life, Luke 10:25-37.
Like the people filing into the Little Rock auditorium this lawyer already knew which side of the aisle he would sit on. He wore the uniform of his team, and his motive was not honest curiosity and inquiry but rather to test Jesus’ orthodoxy.
However, Jesus turned the tables on the lawyer. Instead of being the one in the dock, Jesus took the role of the questioner.
“What do you think the law says about inheriting eternal life?”
“Love God with all your heart, soul, and mind,” the lawyer responded. “…and your neighbor as yourself.” It was a slam dunk answer. No law superceded these two. The lawyer lofted a 3-pointer and scored. You can almost imagine cheers erupting from the audience.
Not content to leave it there, however, the lawyer asked, “Who is my neighbor?” The lawyer was trying to sound smart. To make himself look erudite. But you should never ask Jesus follow-up questions. In that question debate and neighborliness collided.
If this had been a debate in my hometown auditorium, those sitting on the lawyer’s side of the auditorium would have filed quietly out, because their home team was in the last moments of the game with a 20 point deficit. Their champion looked pathetic on the stage of public opinion.
Jesus gave them nothing. There was no feeling of victory. No confirmation that their brand of religion was inviolate. The exclusivism and superiority of the lawyer’s religious practice was laid waste by Jesus when the lawyer asked the neighbor question.
In a simple story about a man rescued from death by an unexpected, and hated, Samaritan, Jesus drove home the implications of loving one’s neighbor. More than that, Jesus showed that everyone is a neighbor. Everyone.
In Little Rock that meant no more “sitting in the back of the bus” or racially separated drinking fountains. In Jerusalem it meant loving Samaritans as much as Jews.
I’ll bet that the lawyer wished he’d never asked that question. His neat little prejudices could not stand the bright light of truth that Jesus’ answer shined on the question. No one is excluded from the group called “neighbor.”