At one point on our trip we traveled to Mar Saba, an ancient Orthodox monastery built on the walls of the Kidron Valley that dates to the 5th century. Mar Saba is inland, near the Dead Sea, and as you travel you watch the land morph from green and lush to brown and dangerous.
We were taking in the view as our van rolled toward the monastery, and our guides pointed out a narrow, ancient road below us. They told us it was the kind of road that Jesus and His listeners would have had in mind when He told the story of a traveling man, robbed and beaten by bandits, ignored by religious leaders passing by, and rescued by a Samaritan. (Read the parable of the Good Samaritan here.)
We talked through the parable together and felt that it was terribly relevant to the things we were experiencing. The subtext of any story that the Gospels tell about Jews and Samaritans is a cultural context in which humans are divided by race and where theological narratives are exploited to prove that God favors one type of human being over another. Jesus is asked to identify the most important commandment and He comes back with two: love God and love your neighbor. His interrogator asks a clarifying question. He wants to know who his neighbor is.
Jesus' response is to create a character who has been stripped of his clothing, beaten, and left for dead. This is important; the victim in this story bears no cultural identity. If you had walked by and asked yourself what category he fits into, you simply wouldn't know. Is he rich or poor? Hard to say, since he's naked. Is he from Galilee or Judea? His accent might tell you, but he won't be talking anytime soon. Is he one of us or one of them? You just don't know. Jesus is asked to clarify which types of people fit into the category of people who deserve our compassion, and His answer is to create a neighbor who is universal. There is no such category of people because every human being qualifies.
Have you ever noticed that Jesus inverts the question when he turns it back on his questioner? For the interrogator, "neighbor" is shorthand for the people who deserve to receive my love. For Jesus, "neighbor" is shorthand for the people who give love to anyone who needs it. Jesus carries the irony a little further by allowing the inferior Samaritan to be that kind of hero.
The two commandments -- love God and love your neighbor -- have a fundamental connection. The Old testament (Genesis 9) teaches that murder is wrong for a very specific reason: because the image of God is in each person, and so murder is an act of blasphemy against Him. To deny the humanity in someone else is to shake our fist at God, and to discover that humanity again is a profound act of devotion. Jesus is saying something important by creating a victim in the story of the good samaritan who is every man and woman, who represents what is universal and human in all of us. When we discover the humanity in our enemy, he can no longer be our enemy, because we see ourselves in him. And we see a reflection of our God in him.
How often do we grow so angry with someone that, in our mind, they're less and less of a person and more and more of a problem? And what kind of evil is created when that process is extrapolated to an entire people?
This is why I think the work that George and Eric are doing is so important for peace. The Israelis are occupiers and the Palestinians are terrorists until you meet them and hear their stories. If Israelis and Palestinians can hear from each other in personal ways, they may discover that their enemies on the other side of the wall are human, too. Waging war against each other might become more difficult. And enemies may become neighbors.