Tanveer Ahmad was born in Pakistan, in 1962, the fifth child in a poor family. As an adult, he made his way to his brother’s store in Saudi Arabia and from there started traveling. One time, he came over to the U.S., to New York, and fell in love with the city. He eventually got a visa to come over to the U.S. and headed straight to New York in 1993. Eventually, as often happens to new immigrants, he ended up in Texas, working at night in a gas station. The store was in a bad location and was robbed, repeatedly. During one robbery, he pulled out the store’s unlicensed gun to stop the criminals; the cops came to the store and fined him for brandishing the weapon. Though he left Texas to work in New York as a cab driver, that incident would continue to haunt him. It would undermine his attempts to get a green card, especially after 9/11. Being a Muslim immigrant from Pakistan would make it difficult to renew his visa; having a “disorderly conduct” charge involving a deadly weapon made it impossible. In 2005, having failed to get proper documentation, Tanveer overstayed his visa. His roommate had done the same thing with his student visa. After a raid by immigration officials to capture his roommate, Tanveer was told by these officials to report to immigration. Tanveer did, where he was promptly arrested and placed in one of the many the detention centers, which currently hold a total of over 500,000 people awaiting deportation. In this for-profit, private prison, Tanveer suffered a heart attack. His pleas for medical attention were ignored. Eventually the guards took him seriously but had to first request permission from their superiors to take him to a hospital. Tanveer died at the hospital, and became one of over one hundred people who died in custody while awaiting deportation, many of whose deaths are connected to medical neglect, and some to abuse.
This story sadly captures the problems and failures of our immigration system in post 9/11 America. And it is with this background in mind–the background in which we live today–that we should read a story so familiar to us, the story of the Good Samaritan. We need to read the G.S. in light of immigration, undocumented workers, and national security. We need to think about the G.S. with Tanveer’s story always on our mind.
Tanveer’s story helps us see what is at stake in our ethical and political decisions. His story makes us ask all the more urgently, who is my neighbor? We want to know what it means to be a good neighbor. We don’t want to wait while someone else dies in custody, while another family is torn apart, while another immigrant’s pleas for medical attention are ignored. But in these times, who are my neighbors? Think back to Tanveer’s story: was Tanveer my neighbor? I’d never met him. I’d never heard of him until I read about him in the paper, after he died. Was he my neighbor even before I knew him? Suppose I did know him–did that make him my neighbor? Are his family members in Pakistan my neighbors? Was Tanveer my neighbor when he overstayed his visa and broke the law? And what about the prison officials, the guards who ignored his cries for help, are they too my neighbors? Almost without knowing it, we’ve become overwhelmed by questions–the questions of the lawyer.
The lawyer comes to “test” Jesus. He asks him a question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus turns the tables and asks him a question in response: “What does the law say?” We know the lawyer’s answer: love God and love our neighbor. Jesus accepts this answer, saying “you have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.” But the lawyer isn’t satisfied, and wanting to justify himself, he asks, “who is my neighbor?”
Most of us get lost here. We notice the phrase “wanting to justify himself” and say, ha, gotcha. We know what this is about. He’s being legalistic. He’s trying to earn his way to heaven. He wants to know the details so he can make sure he gets it right and gets blessed by God. What we forget is that the lawyer’s question is our own. It’s the question we’ve been asking.
These are all natural questions; they sound like good, important, ethical questions. But we forget, they’re the lawyer’s question. Like the lawyer, the question we mean to ask is: how can I be a good neighbor? We want to know how to fulfill our neighborly duties. That’s our question; and it is the lawyer’s question: “who is my neighbor” really means “how do I make sure I’m being a good neighbor?”
Ironically, that is the question we generally think the G.S. answers. We take the story to mean that anyone, everyone, the person in front of you in need, these are your neighbors. Your neighbor is the person who needs your assistance. We’ve heard sermons and repeated sermons to our friends on this point: whoever is in need is your neighbor. We think that is the point of the G.S.. We think so because we ask the lawyers questions. We, like the lawyer, want to justify ourselves. It’s natural. Given the stories I told, it seems essential. We don’t want to do that—we don’t want to let our neighbors die. And so we ask someone, an authority, a teacher, about what is expected of us. It’s natural; it’s what we really want to know. But that is the very question Jesus attacks in the parable. It’s the kind of question Luke draws our attention to—and, wanting to justify ourselves, we ask, who then is my neighbor?
So then, we lawyers, we people who want to be good neighbors, we ask Jesus a natural question, at least natural to us: Teacher, who is my neighbor? Jesus responds with a parable.
Now, the fact that Jesus responds to us in a parable should put us on our guard. It’s not a good thing. Parables aren’t demonstrations of how clever Jesus is. They aren’t signs of his religious genius, his moral integrity, or his pedagogical brilliance. In chapter 8 of Luke, Jesus clarifies why he speaks in parables. He says, “The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of God has been given to you, but to others I speak in parables, so that,
” ‘though seeing, they may not see; though hearing, they may not understand.’
Jesus speaks in parables as a sign of judgment. It’s a sign that things aren’t right, that Jesus is intentionally tripping us up—I speak so that they may not understand. We could spend hours trying to understand the purpose and function of parables, but this isn’t a sermon about parables but about the G.S., so let me clarify what is important for our purposes with an example.
Growing up, you learn to tell the signs your parents give when they are about to snap. For my mom, we call it “the thin lip.” If you say something, and she is holding back, on the verge of tearing you apart but remaining calm, she does the thin lip. Her face hardens, and her lips narrow, and she stares at you. And if you are smart, you stop whatever you were you doing, you quit talking, and try to quietly and politely excuse yourself. When you see “thin lips” you know that you better watch yourself and pay attention. If she speaks, you better listen. It’s a sign, saying. Alert! You’re in danger! When Jesus speaks to us in parables, it’s a sign saying, watch out, pay attention, tread carefully, stop and listen. Don’t presume you know what is coming, but slow down. Listen! A lot is at stake and you’re going to miss it.
So, now that we have at least a general sense of what is at stake in the parable, let’s look at what this familiar parable is actually telling us. The key to understanding the story is to remember that the key figure in the parable…is Jesus. They often are. Jesus is the kingdom, as a mustard seed, as a pearl of great price, etc. Jesus is also the Good Samaritan. The early church understood this and held fast to this point, but most of us miss it. We want to be the Good Samaritan. Instead, we are told that Jesus is the Good Samaritan and that we, well…we are the person beaten by the robbers, left on the side of the road, and barely hanging on for life.