30 In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. 32 So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii[a] and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’36 “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” 37 The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”
This is a familiar story for many who are familiar with Scripture. As with many of Jesus' stories or parables, it is a response to a question. Jesus had just addressed a question from a "expert in the law" (NIV). They wanted to know what they needed to do to inherit eternal life. Jesus' response was to quote the shema: love the Lord your God and love your neighbor as yourself. The "expert in the law" wanted further explanation: who is my neighbor? In the end, the expert answered his own question. The one who showed mercy to the traveler is the one that is truly neighbor.
While there is a lot going on in this parable, I'd like to focus for a moment on the idea of mercy. Not just mercy, but how Jesus raises the issue of mercy as perhaps the highest example of love of neighbor. It must be remembered that Jesus, like Paul and the other Scripture writers, could say anything He wanted. He could use any analogy or metaphor. He could use any story He wanted to. So when He tells a story we must pay attention to both what He is saying and what He is not saying. So here, while Jesus could have suggested anything, puts forth the idea that an act of mercy towards a neighbor is the greatest (?) example of how to exemplify your love of your neighbor.
So what do we know of mercy? You don't have to be a Christ-follower to understand mercy. While I do believe that Christ-followers have the greatest example of mercy in the person and work of Christ, all humans understand what mercy is. Perhaps the best way to define mercy is that mercy is compassion or forgiveness shown toward someone whom it is within one's power to punish or harm (Definitions are often slippery things, but one has to plant one's flag somewhere). This definition of mercy has two aspects. First is the compassion that is shown and the second is the harm or punishment that is not done. From this we see that mercy is really about replacing one thing with another. In particular, it is replacing condemnation with compassion.
It seems then that mercy takes effort or action. it doesn't accidentally happen. Being a good neighbor, according to Jesus, means to move people from condemnation to compassion. To be a good neighbor requires action. It requires us to see our neighbor - anyone who is in need according to Jesus - and do something to help them in their time of need. This can seem overwhelming because we are surrounded with overwhelming need. We can't allow the need to overwhelm us . . . we must be strategic in how we approach that need. "Well there is just so much, what can I do?" is not an acceptable response. We can find a sliver or section of need that we can meet.