In the new statement on immigration published by Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints , we find this comment:
“The bedrock moral issue for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is how we treat each other as children of God.”
I was reminded when I read this statement of a passage in the New Testament. In Luke 10, we read the parable of the Good Samaritan. Personally, I don’t believe it is a parable at all. It follows a pattern that I recognize elsewhere as a legal debate in which a question is asked, and then various examples are raised in which the question might occur – and those examples move from the most difficult and unusual to the most common and immediate . Our narrative starts with this introduction:
And, behold, a certain lawyer stood up, and tempted him, saying, Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life? He said unto him, What is written in the law? how readest thou? (vss. 25-26)
What is the purpose of this exchange? In such a setting the lawyer would approach Jesus and ask a question. The lawyer is challenging Jesus. He already has an answer to the question (it says he was there to tempt Jesus and not to learn), and the underlying supposition is that he will try to embarrass Jesus or show him up by getting a response and then giving a better one. So Jesus responds to the question with a question of his own (part of the normal tactics for these discussions) – Jesus asks, how do you understand the law? And so the lawyer responds:
And he answering said, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbour as thyself. And he said unto him, Thou hast answered right: this do, and thou shalt live. But he, willing to justify himself, said unto Jesus, And who is my neighbor? (vss. 27-29)
So the lawyer provides a very good answer (one in fact that Jesus himself uses in response to the priests and elders – Matt. 22:36-40). But, the lawyer wants further the discussion (he still has a trap in mind), so he asks Jesus who that neighbor is. Why is this question important? Much of the Law of Moses is dedicated to distinguishing between Israel and everyone else. Different rules applied when dealing with an Israelite than with strangers or foreigners. Again, we assume that the lawyer has some idea of how he would answer this question, but the question he is asking is where do we draw the line? This is a question about exclusion. Who does the Law of Moses apply to?
How does Jesus respond? He provides a test case for the lawyer to consider:
And Jesus answering said, A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, which stripped him of his raiment, and who wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead. And by chance there came down a certain priest that way: and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. (vss. 30-31)
So, what is the nature of the question? A man traveling from Jerusalem could be just about anybody. The venue itself doesn’t suggest whether or not that man was an Israelite. He has no clothes (which presumably could function to help identify the man). But more than this, the one indicator that would indicate that he could be an Israelite is now in plain sight. Is he circumcised? If he wasn’t, the priest could leave him there and the stipulation in Leviticus 19:18 (to love your neighbor as yourself) wouldn’t apply. Even if he were circumcised, there wouldn’t necessarily be resolution. After all, the Samaritans were circumcised as well, and they certainly traveled the road between Jericho and Jerusalem. The man is half dead, (unconscious) so he cannot simply be asked if he is an Israelite.
As a priest, he might consider the implications of Leviticus 21:1-4 which makes it sinful for the priest to touch a corpse. There were other legal considerations, and of all the Israelites, the question in the case of the Priest would be the most difficult, since he would have the most rules to work his way through when weighing the different outcomes. Jesus has then posed his lawyer challenger with a difficult legal question to be figured out – is the priest justified in moving to the other side of the road and ignoring the man in the ditch? And the lawyer, who has, himself, come to challenge Jesus will see this as an appropriate challenge.
Jesus follows this up then with the next case to be considered. It is the same situation, but with a Levite, the cultic responsibilities are a bit less than that of the priest (and so a little less difficult to determine a resolution):
And likewise a Levite, when he was at the place, came and looked on him, and passed by on the other side. (vs. 32)
The Levite has similar concerns to the priest (although the issues with Leviticus 21:1-4 could be removed from the equation although other similar restrictions like Numbers 19 would still apply). In fact, from the perspective of the lawyer, this is the distinction that Jesus seems to want to introduce, going from most complex to less complex, to simplest situation. So the implied question too here is, was the Levite also justified in ignoring the man (in not applying Lev. 19:18).
Finally, we get to a third test case. At this point, the lawyer is expecting the introduction of the Israelite with the least restriction – the common Israelite. After all, he still understands that we are asking the question – is the man in the ditch the neighbor to the priest, to the Levite and now, potentially to the common Israelite. And here, Jesus pulls the rug out from under the lawyer’s feet:
But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was: and when he saw him, he had compassion on him, And went to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring in oil and wine, and set him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him. (vss. 33-34)
Jesus has completely altered the discussion. Of course, it is completely natural that a Samaritan would walk down that road (we have already determined that it is this issue which in part forms the basis for discussion – was the half dead man at the side of the road an Israelite or a Samaritan?) And the Samaritan acts out of compassion (and not just a little compassion – the details lead us to understand that what he did was neither quick or cheap). Now we could suppose for a moment that Jesus could return to the original discussion that the lawyer has envisioned. He could ask, “If the Samaritan acts with compassion on the man, are the Priest and the Levite still justified in not treating the man as a neighbor?”, but instead he asks the lawyer:
Which now of these three, thinkest thou, was neighbour unto him that fell among the thieves? And he said, He that shewed mercy on him. Then said Jesus unto him, Go, and do thou likewise. (vss. 36-37)
So we start by asking who a neighbor is, and we end up by illustrating what a neighbor does. And in the process, Jesus has challenged the whole legalistic process of identifying a neighbor. And rather than contributing to a legalistic identification, he has made a neighbor into someone who helps those in need. In a sense, Jesus hasn’t embarrassed the lawyer by his questions, he has embarrassed the Law of Moses.
And this brings me back to the official position of the Church as presented in the statement released by the Public Affairs Office. I think that too many people in our society today are interested in being the lawyer. They want to have lines drawn. They want to know exactly where their obligation to love our neighbors as ourselves ends. They want to do this in the abstract – to walk by on the other side of the road so to speak so that they aren’t faced with the reality that their decisions are creating. As the statement notes:
“The history of mass expulsion or mistreatment of individuals or families is cause for concern especially where race, culture, or religion are involved. This should give pause to any policy that contemplates targeting any one group, particularly if that group comes mostly from one heritage.”
We can focus on what might or might not be legal (and on occasion we may even find ourselves in positions to change or affect what might or might not be legal). We can engage in sophistry – we might suggest that because this statement hasn’t come from the First Presidency in General Conference that it isn’t something we need to thoughtfully consider when we become engaged in issues of immigration. In doing this, we, like the lawyer in Luke 10, are simply looking for ways to exclude. Rather than seeing a need for compassion and acting on it, we first wish to determine if our immigrants are worthy of our help. Like the followers of Mosaic Law, we wish to interpret and reinterpret in an ever more detailed fashion so that we can constantly narrow that which requires us to act.
No matter what side of the political spectrum we sit on, our responses to the issues of immigration that challenge us today should be dominated foremost by the issues that the leaders of the Church have raised and presented to us for our consideration: a respect for every member of the human family as children of God, compassion, a respect for family, and a commitment to law.
 This interpretation is adapted from Philip F. Esler, “Jesus and the Reduction of Intergroup. Conflict: the Parable of the Good Samaritan in the light of. Social Identity Theory,” Biblical Interpretation 4 (2000)