6. Marriage is a civil ceremony, which means it’s a civil right.

In the story of the good Samaritan, Jesus summarized our ethical duty as being a good neighbor. In the story, someone is injured on the road leading to the holy city of Jerusalem and lies wounded by the side of the road. Priestly types see the man lying wounded, but pass on by so as to remain pure for their religious obligations in Jerusalem.

Finally, a Samaritan man stops to help. The fact that Jesus used a Samaritan in this teaching story is important. Samaritans were considered outsiders in every sense of the word. They weren’t quite Israelite and not quite Jewish.  Why would Jesus use an outsider as the example of being a good neighbor?

Jesus seems to be asking us to consider what we owe to someone who is not from our group. The people passing by the wounded man used religion as an excuse not to meet the needs of a stranger. Many who think of themselves as followers of Jesus have never understood this parable. To update the story, the Samaritan might be Muslim or gay or atheist. The point is, it doesn’t matter what group someone is from, we have a duty to help them meet their human needs.

Being a good neighbor in the political sense means not depriving others of their rights and needs. According to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, people have a right to have a home and family. While some would use scripture to deny them of that right, I think the parable of the Good Samaritan calls us to a deeper understanding of the issue.

Marriage is as much a civil institution as it is a religious one. Contrary to what some claim, the Bible gives no clear definition of marriage. Jesus’ statement at the wedding at Cana that a man is to leave his parents and cleave to his wife is hardly a complete ethical treatise on marriage. We find many examples of marriages that were not between one man and one woman. Lots of the heroes of scripture had more than one wife. So if the church wants to return to honesty on this subject, it must first stop pretending that its views on marriage are coming from scripture.

But even if there were a clear definition of marriage in scripture, Jesus is saying in this parable and throughout his teaching that we are never true to his teaching if we don’t care about what others need. The parable of the Good Samaritan calls us to a secular response to human suffering. It does not matter if others are Christian or not, we have a duty to help them meet their human needs.

Jesus is saying not to read scripture in a way that deprives others of what they need. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, the people obeying scripture and passing by the wounded stranger to remain pure are the bad example. The good example is the one who knows when to lay down his Bible and respond from the heart.

Being a good neighbor in a democracy means being a good citizen, which means not requiring others to be like us before we honor their human and civil rights. The Bible does not clearly define what a marriage is, which has given the church great flexibility across history to adapt the civil definition of marriage to what people need in different cultural settings. But, because marriage is a civil ceremony, it is also a civil right.