2-26-17 Sermon “On the Outside, Looking In: Our Neighbors”
On April 18, 2010, Guatemalan immigrant Hugo Alfredo came to the aid of a woman being threatened by a knife-wielding man. Hugo struggled with the attacker, but was eventually stabbed and left to die on a New York street. The woman and the attacker fled in different directions while he lay bleeding. Video surveillance filmed portions of the attack and its disgusting aftermath.
Cameras showed that one man photographed Hugo with a cell phone, but did nothing to help. Eighteen others saw or walked right past him. All refused to render aid or contact authorities. The closest anyone came to helping was a man who shook the body vigorously, but walked away after seeing the pool of blood. Firefighters arrived fifteen minutes later, but by then it was too late - Hugo had died.
In light of the parable of the Good Samaritan, what do you suppose Jesus would have said about this incident?
“Who is my neighbor?” is a central question in local congregations, in the larger church, in whole communities, and even in the world at large today. It’s a question that is asked in the conversations around the issue of refugees as well as immigration policy, and around the idea of “sanctuary cities” and “sanctuary churches” in the United States. It’s a question that relates to the way we treat “the other,” whether that “other” is a homeless person who hasn’t had a bath in months or someone of a different social class. The question as to “Who is my neighbor?” often raises issues of race or sexual identity or nationality. It’s a question pondered in inter-religious and ecumenical relationships. In the political sphere, especially around election times, it primarily centers on either political ideology or party affiliation: may a Republican and a Democrat, or a liberal and a conservative, act as neighbors toward each other? All of this begs the question: Is there any category of person who is not neighbor to another, especially in a globalized society?
The parable of the Good Samaritan is one of those stories found only in Luke’s gospel. Along with Luke’s other famous exclusive, the parable of the Prodigals, the emphasis is on mercy; specifically, that God’s mercy given us is the reason we’re to be merciful to one another.
The story begins with a lawyer, that is, a person who is an expert and knowledgable in the Torah - the law of Moses, the law of Israel - asking a question of Jesus.
He’s attempting, we are told, to “test” Jesus.
“Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus, knowing that he’s being tested, says to the lawyer, “What does the law say?” The lawyer replies with the expected answer from the Hebrew Bible, “Love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.”
Ding - ding- ding - Good Answer Lawyer!
But then he also adds, “and love your neighbor as yourself.” He quotes both Deuteronomy AND Leviticus - Kudos to the lawyer! But wanting to justify himself, Luke tells us, the lawyer then asks, “Who is my neighbor?”
Now there’s the $64,000 question, right? Who is my neighbor? Why does the lawyer ask this question?
It seems pretty straight forward, doesn’t it?
Did he ask because he wanted to be sure he had kept the law, in order to inherit eternal life? Or was this another way of testing Jesus? Was he concerned about whether or not Jesus was a good rabbi, or was he really only concerned about his own salvation? Regardless, Jesus never answers that question anyway. Instead, he tells him what it looks like to be a neighbor.
A man is traveling down from Jerusalem to Jericho, Jesus offers. That road, as Martin Luther King, Jr. liked to point out when preaching on this passage, was very steep, dropping nearly 1500 feet in elevation on the way. It was hard to see around the curves and bends in the road so robbers could by lying in wait around any corner. The man making the trip is attacked by person or persons unknown and left for dead. His nationality is not mentioned, but it’s probably safe to assume he is Jewish. Two prominent religious Jews pass by, but seeing the lifeless man, moving to the other side of the road - not stopping. Jesus doesn’t tell us why they crossed over, only that they did. Was it because of ritual codes about not coming in contact with blood or with a dead body? We don’t know. However, Samaritans, who were considered second-class citizens, also had laws about purity and it didn’t seem to be a concern for this man, so there’s something more at play here.
The tone of the story that Jesus tells the lawyer and the others listening in takes a decisive turn with Jesus’ words, “But a Samaritan…” Jews despised Samaritans as untrustworthy, half-breed, heretics, and the disdain was mutual, as seen in the story from last week about the Samaritan village that refused hospitality to Jesus and his band.
But despite this mutual communal hatred, the Samaritan bandages the man’s wounds, brings him to an inn, and makes arrangements for him to be cared for. Jesus then asks the lawyer, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell victim to the robbers? Well what’s the lawyer going to say, right? He has little choice but to answer, “The one who showed him mercy.” Notice, in his response, he can’t even bring himself to say the word, “Samaritan.”
But it’s this despised Samaritan whom Jesus lifts up as the embodiment of the law, who recognizes that the neighbor is anyone in need. In theologian John Calvin’s commentary on this passage he says, “It would have been a clearer command if [Jesus had said], ‘Thou shalt love every [person] as thyself.’
However, Calvin says, the story has the virtue of forcing the lawyer to admit ‘that our neighbor is the [one] most foreign to us, for God has bound all [people] together for mutual aid.’”
In telling the story, Jesus doesn’t speak to why the religious leaders didn’t stop, but he does indicate why the Samaritan did; “He was moved to pity.” The Greek word translated as “moved to pity,” is used in the New Testament parables to describe only three characters: the father of the prodigal, the master who forgives a servant a huge debt, and the Samaritan. Every other time it’s used in the New Testament, it’s referring to Jesus himself. And in every case, to feel such great compassion is to be moved to extraordinary action.
In asking Jesus “Who is my neighbor?” the lawyer was trying to narrow down the field. Who exactly is my neighbor he wants to know.
What is the limit of one’s legal responsibility to love another as oneself? Is “neighbor” a geographic term?
Is it an ethnic or tribal term? For Jesus to answer the question that the lawyer asks, in the way he wants it to be answered, would require Jesus to, in effect, list who doesn’t fit his definition of neighbor. Maybe that’s why Jesus doesn’t answer the lawyer’s question at all.
In the parable, Jesus defines neighbor not as someone deemed worthy to receive love, but as someone who is able to offer it. Jesus leads the lawyer to the conclusion that neighbors are those who act in love toward others.
The bottom line for Jesus, is mercy. Mercy does not ask first about skin color or sexual identity or nationality or legal status or political party. Mercy is not concerned with who is deserving, or with purity, or with piety.
Mercy is what comes from God to the community and to each us. It is a gift freely given. It is grace.
Originally, the lawyer had asked Jesus about how to inherit eternal life. That question was turned completely on its head. There was nothing the lawyer could do to inherit or earn eternal life. It was not possible. It comes only by grace, by mercy from God. We can almost hear Jesus saying to the lawyer, who was wise and articulate and knew the Torah well, “Quit thinking only about yourself and go show compassion to your neighbor. Who is your neighbor? The person you see in need of human compassion.”
As biblical commentator Mary Hinkle Shore offers, “The message of the parable is not, “We have to help those poor people in the ditch, even though it is potentially dangerous and costly to us.” The message is not, “Followers of Jesus have to help those poor people in the ditch because Jesus pushes out the lines that define ‘neighbor’ farther than they were before.” Remember, the question that began this encounter between Jesus and the lawyer is, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” The story begins with this question about eternal life, and concludes with Jesus’ command, “Do this, and you will live.”
So what is the way of life that leads to eternal life? Jesus’ message in the Good Samaritan can only lead to the conclusion that one must help others, be a neighbor to others, because helping is the way of life - not only for the one needing help, but also for those offering it. We are all in this together. “Neighbor” is a communal category. The Samaritan recognized, where the priest and the Levite did not, that life - not just for the needy one but for everyone, and not just in the moment but for eternity - required being and having neighbors.
Now, I would imagine that everybody here knows a Good Samaritan story - maybe we’ve all been in that story ourselves, as one character or another. Maybe we’ve been the recipient of help from a Good Samaritan. Maybe we’ve been the Samaritan providing the help. Or maybe we’ve been the priest or the Levite who passed by on the other side. We all probably, if we’re honest with ourselves, play that role more than any other. If you on’t believe me, consider this: how many times, when driving down the highway and there’s a car pulled off to the side with their flashers on, do we simply drive by - assuming that either they’ve got a cell phone and can call for help, or that it’s too dangerous for us to stop? Because honestly, if we all stopped every time we encountered that kind of situation, we’d never get anywhere would we? At least that’s how, like the lawyer, we might justify it to ourselves.
Over the course of our entire lives we may never encounter a situation like the one I described at the beginning, or even like the one in Jesus’ parable. Or maybe we will. The story I shared in the beginning depicted humanity at its worst. Here’s an example of what it might look like at its best.
Following the teachings of Jesus Christ is not easy - he never said it would be. Doing right by God, doing right by one another, requires looking at and treating our neighbor with a sense, not as “them” or as “other,” but as a sister or as a brother.
The gist of this entire episode indicates that rather than being told who his neighbor is, the lawyer, and with him we, are shown how to be a neighbor.
And Jesus’ question for the lawyer is now ours as well. What will you do to be a neighbor, a Good Samaritan? Will you welcome the stranger, the one who’s not like you, who doesn’t look or act or love or speak or vote like you? Will you come to his or her aid or cross to the other side? Would you offer sanctuary in your home, in your church, in your city, to the marginalized, the persecuted, or the refugee?
Would you, as an individual or as a congregation, declare openly and publicly that you welcome and accept our lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender brothers and sisters, just as they are? How will you be a neighbor to those on the outside looking in - those deemed unworthy, those who are lonely, those who are humbled and those who are tormented, the homeless and the refugee? Will you build walls or will you build bridges? Will you, like the lawyer, define narrowly who is your neighbor, or will you like Jesus, draw the circle wide?
Twenty centuries later, we find ourselves in different circumstances, but where hatreds and barriers still divide people and communities. And Jesus commands us, as he did that lawyer so many years ago, when he lifted up the response of the Samaritan to define what it means to be a neighbor, “Go, and do likewise.” Amen.