July 10th, 2022
Rev. Rebecca Migliore
There was a time when everyone knew their neighbors. You knew their parents. You knew their kids. You knew their cousins. You could point to any house in sight and name the family. In fact, I’ve had people of a certain age tell me that their neighborhood was so connected that if they ever did anything wrong on their walk home from school, by the time they got to their doorstep, their mother would have heard of it from several neighbors. That doesn’t happen as easily anymore.
People move around more. People stay inside their houses more (watching TV, getting on their devices, staying away from others because of the pandemic). Maybe we even are a little more wary of each other. Maybe we have pulled tighter our definition of neighbor. This is what Jesus challenges us to consider today in the story we call “The Good Samaritan.”
Our reading starts with a test. “What do I have to do to gain eternal life?” asks a lawyer. In other words: What do YOU say is the way we should live our lives? Jesus sees the lawyer, really sees who he is—a man devoted to studying the Torah law, a man who would be able to quote chapter and verse, a man who likes rules and likes following them. And so Jesus throws back at him—How would you answer that question? What does the law say? What do you read there? What do you think God requires of us?
And the lawyer gives a response based on two familiar passages. Love the Lord your God with all you have—heart, soul, strength and mind—the premier commandment of Torah, the Shema, recited at every service, taught to you from the time you could learn. And to that our lawyer adds another familiar lesson, found in many of the stories of hospitality, but stated definitely in Leviticus 19:18, Love your neighbor as yourself.
And Jesus agrees with him and says “Do this, and you will live.” That must have been a shock to our lawyer, because he meant to test Jesus, he meant to trip up Jesus, he meant to show that this upstart, this preacher, this healer didn’t really know much about God at all. And so, the lawyer presses Jesus further. Who is my neighbor?
It’s a good question. Who are our neighbors? These ones that the Scriptures tell us we are to love, to treat as we would ourselves? Are they the people who live next door (in geographical proximity to us)? Are they the people we want to gather with for burgers, or a cocktail, or a coffee, or a round of pickleball? Are they people we already know? Are they people like us? Are they part of our tribe? Do they worship God the way we worship God? Do they call God by the same name? Do they speak the language we do? Would they never do or say anything to make us uncomfortable?
And therein lies the heart of this whole reading. Because although you can find places in what we call the Old Testament and Jesus would have called his Scripture where people are told to treat strangers, foreigners, as if they were angels, let’s face it, the way the “law” was read, neighbor meant “one of our own.” Love your neighbor meant love those of the Jewish faith, or maybe even those of your own tribe of the 12. It is a human failing to want to separate us from them. I guess it would be too taxing to have to love everyone, anyone. And so we narrow who our neighbors are. I mean, if God had meant love everyone regardless, why not say that? God said, Love your neighbor; God must have meant a subset of everyone.
So the lawyer wanted clarification. OK, Jesus. How do you define neighbor? Who was it that God wanted us to “love”? And thus we get to the story of a man going from Jerusalem to Jericho who was carjacked on a lonely stretch of road, by robbers who took all he had, including his clothes, beat him so badly he was half dead, and left him there to let the elements do the rest.
We know nothing about this man. But let’s make some assumptions. We assume he’s Jewish because this is a Jewish audience. And it’s a fair assumption since the man is traveling from the Jewish capital city, the place where he might have been to worship or make sacrifice at the temple and now he is traveling to Jericho (another town known to be Jewish).
So this man, this Jewish man, is in dire need. He has no clothes. He is bleeding and broken. He is lying on a road that was notorious for its danger and difficulty. He was probably praying that someone, anyone, would come by and help him. And he lucks out. Three people find themselves on the road with him. The first two, a priest and a Levite, would have been good candidates for helping our needy man. We’ve already discussed that the law, what both the priest and the Levite were supposed to know, and to follow, suggests that you should love your neighbor as yourself. And this man was a neighbor in probably anyone’s estimation. He was Jewish, so a neighbor. He needed help, so a neighbor. The only out you might give the first two passer’s by was to say it was hard to judge who he was since he had no identifying marks—no clothes, and certainly didn’t look “respectable.”
Jesus doesn’t stop there to sermonize. In fact, he seems to move fairly quickly through this part of the story. I find it interesting that Jesus doesn’t say WHY the priest and the Levite don’t stop to help. Jesus in the gospel of Luke is portrayed as a prophet (one who rails against established power, both governmental and religious). This would be an excellent time to talk about the hypocrisy of those in power not living by their own code. But no, Jesus just leaves it for the hearers of the story to fill in the blanks.
It could have been that they didn’t notice the man—maybe they were so caught up in prayer, or thinking religious thoughts that they had their heads in the clouds.
OR It could have been that they were in a hurry and this man needed a LOT of help. Stopping meant having to tend to him, having to somehow get him to a place of help, getting involved in a lengthy process.
OR It could have been because this man was bloody (or worse, dead) and therefore unclean (which meant if you stopped you would have to go to the baths and ritually be cleansed before you could do anything else).
There was stark need—a need that certainly would fall under hospitality codes, under any decency codes. But they walked on by. I can imagine that the lawyer is getting a little uneasy at this point. I am. Because I certainly have seen unhoused people and turned my head. I routinely get calls from people who tell me stories of urgent need, and I do not usually jump to the rescue. Maybe it is an occupational hazard, or maybe it is just my own failing, that in my advanced age I listen to pleas with more than a grain of salt. I hope that if I were presented with this man, bleeding and naked and half-conscious, I wouldn’t give it a second thought. But I think Jesus is right in his statistics, maybe even generous. Because two out of three of us, for whatever reason, don’t stop.
By now, everyone is saying, at least in their head, “ok, ok, I get it.” I need to do a better job of following those commandments, “Love God AND Love neighbor.” Even if that neighbor can’t be identified as the best kind of neighbor, the one that you would pick as a neighbor. And just as we think we understand, Jesus, master storyteller that he is, produces one more surprise to underline his message.
That third person along the road, the one that our dying friend has to count on, isn’t a neighbor at all. In the twisted way that we humans create groups within groups within groups, the Samaritans weren’t considered neighbors because although they worshiped the same God, they worshiped on the wrong mountain.
(Kind of like when certain Christian groups killed other Christians because they baptized infants (HERESY), or on the other hand because they only baptized adults (HERESY)!)
Our man in desperate need is sunk. This third try isn’t of his ilk, isn’t of his tribe, and therefore wasn’t a neighbor, by all accounts. But the Samaritan does stop. And not only does he stops, but he binds his wounds, puts him on his own animal (meaning the Samaritan now has to walk), and takes him to an inn where he cares for this man. The next morning, needing to be on his way, he pays (and is willing to continue to pay) for someone else to care for our wounded friend until he is better.
Now, Jesus turns back to our lawyer, “which one was a neighbor”? And the lawyer has to admit that the very person who he wanted to exclude, the very type of person he was thinking about when he asked “Who is my neighbor?”—THAT is the person Jesus has lifted up as truly following the commandment. That is the model Jesus picks to say, “Go and do likewise.”
In light of Jesus’ story I think it is very hard to define neighbor as anything other than “another human being.” And so, Love God and Love neighbor as yourself, becomes the widest possible interpretation. Because we are to see others with God’s eyes.
David Sax in a piece in the New York Times called “Strangers Are Good for Us” tells of watching his son on the playground. He easily began to play with another child, with no thought as to whether he knew him. After a while, the other father, looking up from his phone, goes to his son and asks who he is playing with. The child answers “I don’t know his name, but he’s my friend.” (Seasons of the Spirit, Lection Connection, Sandra Rooney, “Faithful Action”)
No wonder Jesus suggested that to enter the kin-dom of God we must remove all the years of being schooled about who is in and who is out,
we must remove all the hardening of our heart that comes from disappointment and disillusionment we have experienced,
we must remove our set in stone qualifications of who is our neighbor,
and stand, hand in hand,
with our brothers and sisters,
all of us neighbors,
in the place where the only name we need to be known by is
Children of God.
May it be so, Alleluia, Amen.