Deuteronomy 30:9-14; Psalm 25:1-9; Colossians 1:1-14; Luke 10:25-37
Who is MY neighbor? You do remember when neighbors used to be more than just the people whose house happened to be next to ours. I grew up in a small neighborhood of 1960’s suburbia homes, and in my neighborhood, within walking distance of my house there were four young families with two, three, six, and another two children in each. We lived life, played football, rode skateboards and bicycles, and played games all summer long together. My neighbors would do anything for me and I for them. We cared for one another, helped one another, shared snacks and dinner with one another, but that kind of neighborliness has changed in 2019.
Today, we Americans seem to struggle with the virtue of neighborly connection. There is so much strife in the world, so much internal focus, and the call to be true friends, allies, and neighbors seems to be a fleeting concept. For instance, many of us live in gated communities that supposedly keep us safe behind walls. There are no more front porches on which, we sit in the evening and visit with one another. We usually pull our cars into the garage, close the door, go into the house, and never even know the names of those living beside us. So for we 21st century Christians, who now find ourselves in isolated, private, and non-engaging ways of life, how do we come to practice Jesus’ teaching about who is MY neighbor?
The Greek word in scripture for neighbor is πλησίον. It means “any other person irrespective of nation or religion with whom we live or whom we chance to meet.” (3) Jesus takes this definition And embodies it in the hero of the parable we heard in the gospel. Jesus’s idea of neighbor was pretty radical, then and now. For most of his audience that day, his neighborliness was a foreign concept for them. Neighbor was described in Lev 19:18, which states, “You shall not take vengeance or bear any grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.” In other words, neighbor was limited to their own insiders.
Today for us, maybe neighbor means folks who meet certain legal criteria, economic criteria, or social status criteria. Jesus redefined neighbor as folks outside the criteria of exculsion we may often set. Imagine hearing Jesus’ parable about an outsider, a Samaritan as the hero , the true neighbor who disregarded legal, economic, and social norms to show compassion, love, and care for someone, not of his own people, and in so doing, the Samaritan discovered his own life’s purpose.
Listen again to a synopsis of the drama of the Good Samaritan. A lawyer stood up to test Jesus and asked, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Theologian Mark Davis writes in his blog, “I do not hear this as a question about ensuring that one gets to heaven and not hell, but a question about the whole matter and purpose of life itself. This is a “what is the meaning of life?” or “what is the chief end of humanity?” sort of question. (2) In other words, the lawyer is asking Jesus, as a disciple, what is my purpose? Jesus answers the question with a question about scripture’s guidance about our purpose; our mission. The lawyer stated, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” Out of his own mouth he had the answer, and Jesus told him that if he will but do these two commands, he woukd discover the life God intended for him.
That was not quite enough for the lawyer though. A generalized command to love all with whom we come in contact seemed too demanding, too difficult, and it thwarted the criteria he wanted to use to classify “who is in” and “who is out.” So, he asked Jesus, “who is MY neighbor.” It seems like a simple question and not a bad thing to ask, but what he really meant was “who can I exclude from the list of people I must love, Jesus,” or rather, “If you can help me define who is MY neighbor, I can keep a list of the unworthy, unlikeable, and “less than” who are not my neighbor.”
Jesus use the unlikely neighbor to define the true neighbor. Let me know explain. Jews and Samaritans were not friendly to one another. Ancestrally, Samaritans are descendants of the Jewish tribe of Ephraim and tribe of Manasseh (two sons of Joseph) as well as from the Levites. In other words, they were more than neighbors, they were family, but religious practice and doctrinal differences made them and their Israelite siblings bitter enemies. It is ironic that Jesus chose a Samaritan as the hero of the story. Remember last week’s Gospel, “Jesus had just been denied entry into a Samaritan village. James and John, in fact, wanted to call down fire and invoke a Sodom-like punishment on that village.” (2)
So it was a Samaritan, and not a holy and devout insider priest and Levite that showed compassion, care, and love for the man who had been robbed and left half dead. If this irony was not enough, notice the extent of compassion, care, and love he showed the poor man. First, he bandaged his wounds and poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal (he walked while the hurt man rode). He brought him to an inn and took care of him; he even stayed with him overnight and nursed him back to health. He shared from his abundance and gave two denarii (two day’s pay) to the innkeeper, and said, `Take care of him, and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.”
The Samaritan did not merely show pity, he shared the suffering of the man and helped him in his circumstances. How did he become a neighbor? He offered immediate triage for the man’s plight, he transported him, gave him shelter, offered ministry of presence, invested in his healing, and made possible ongoing care. That sounds like a model for us to become a neighbor because sometimes, the opportunity to become a neighbor is surprisingly unexpected.
Go and do likewise
In my second grade class in school, I learned “Who is MY neighbor.” He wore dirty jeans, holey high top sneakers, and a plaid shirt that had not been washed in a week. The condition of his clothes said a lot about the life he must have lived at home. His name was John Wayne. This was no cowboy with a particularly distinctive swagger and well-known voice. No, this John Wayne was a quiet, shy second grader, who due to no fault of his own found himself every day in a particularly difficult situation.
It was obvious that he suffered an impoverished existence. It was obvious to me at eight years old, that he was hurting when one day while everyone else was eating lunch, I watched him pick up the scraps of potato chips the other kids dropped from their brown bag lunches. On the playground, the other kids made fun of John Wayne, they ostracized him from the group, and he suffered. Oh yes, he suffered.
I remember telling my mother about John Wayne that night, and then watching her cry because of what I had witnessed. Soon after that, every day for the rest of the school year, I came to class with two brown bags. One had my name on it and the other had John Wayne’s name written at the top. In both bags, my mother put sandwiches, chips, cookies, and money for milk and ice cream. My mom made it clear that I was not to just give him the bag and then join my friends for lunch, but I was to sit with him and share lunch together. Through a simple brown paper bag, I learned that suffering with others is not merely solving the problems of their plight, but it is sharing their suffering with them.
“How do we become a neighbor?”
Suffering is the reality in which, all of us find ourselves. Suffering is not fair, life is not always fair, and death is certainly not fair. It is not fair that young children in our own neighborhood go to school every day with nothing to eat. It is not fair that hearts are broken when a spouse says goodbye to their soul mate at the time of their death. It is not fair that disease, famine, weather-related devastations, and war cause such pain and anguish in the world.
Suffering is not fair; it is simply our condition, and none of us are immune to its effects. The higher calling for us Christians though, is to suffer in love with one another. So, how do we become a neighbor? When we see someone suffering, neighboring includes providing triage (or maybe helping them sustain life in the moment), it included transporting (if it safe for you us we may offer a way to get more help), it included sheltering (helping them find protection from what afflicts them). It included ministry of presence (being with them in their suffering as long as you are able). It includes investing (be willing to give from the abundance God has given us for others). Finally, it includes providing ongoing care (remaining connected to the afflicted until they are able to stand on their own).
Becoming a neighbor is how we Christians pass on to others, the abundant grace, compassion, and love God has shown and does show us every day. We are not called merely to show pity and write a check (although that generosity does help in some cases), but more than that, we are called to bear one another’s burdens. Maybe becoming a neighbor is not as difficult as we think, if we can drop the criteria of “who is MY neighbor. Becoming a neighbor may mean just bearing the burdens of the other. It could be as simple as sharing a brown bag lunch with someone less fortunate, like two little boys did so long ago.
As you leave today, as you are driving home and you possibly see a homeless man or woman, as you shop in Publix and see the distraught cashier at the register, as you go to work this week and see your colleague struggling, or as you meet the person living next to you whom you never met, maybe the question we need to ask is not, “who is MY neighbor,” but how can I become a neighbor to them? The answer is simple though. Just eemember what Jesneighed, the neighbor is “The one who shows mercy, so go and do likewise.”