Who Is My Neighbor? (11am)
Topic: Compassion Scripture: Luke 10:25–10:37, Romans 13:8–13:10
It’s a simple question for us to answer who are neighbors are, isn’t it? Right now, together, when I say, “Go.” I want you to say the name of your neighbor. Ready? Go. Ok, now I’m interested. How many of you said the name of a person who lives in the house next to you or across the street? That’s fine. That’s what we think of. How about if we reach back a little. Can you recall the name of your first neighbor that you can remember? From childhood?
Mine was a kid named Jose Benitez. Jose and his family lived in the other part of the twin house my family lived in. I saw Jose every day as a child. He was one of my closest friends. We’d play down at the creek, go to the community pool together, and sleep over each other’s houses. I loved hanging out with Jose. His home always smelled of the delicious food his mom was cooking and even though his dad worked a lot, Jose’s dad would always take time to pal around with us. I had a lot of friends but, in my mind, I only had one neighbor and that title or relationship or whatever you want to call it meant more to me than I realized at the time. This week we start a series called “Who Is My Neighbor?” We’re going to be exploring this concept that spans both the Old and New Testaments. The idea and reality of neighbor is an important one for us as we seek to be the people of God and the embodiment of all that Jesus teaches and values.
The tough thing is figuring out what the word “neighbor” means and how it applies to us. And the reality is that it can and should mean multiple things. Those are the roads this series will take us on. And what better place to start than the words of Christ? He tells us and shows us who our neighbor is by telling a story. It’s a story many of us know and could probably recite some abbreviated version of. It’s a favorite in children’s Sunday school lessons and one often associated with service, compassion, and kindness. It’s the story of the Good Samaritan. We find it in Luke 10:25-37.
This is one of those timeless stories. Not only because it comes from Scripture but because it speaks to the overarching need for compassion that humanity has valued as long as there has been civilization. Kindness, mercy, compassion…these are qualities that are too often ignored but always valued when they are given or practiced. It’s probably for that reason that this is one of only a few stories within the Bible that gets a lot of traction outside of churches and Bible studies. And while compassion is an admirable quality and something the world desperately needs; Christ does not simply offer an anecdote about it. Instead, he tells a detailed story with characters to highlight just what this sermon series is all about: neighbor. And this story begins with a question.
An expert in the law is questioning Jesus, kind of testing the waters. He wants to know how to gain eternal life. Jesus sums up the answer to that question with: Love God, love your neighbor. The law expert then asks, “Who is my neighbor?” And that’s where we get the timeless tale of compassion we just heard. It’s funny though because I think we take some imaginative and artistic license with the story that we probably shouldn’t. The story starts with a man traveling who is waylaid by robbers. They take his clothes and possessions, rough him up pretty bad, and then leave him on the side of the road battered and barely alive. And then we get the first two folks to pass our poor traveler. A priest and a Levite. These figures are meant to represent those who should be the most ready to help and offer care. Both are figures of religious leadership and both would have been well-versed in God’s teachings and aware of the responsibility to care for those in need.
The problem that often arises from the way we tell this story is that we paint these two individuals as villains akin to Scrooge or Cruella Deville. Wealthy, lofty people, too concerned with their own matters to see the hurting and pain of another. But Christ’s story doesn’t tell us that. Instead, we simply know the position they hold in the community, the religious commitments they have made, and their response to this one situation. To paint these two figures as heartless, selfish brutes completely lacking of compassion actually damages the depth of Christ’s story. We’ll return to that in a bit. And then comes the third person, our Good Samaritan. If you’ve ever heard a message or Sunday school lesson on this text you’ve been told that we’re not supposed to like the Samaritan.
Culturally, Samaritans were the pariahs and outcasts of the region. Well-traveled Jews would do all they could to avoid the region of Samaria all together. They were, for all intents and purposes, the people that we turn our lips up at and try not to make eye contact with. And yet, it is one of those whom we so actively try to ignore that does not ignore the suffering of a complete stranger. He gathers the poor traveler, sets him up in an inn, and even leaves an open tab to the owner to ensure the man who he knows nothing about is taken care of. A truly inspiring story. And in it we learn that Christ’s understanding of “neighbor” is much, much more reaching than our own. Remember, this story came out of a question. “Who is my neighbor?” A question meant to solidify an already pre-existing self-confidence from the law expert questioning Jesus about eternal life. If you haven’t realized it yet, God smirks at our own preconceived notions. And so it is with how we should understand “neighbor”.
See, the expert in the law was actually trying to have Jesus define neighbor so that the limits were set. How many people, who exactly, did he have to love? Because God forbid he love any more than the minimum. Expecting a simple, quantifiable answer I’m sure this expert in the law was flabbergasted and frustrated with Christ’s response. By using a Samaritan as the ideal in his story Christ gave a maximalist answer instead of the minimalist one that was expected. Where our lawyer was hoping for a line to be drawn, Christ gave a definition without any distinguishable borders. Arland Hultgren wrote a fascinating commentary on the parables of Christ. When he wraps up his thoughts about the story of the Good Samaritan he says this, “What is so fascinating about the parable discussed here is that, while a person may seek to use the law concerning love for the neighbor as a means to draw lines of distinction, its actual purpose in Jesus’ view is to break down any distinctions that a person might seek to make.”
Christ does such a profound reversal with this story that it can almost be missed. He brings ambiguity and clarity to how we think about neighbor and our fellow person. The victim of our story is the only one without definition or distinction. We know he was male and traveling. That’s it. Not mention nationality, social position, status, or financial state. He could literally be anyone. A rich official traveling on important business. A beggar trying to find a new oasis. A soldier returning home. He could be elderly or barely an adult. He could be you. He could be me. Christ cloaks the definition of neighbor in generality and ambiguity so that we cannot differentiate or draw lines when it comes to our compassion. The “hero” of the story is not who we expect. It’s not the priest. The pastor. The well-known, loved community sage. It’s not the Levite. The faithful church attender. The one who attends charity benefits and helps at the elementary school. It’s not the one everyone paints as the ideal community member. Instead, it’s the Samaritan. The one without a home. The one who doesn’t belong in any group. The one people cross the street to avoid. The one people are suspicious of without cause. The one everyone talks about and silently judges. The one that everyone believes is the problem. That is the one who demonstrates the love of Christ. It is that person who understands neighbor and who practices the compassion Christ calls for. So the question is this: Who do we do that for? Charity efforts, short-term missions’ trips, and donations are one thing. A necessary part of compassionate practice. But it’s not the whole of it and certainly not the end. This is what the priest and Levite missed. To be a neighbor, to practice compassion, it takes action and presence. It means being there.
When I think of this, I have one example that comes right to my mind. When my mom died, I was only in 7th grade. On top of navigating the hurdles of middle school and trying my best to study the alien species of girls, I now had to process the loss of a parent. The loss of one of the few pillars in my life. As many of you know, that is crushing and exhausting labor at any age. Doing it as one caught between childhood and becoming an adult was all the more disorienting. I was the waylaid traveler. I was the one going about my business, walking my own path, when I was struck with the harshest violence and left battered, broken, and alone. And I was the one who saw many walk by. Like the priest and the Levite of our story, these people were not villains or heartless brutes. They were the ones who saw my pain and my state but did not, for whatever reason, come down to where I was left lying. They were the ones who offered me mechanical hugs. They were the ones who spouted sayings that, no doubt, sounded better in their heads. Sayings like: God has a plan. God loved your mom so much that He wanted her with him. They say, “You’re not alone” as they walked away. They were well-meaning, average people who didn’t or maybe couldn’t see me as neighbor. The one who did was a friend of mine named Bob.
Now Bob wasn’t what you would call the ideal neighborhood friend. He was the kid parents didn’t want their children hanging out with and the one fathers forbade their daughters to spend time with. He had a foul mouth, a twisted sense of humor, and a reckless practice of life. He was the trouble-maker, the one who would never amount to anything, the riffraff. And yet, he was my neighbor. It was weeks after my mom’s death. The waves of prepared meals had stopped coming and the cards no longer came in the mail. I had returned to school and, for the most part, many in my life treated me as they had before I lost my mom. But I wasn’t better. I was still laying on the side of that road. I was still bleeding, hurting, and alone. And one day I just sat on the curb outside my house and I cried. I didn’t hear Bob come up behind me but he sat down. I sniffed and tried hard to hide what I was feeling. He asked, “Your mom?” I nodded. He breathed out a sigh and then simply said, “This really sucks.” At that point I cried more but now the tears actually brought release and relief. Someone recognized and acknowledged my heartache, my wounds. Someone saw me and took the time to let me know that. And it wasn’t a guidance counselor, it wasn’t a relative, it wasn’t any of the well-dressed people at my mom’s funeral. It was the kid everyone saw as the bad seed and rotten egg. It was the one no one wanted their family to be associated with. Bob was my neighbor in that moment. Not for any other reason than that he offered me presence, acknowledgment, and understanding.
Over the next several weeks we are going to be talking about our neighbors. The ones who are lost, misunderstood, forgotten, desperate. The ones who live on our streets, who like the same coffee shops we do, and who sit next to us in the pews on Sunday. As we do, remember that Christ shattered all the lines and barriers and boundaries concerning who our neighbor is. Remember that sometimes we get to be the Samaritan but that sometimes we are also the waylaid traveler. Remember that it is all too easy to become the priest or Levite. And remember that it is our responsibility and Christ-called duty to offer compassion, presence, assistance, and hope to any we meet who are suffering. Let’s pray.