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Sunday, April 3, 2011

Who Is My Neighbor?


Luke 10: 25-37 Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,’ he said, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ He said to him, ‘What is written in the law? What do you read there?’ He answered, ‘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.’ And he said to him, ‘You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.’

But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’ Jesus replied, ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while travelling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.” Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’

Picture in your mind and heart, right now, the person or group of people you most dislike, most fear, most avoid. Do NOT say – there’s no one like that in my life: I love everyone. You are in church, God knows what you are thinking, and the person sitting next to you does not want to be hit by a lightning bolt directed at you for lying. Be honest: who is the person or persons you hope to never have anything to do with for the rest of your life?

- suicidal terrorists

- inner city street gangs

- liberals

- conservatives

- people with AIDS

- certain neighbors, family members, classmates, or work associates

You know who that person is. You know who those persons are. Now, imagine lying in a ditch by the side of the road following an accident, and that person comes to help you. Or, imagine passing by that person who’s sick or injured or in trouble. What does that feel like? What are you going to do?

The Parable of the Good Samaritan is Jesus’ answer to a question about who God expects us to love. Family, friends, pets, people like us, good people – is that what God expects of us? So, Jesus tells this remarkable story about a man mugged on a journey, who is left in the ditch by precisely the people you would have expected to help him – a priest and a church lay leader. They’re too busy; they don’t want to get involved; they don’t even know the man in the ditch – or maybe they do.

The third passerby is a Samaritan. Jesus has not only stuck a knife into his hearers, but now he is going to twist it. Samaritans and Jews hated each other. Samaritans were the remnants of a small Hebrew sect in the northern part of Israel, who claimed that God intended for the Temple to be built on Mt. Gerazim, not on Mt. Zion (which is Jerusalem). Jews and Samaritans regarded each other as despicable heretics, pretenders to the true faith and racial legacy of Abraham. There is still a small group of Samaritans – fewer than 1000, in four families, living in Israel today. They still hate Jews, and Jews hate them.

It is the Samaritan who shows compassion for the victim, puts him on his donkey and pays for his hospital bill. “Now,” Jesus asks his listeners, “which of the three do you think was a neighbor to the man in trouble?”

Neighborliness, Jesus is telling us, is not the responsibility of someone else. We decide who our neighborhood is. And there is increasing evidence that we live in a dramatically less neighborly world. Governments decide that they don’t have to talk to nations that don’t agree with them. There is a growing disparity in the world, in our nation, and in our own neighborhoods between rich and poor. There are growing gaps between good schools and poor schools. A shrinking percentage of our population has adequate health care. We work in cubicles, communicate to the cubicle next door by email so we won’t have to talk to each other, we come home at night to our homes and never engage the people living next door, and we even retreat to the privacy of separate televisions, separate computers, and separate cell phones so we don’t even have to be neighborly in our own households.

In their ground-breaking book, Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life, Robert Bellah and the other authors say The litmus test that both the biblical and republican traditions give us for assaying the health of a society is how it deals with the problem of wealth and poverty. . . Classic republican theory from Aristotle to the American founders rested on the assumption that free institutions could survive in a society only if there were a rough equality of condition, that extremes of wealth and poverty are incompatible with a republic.[1] The Samaritan is not a republican, but he understands that the person next to him is his neighbor, and to love his neighbor means to level the playing field between the victim’s need and his own well-being. To be faithful to God, Jesus is saying quite explicitly, is to actively and intentionally seek the good of those next to us.

Notice the neighborliness of the Lord’s Supper: we all eat from the same loaf and drink from the same cup. No one gets more or less. No one is at the head or the foot of the table. And if we cannot come, the table comes to us. The table is the pre-eminent symbol of neighborliness – and we need to take the table outside, not demand that others come in.

I believe that God is calling Christians to a counter-cultural life of radical neighborliness. God is calling us away from our isolation and into community-making. Specifically, I want to challenge us:

1. Find out right now who is around you in your pew.

2. Find out who is around you at home.

3. Find out who is around you at school and at work.

4. Find out who is around you wherever you are, and teach them what it looks like to have a neighbor. It makes absolutely no difference how they treat you: neighborliness is determined by how you treat them.

5. Insist that leaders in church and work and school and nation be neighborly and level the playing field. For most of us, that means that we’re going to have to contribute the fill for the low places. That’s the price of neighborliness, and is the reason who God blessed us so richly – so we could be a blessing to someone else.

In so many places, the world has forgotten how to be a neighbor. Who is going to teach them what that looks like? All the sermons in the world won’t help. We will learn how to be a neighbor by being one, and we will teach how to be a neighbor the same way.

Today – go make a neighbor.

[1] Bellah, Robert, et. al., Habits of the Heart, U. of CA Press, 1985, p. 285

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