Who is My Neighbor? – July 18, 2010

II Kings 5:1-14, Luke 10:25-37

July 18, 2010

I was seriously considering naming this message after the words of Fred Rodgers from the opening song of his famous children’s show. I didn’t. And I guess I felt I was taking a risk of causing that song to run through your heads the rest of the day! (Maybe I’m too late??)

By the way, did you know that Mr. Rodgers was a good Presbyterian? That’s right! He was at one time a member of the First Presbyterian Church of (?) Topeka Kansas! His son and daughter-in-law may actually still be members there. I met them there once. And there was a time when Fred would come back and visit and give the Children’s message in that church! Can you imagine what that was like for Mr. Rodgers to give the children’s message?

I really do want you to think of his song, though. It is reminiscent of this story in Luke, and it helps us ask the extremely important question, “Who is my neighbor?” And I think it recalls a simpler time, decades ago, when we knew our neighbors, when we cared to know our neighbors. I remember that time. Some of the most vivid memories of my childhood included the family next door. Together, we resembled a large family with four parents, five children, and two houses! We were that close. And I remember that in those days, we were not alone! In those days, neighbors shared life together. They child-rearing responsibilities. They shared meals together. They visited each other regularly, and the “talked over fences” – not as a matter of courtesy, but as a matter of genuine interest and of relationship building.

Today, we hardly know our neighbors, don’t we? What made all of that change? There are probably as many theories as there are people who have asked the question! Maybe our lives have become much too full. Maybe we’ve become too mobile, and we don’t stay in any one place long enough to get to know our neighbors. Maybe we work too much! Maybe we’ve just grown inward on ourselves, learning to deal only with our own needs, concerned only with our own lives. Maybe it’s a combination of some or all of those things, or perhaps others. But let me suggest to you that I think we are lesser people because of it. Developing relationships with neighbors ought something for us to rediscover and cultivate. What do you think? With all that in mind, think of the question this man asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?”

Jesus took that question – or I suppose the answer – one step further. He suggested in this famous story we read today, that even those who society tells us we should avoid, those who we should not choose to be our neighbors, are the very people we should consider to be our neighbors! Let’s look a bit at this story we know so well, and see if maybe there are some new kernels of truth or insight we to be gained, as we seek to answer this question for ourselves. “Who is my neighbor.”

As we began our reading, Jesus was engaged in conversation with a lawyer. And in those days lawyers dealt with the law, which was what? It was God’s law! It was the Ten Commandments and all that other stuff around it. And this man asked Jesus a good question. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus gave him a good answer. “You know the law,” he said. “What does it say?” And the man quoted a law that was near and dear to his heart. Actually it was two laws near and dear to his heart. He linked Deuteronomy 6:4-5 and Leviticus 19:18. “You shall love the Lord your God… and you shall love your neighbor as you love yourself.” And I think that surprised Jesus. He said very quickly, without engaging the man any further, “Hey man, you’ve got it!” I think he liked this guy!

But the man wasn’t satisfied. He still ached for “something else.” It says “he wished to justify himself!” In other words, he wished to be sure of his salvation. He wished to understand it as best he could. And so he asked the question we’re asking today. “Who is my neighbor?” And the story Jesus told him – again, right off the top of his head! – is one of the most amazing stories he ever told!

He starts with a provocative statement – one that would have sent a murmur through the crowd! I think he did that because he wanted to get their attention, and he wanted them to get “wrapped up” in the seriousness and impact of the point he was making! He said, “A man went up from Jerusalem to Jericho.” Notice, a man – singular! That road Jesus described was a dangerous road. It wound through the wilderness, and it was full of twists and turns where thieves could lay in wait for unsuspecting travelers. Anyone traveling that road would travel in a group! The crowds would have heard that opening description and thought, (or even said out loud) “What a dope!” “Boy, is he gonna get it!!” And so he did.

And very quickly here, Jesus used that setup to show that neighbors were not just “friends in need.” This kind of “neighborliness” was not reserved for “innocent victims.” Sometimes people in need are people who make bad choices and bring their troubles on themselves – sometimes foolishly! And too often other people’s reactions are thoughts like, “Well, you’ve made your bed, now you’ve got to lie in it!” Or, “I can’t be bothered by people who bring troubles on themselves. If I helped this man, it probably wouldn’t be long before he got himself into a similar predicament!” Or they simply think, “I don’t have time for someone who seems unable to help themselves or to keep themselves from trouble by using common sense.”

At this point, Jesus does something very interesting. In order to highlight those kinds of thoughts in people’s minds – before zapping them with some amazing truth – he tells them about a couple of people who came down that road. (Remember, Jesus was making this up!) First a priest and then a Levite – the most spiritual and religious of all people in their society – came down the road! And each saw the man, crossed the road, and went by him on the other side! The people listening might even have had reason to see this as normal, or at least acceptable. That’s incredible to us readers, but very plausible to them!

Then, after setting up all that in their minds, Jesus tells them about this Samaritan! Remember who the Samaritans were! They were hated by the Jews! They had intermarried with people from the surrounding nations and tainted the purity of the Jewish race! The people in that crowd that day shared those prejudices! Don’t forget also that the man traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho, was probably assumed to be a Jewish man! And the, according to Jesus, it was the Samaritan who had compassion! (Amazing!) But maybe the listeners were thinking, “Oh come on, Jesus! Like that would actually happen!” But Jesus cleverly avoided even those thoughts, by redefining the question, and by letting this lawyer himself answer it! He asked him, “Which of these proved to be neighbor to the man?”

Isn’t that amazing? According to Jesus, being neighbor is about being neighbor! It’s about the way we act. It’s not about our proximity to someone. It’s not about similarities in appearance or background or social status! Jesus knew that such things get in the way of people’s true relationships with one another! The question “Who is our neighbor” is one that is not to be answered in the conventional social norms! And that became the standard for his Church! Paul would boldly state, “There is therefore neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free, [because] all are one in Christ!”

Do you see how this blew away the social norms? And you know, none of them were saying anything new! As this lawyer quoted, it was the Levitical law which stated that we should love our neighbor the way we love ourselves! But, did they do that? Do we do that? And when we ask this question, “Who is my neighbor?” do we take the easy answer or the hard answer? In his “Sermon on the Mount,” Jesus said, “If you love only those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even the tax collectors do that!” It’s interesting that he was using one “social convention” – one “social prejudice” – to condemn another!

Jesus used this amazing story to show those people that they were to take the hard road! They, and we, are to love those who do not love us. We are to love those who nobody else loves! We are to love even those who bring their calamity, or dislike, or personal misery, on themselves. We cannot use any of those things as excuses! We cannot “write someone off” just because everyone else does, or even because everybody else would tell us it’s ok to do so!

Still not convinced? Look at the people to whom Jesus reached out – the outcasts, the “sinners,” the tax collectors, the fishermen, and of course, those “awful Samaritans.” And look what the “important people” said about him! They criticized him for who he hung out with! If he were looking to “curry favor with the social elite” – the “in crowd,” as we said in the ‘70’s – he was going about it all wrong!

Tony Campolo tells the story about a kid in he knew in High School who everyone called a “nerd.” He knew from his church background that he shouldn’t participate in ridiculing this boy, but his desire to be part of the “in crowd” was just too strong! But one day, he couldn’t take it any more, and he decided to take the hard road. One day at lunch, he went and sat with the boy, who immediately thought he was there to ridicule him – like everybody else! But Tony said, “No, I’m here to hang out with you and to see if you want to be my friend.” “It was a good move,” said Tony, “though I didn’t know it at the time. Because that boy became a good friend, and he helped me through all my tough math classes in High School. But that didn’t matter at all!” “I did what I did because Jesus would have wanted me to! And that was what made all the difference!”

Does all this challenge you? I hope it does! Do you think it challenges me? You’d better believe it does! I’m not immune from those social prejudices and pressures, or those emotional responses. I hope that we will all remember “The Good Samaritan,” and all the amazing things this story teaches us about the question, “Who is my neighbor?” And I hope we will begin to drop the “social norms,” and follow the example of Jesus. What do you think?

Prayer

Eternal God, you have created us, and you have called all your creation good. You love us, even though we don’t deserve your love. You have given us your Grace and blessed us beyond our belief or understanding. Help us truly to love others as Jesus loved. Help us to follow his example of reaching out to those in need. For we pray in his name, and for the sake of our part in his kingdom, Amen.

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