The Kindness of Not-my-Neighbor

a sermon for the 7th Sunday after Pentecost
(Proper 10 C: Amos 7:1-17; Luke 10:25-37)

I am a fan of Robert Frost.  “Whose woods these are I think I know.”  “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood.”  “I have been one acquainted with the night” – all “touchstone” poems in my formative years.  One of my favorites is simply called, “Mending Wall.” The narrator meditates on fences and neighbors, the desire in us to build fences, “Good fences make good neighbors,” but also the mischief in us to break them down, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.”  He muses, “Before I built a wall I'd ask to know/ What I was walling in or walling out,” and again, “Good fences make good neighbors."

Many people still debate what Frost really meant by his poem.  Interesting how poetry can be as closely scrutinized and hotly debated as scripture.  Today’s Gospel reading is a text that has been similarly debated and scrutinized text, but for two millennia.  The parable of the Good Samaritan is among the most widely known and retold of Jesus’ parables.  It has been a favorite sermon text for many, many preachers for many, many years.

St. Augustine, for example, popularized a strictly allegorical reading of this parable.  Jerusalem represents Eden.  The wounded man is Adam.  He has left the city and has been set upon by thieves, representing Satan, who strip him of his goods, him immortality.  The priest and the Levite represent the blood sacrifices and the Levitical code of the Jewish nation, which, Augustine preached, cannot offer salvation to the man.  The Samaritan is Jesus who brings the man to an Inn also known as the Church.

All well and good.  But what if, just this once, we take Jesus at his word?  What if we take this text a bit more literally?  If we look at the immediate background of this text, Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, his showdown with the religious establishment is coming ever closer.  Here he is once again being put to the test.  A lawyer, a scholar of the Law, comes to him and asks, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”  Jesus immediately puts him to the test.  “What is written in the law?  What do you read there?”  The lawyer answers with the familiar words of the first and great commandment and the second like unto it:  “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.”

Jesus commends him, “You have answered right; do this and you will live.”

At this point Luke peers into the mind and the intent of the lawyer, saying that he seeks to justify himself as he asks Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”  The lawyer, like any good lawyer, is seeking to define terms.

It seems that there was some debate as to the strict definition of “neighbor” in the Law. This lawyer so intent on inheriting eternal life was quite concerned about the boundaries of his obligation to love his neighbor. The general consensus among the teachers of Israel was that this term referred solely to fellow Jews, covenant people.  No one else truly “counted” as a neighbor.  Much like the Torah placed a fence around the Law, so did this teaching concerning neighbors provide the lawyer and the rest of Israel with a convenient fence.  They had walled in Israel to be “our neighborhood” and had effectively walled out the rest of the human race.  They would agree with the neighbor in Frost’s poem.  Good fences make good neighbors, especially when they keep non-Jews out. 

The lawyer, it seems, was checking-in with Jesus to make sure he was still “a good neighbor.”  One commentator suggests that the lawyer is hoping Jesus will answer, “Your neighbor is your relative and your friend.”  But instead of reassuring him, Jesus launches into a parable.

He draws his hearers in and transports them to an uncomfortable place: the road from Jerusalem to Jericho.  This 17 mile journey was surely a familiar one to all of those gathered to hear Jesus.  They knew that the desert road could often be hazardous, not just because of the barren landscape, but because of the threat of ambush and attack.  Many of those hearing this parable may have known someone who had been attacked on this road, or have even been accosted themselves.  The listeners would have immediately known that this was not a good place to be.  It probably came as no surprise when they hear the man has been mugged.  These things happen everyday to everyday people.

The man in Jesus’ story, who could have been anyone of his hearers, is robbed and left for dead.  A priest and a Levite encounter the wounded, dying man in turn but they do nothing.  This too was, perhaps, not a surprise to the listening crowd. 

It is significant that the priest and Levite are traveling away from Jerusalem.  They cannot claim to be maintaining ritual purity by not touching the dead.  They are heading away from the temple, where such purity would count.  They simply ignore this man.

Though the neglect of the priest and the Levite is often the focus of many sermons, I do not think that it is the focus of this parable.  Note that they both enter and leave the story with one verse a piece.  They are passersby.

No, the emphasis in this story is clearly on the encounter between the wounded man and the Samaritan.  It is a Samaritan who stops and gives aid to this victim of violence. 

When we hear the words “Good Samaritan,” the words conjure feelings of safety, care and comfort.  There are countless hospitals named, “Good Samaritan.”

But, this is NOT what the Jews of Jesus’ day would have heard had these two words been uttered together.  We cannot possibly hear this parable the way they heard it.   We know the ending.  We know the Samaritan in a “good guy.”  We do not gasp or react in any way when in Jesus’ story, a Samaritan arrives on the scene.  No doubt some in the crowd grew more afraid or even angry at this point. 

Remember in the Gospel reading just two weeks ago, we witnessed James and John intent on calling fire down from heaven on Samaritans who they perceived as rejecting Jesus.  Samaritans were ethnically and religiously quite similar to Jews and yet profound differences deeply divided the two groups and caused great animosity and loathing between them.

When we hear these words, “But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw the man, he was moved with pity,” we probably feel relief – things will be OK.  We might even tear up.

But try hearing it this way.  The front page story reads:  A young Jewish boy was caught out in the open during a mortar attack by Hezbollah on a Jewish town on the border with Lebanon.  The Jewish bystanders made no attempt to save the boy.  Suddenly a Palestinian man ran through the barrage of mortars, snatched up the boy in his arms and carried him to safety.

All we may be left saying is, “Why?  Why would a Palestinian risk his life to save his enemy?”

The Jews hearing Jesus must have been just as perplexed.  Why would a Samaritan of all people go to so much trouble to save a Jew, his enemy?  The Jews were under NO obligation to help a Samaritan.  Rabbinic teaching had told them that Samaritans were NOT their neighbors.  In fact, note that it is WE who have called this the parable of the “Good” Samaritan. 

Nothing in the text particularly suggests that this was a uniquely “good” Samaritan.  We only call him that because we approve of his actions and the fact that the Samaritans’ reputation was pretty bad among Jews.  But over time, the two terms “good” and “Samaritan” have become synonymous.  Would it be better named “the parable of the Samaritan neighbor”?

Obviously, this Samaritan was not schooled in the teachings of the rabbis.  He was similarly under no obligation to help a Jew.  It seems that he did not see a Jew wounded on the side of the road, but a neighbor who needed his help.

Jesus is taking God's chosen to task.  Amos’ plumbline has returned.  It would seem that they lack the sheer compassion of this Samaritan, this enemy.  They were more concerned in building and maintaining their fences than they were in showing compassion.  Just as they had fenced the Law to protect it from themselves, they had fenced out non-Jews from inclusion in the mandate to love, perhaps another attempt to protect themselves!

But Jesus will have none of it.  He makes it clear: the Jews of his day are NOT keeping this point of the Law!  Even the pious religious Jews who encounter this fellow Jew will not stop and “be his neighbor.”  For Jesus, it seems “neighbor” is NOT a racial term.  Nor is it cultural, nor religious.  It is not even a geographical term.  Neighbors, it seems, are where you find them.  The term “neighbor” is defined not by theory but by action.  Another writer puts it this way, “Love does not begin by defining its objects; it discovers them.”

So…what does this have to do with us? Is Scott going to launch in a diatribe about immigration policy for our Mexican neighbors?  Not this time…

Most sermons I ever remember hearing about this passage include an exhortation to care for your neighbor, especially the marginalized and unpleasant.

I guarantee you, friends.  This is not what the Jews gathered to hear Jesus received from Jesus’ story.  You see, the “neighbor” in the story is NOT the man in the ditch.  The neighbor is the Samaritan!  The Samaritan is the only one in the story who fulfills the Law!  And he’s not even a Jew!

Many pious Christians seek to be like the Samaritan in this story, an admirable goal indeed.  I’m not saying Jesus doesn’t want us to reach out to those in need.  But the point of the story, the fact that the compassionate one is a Samaritan, is to remind the Jews and US that anyone can be loving and compassionate to you, even your enemy.  It is then that they are no longer your enemy, but your neighbor.

We humans are used to keeping tally sheets against other people.  We pile up the grudges.  We put up fences and walls, saying “Good fences make good neighbors” when we really mean, “I cannot be bothered with him.  Someone else will help her.” or “Sure, we believe in equality, we just don’t want those kind of people in our neighborhood or our church.”

But there is another side to this story, one a bit harder to conceive.  Let us try, at least this once, to see ourselves as the Jew in the ditch.  He receives the love and the aid of one who was supposed to be his enemy.  What must he have thought when he discovered that is was a Samaritan who had rescued him when everyone else had given him up for dead? 

I must ask, who is it that you need to learn to receive from?  Who is it, what kind of person is it that will encounter you on the side of the road someday and show compassion to you?  It may just be someone you never expected, or even someone you may have rejected.

Yes, let us consider who we may have walled out of our obligation, either by religious piety or to protect our “comfort zone” or even just because of plain old bigotry.  But let us also consider who might be trying to be neighborly to us.

The mandate in this story is to love your neighbor.  It is less about exhorting us to go out and find neighbors to love as it is about striving to give and receive love from those we pass by in our lives everyday. 

“Who is my neighbor?” the man asked Jesus.

I would venture an answer:  our neighbor is not only a person in need, but our neighbor is also, and perhaps more importantly, one who is there for us when we are in need.  God grant us grace both to show mercy and to receive mercy, even from those outside our walls.  Amen.

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One thought on “The Kindness of Not-my-Neighbor

  1. Interesting that you should point out the debates over poetry and other forms of "secular" literature as being similar to debates over sacred texts.

    Christopher Hitchens, the self-identified atheist, in his book, "God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything,” says, “We [atheists] are not immune to the lure of wonder and mystery and awe: we have music and art and literature, and find that the serious ethical dilemmas are better handled by Shakespeare and Tolstoy and Schiller and Dostoyevsky and George Eliot than in the mythical morality tales of holy books. Literature, not scripture, sustains the mind and – since there is no other metaphor – also the soul.” (To me, Hitchens’ argument resembles that of a fundamental Baptist giving an anticreedal discourse, just coming from a different perspective.)

    Call them holy books, sacred scripture, literature, poetry, or whatever, these texts have “sustained the minds” and souls of many for centuries. Call it religion, secularism, atheism, or whatever, but it appears to me that we are all seeking that which transcends ourselves. Call it god, spirit, “music and art and literature,” or whatever, we all appear to be spiritual beings seeking connection to something/someone greater.

    Semantics. Don’t you just love them?

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