"Won't you be, Oh won't you be my neighbor?"
The question is not "who is my neighbor?" The question is "to whom will I be neighbor?"
"To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul." -Ps 25:1
In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
"Moses said to the people of Israel, “The Lord your God will make you abundantly prosperous in all your undertakings." What wonderful news! God delights in bringing us prosperity. Then Moses adds the fine print, the caveat, the "your mileage may vary" statement at the end of the ad by the fast talker with the legal disclaimers. All of this abundant prosperity can be yours ... "when you obey the Lord your God by observing his commandments and decrees that are written in this book of the law." Have you read the book of the law? Have you seen the long, tedious list of thou shalt's and thou shalt not's? Moses delivered the law, so he must understand the rigorous restrictions and requirements relegated to God's chosen people. It is easy to see the Law as demanding, restrictive, and meant to divide those who are righteous and those who are not ... who is in the club and who is out. Laws and rules and regulations are all around us, and are not always inviting or inclusive. Author and psychologist James Dobson reports seeing a sign on a convent in Southern California reading: "Absolutely No Trespassing - Violators Will Be Prosecuted to the Fullest Extent of the Law" Signed, "The Sisters of Mercy"
Moses, the intermediary of God's law, explains that these rules for life are to help us "turn to the Lord your God with all your heart and soul." Moses' exhortation is to choose life, particularly guided by God's law. It is not meant to be hard or impossible, or to focus on restriction or judgement, but to guide our relationship with God. Somehow, following the Law became a burdensome thing that made people focus on their own actions and separated us from God and each other.
We encounter Jesus in the gospel today as he revisits and reinterprets the Law. Jesus goes back to Moses' understanding and God's intention of the law as the way of the kingdom. A lawyer, whom we should understand as a teacher of the law of Moses, a scribe, stands up to test Jesus. Perhaps he really seeks an answer for salvation, or perhaps he wants to validate Jesus' knowledge and authority. Either way, the Greek suggests the term means "put to the test" and is hostile, not neutral, perhaps to trap Jesus, or trip him up, or find something to use against him. The lawyer asks, "What must I do to inherit eternal life?" As Jesus often does, he answers a question with a question. "What is written in the law?" Certainly the lawyer should know. He answers, “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 this challenging lawyer. “You have given the right answer.”
It was a great answer, beautifully joining verses from Deuteronomy (6:5) and Leviticus (19:18). In other gospels when Jesus is asked about the greatest commandments, he lists these as one and two. In Luke, they are inextricably joined, expressing that "love of neighbor" bears the same force as "love for God." The lawyer's knowledge of scripture is good, and Moses was right. “The word is very near to us, in our mouth and heart.” Perhaps the trouble is the law gets lost in translation to our brain. Jesus presses him further, "Do this, and you will live." Don't just memorize it and recite it ... do it!
But the lawyer presses on, perhaps exposing his original intention. He wants to justify himself, and establish himself as righteous. He probably expects a long, complex list of requirements for eternal life, full of boxes to check off, confident that he has checked off many, if not all of them. He counters, "Who is my neighbor?" The lawyer sets Jesus up to deliver the well known parable of The Good Samaritan.
A man goes down from Jerusalem to Jericho, about an 18 mile journey. We can assume this person is a Jew, and the journey is one Jesus' audience can relate to. It is a dangerous road. One shouldn't travel this road alone. But Jesus does not judge the journey; it is simply where a particular man finds himself. Jesus does not explore the why of what happens, but assumes the presence of anger, violence, greed, and suffering in the world. The man encounters misfortune, and some bad people along the way. He is robbed, stripped, beaten, and left half dead.
A priest sees this site and passes by. A Levite also sees this site and passes by. Both of these are servants of God. Both know the law, and probably estimate themselves righteous under the law, perhaps returning home after Temple service. Both are concerned about ritual impurity by touching blood, or especially by touching a corpse. Both of these seem to follow the theology of Daddy Warbucks in the musical "Annie" - "You don't have to be good to the people you meet on the way up if you don't plan to go down again." Both pass by, and go out of their way to pass on the other side of the road.
A Samaritan is traveling along the road. Samaritans are outcast, other, historically divided from the Israelites, and even hated. Earlier in Luke, some Samaritans reject Jesus and His message. James and John want to call down fire from heaven as punishment, but Jesus rebukes them. A Samaritan is a most unlikely hero in this story. Many of us can relate to the Samaritan in at least this way: He is traveling along on his own journey, with his own agenda, that has nothing to do with this unfortunate traveler, beaten, robbed, and suffering in the ditch. The Samaritan did not ask if this person was his neighbor. He did not ask anything at all, but is moved with pity .. a deep visceral response rooted in compassion, reflecting God's compassion. Rather than going further out of his way to pass on the other side, the Samaritan sees, approaches, and comes even closer. He goes out of his way to get involved. The Samaritan bandages his wounds, applies oil and wine medicinally, and takes him to an inn. He apparently stays with the traveler all night, because he is still with him the next day. In addition to his compassion and care, he gives a day of his time. Then he offers the innkeeper two denarii, or two days wages, to continue caring for the man. He invites the innkeeper into a continuing circle of care. His compassion and generosity do not end there, as he promises to return and check on the unfortunate traveler and see to his needs further.
This story is not a feel good tale. The parable is intended to provoke. It should make us uncomfortable, encourage us to examine our motivations, and incite us to action. The violence done to the traveler is real. We encounter such things in the world today, often very close to home. Those who consider themselves the most righteous in the land place personal safety, position, and power over concern for others, and we experience this today. The despised Samaritan takes a risk in stopping, increases his own vulnerability, and leads the suffering person to safety and care. We are called to take the same risks with our life and possessions that the Samaritan did.
Many continue to ponder this parable and the lawyer's question, "who is my neighbor?" But this is the wrong question. We ask "who is my neighbor?" ... Jesus asks "to whom are you being a neighbor?" Jesus does not clarify a point of law, but transmutes law to gospel. Jesus changes the definition of neighbor from one who is the object of kindness to the one who bestows kindness on others, and for this there are no limits. All of humanity is meant to be neighbor. Jesus fights the division of the day between ordinary people of the land and those made marginal or outcast by ritual law, privilege, and power, particularly the poor and lame, the blind and maimed, women, Samaritans, and Gentiles. Jesus reverses the question from one of legal obligation to one of gift giving ... from who deserves my love, to whom can I show myself as neighbor. Choosing God means choosing people, without exclusion or excuses.
This is a story about the transforming power of God at work in all of us who travel the dangerous roads in our world, moving us into the fullness of life, eternal life, here and now. The lawyer knows many things. Jesus urges him to convert knowledge into action. The challenge is laid at his feet. The challenge is laid at our feet. "Go and do likewise." Amen.