How Can We Be JUST Neighbors? Luke 10:25-27 7-14-18
My husband David and I disagree about what to do when we encounter a pan handler on the street. David is adamant that the person in front of him needs help and he wants to offer whatever he has to help them. I’m more of a “I don’t know how they are going to spend my money, so I would rather donate it to a cause like EGH, which I know will spend it wisely.” I don’t know which of us is right, and maybe there’s no clear answer. That’s why the character with whom I most identify in the parable of the Good Samaritan is not the Samaritan. It’s the priest. I mean, that’s typecasting and all, but like them, I don’t often stop next to homeless people sleeping on our porch or under bridges or on the street, pick them up, put them in my car and drive them to a hotel or a hospital.
Even when the people in need I meet are more “respectable,” I still don’t always go out of my way to help, especially if it’s going to cost me a lot, or I don’t like or trust the person in need. In the case of today’s parable, the priest and Levite were afraid they would become ritually unclean if they touched a dead or dying body, because of Jewish purity laws. It would create a problem for them professionally. Since we don’t have a purity code, I don’t even have that excuse. What this all comes down to is that it would feel hypocritical for me to stand up here and tell YOU to go and be like the Samaritan if I’m not willing to take the message to heart. Does that make me a bad Christian?
What makes a “good” Christian anyway? Though Luke’s text suggests that the lawyer who questions Jesus is doing so to test him, I wonder if my question isn’t just a way of rephrasing the question the lawyer asks: “What do I need to do to inherit eternal life?” “What must I do to be a good Christians?” Jesus asks the lawyer what the Torah says. The lawyer summarizes the two big commandments we just heard about in today’s lesson from Deuteronomy: love God and love your neighbor. Good answer! That sums up all the Biblical commands right there! If we could manage to keep just these two commandments, we would be honoring all the others as well.
Many of us might give an answer like the lawyer’s—at least we might guess it’s what we are supposed to say. But this lawyer doesn’t feel like it’s enough of an answer. There must be more to it, he implies. I must have to learn more, suffer more, do more, be more in order to be “a good Christian.” So he presses Jesus to elaborate. How will I know if I’m keeping those commandments? Just who and what am I actually responsible for? What, precisely, is required of me to make God love me forever and ever?
Instead of answering outright, Jesus responds, as he often does, with a story. In it, he (re)defines a neighbor not in terms of race, religion, or proximity, but in terms of vulnerability, making the point that anyone in need is our neighbor. Then, right at the end, he gives the lawyer’s question a little spin by asking a question of his own. Jesus asks, “Who ACTED like a neighbor in this story?” The answer is obvious: the Samaritan, who went out of his way to help the victim. What Jesus does here is to broaden the conversation. Suddenly the neighbor isn’t simply a person in need—it’s also anyone who provides for someone’s needs. A just neighbor might be someone who takes care of US, as well as a description of how we act toward others!
What would it be like to read this story and identify, not with the priest or Levite, but with the man in the ditch by the side of the road? Can you think of a time when you felt lost, abandoned, bruised, hopeless, and helpless? Who saw you in that state and showed you grace and kindness? In other words, who was a neighbor to you? For that matter, who’s been there for you in the past week, the past month, the past year?
As I mentioned last week, many of us spend a lot of time and energy trying NOT to need help, trying to be (or anyway appear) independent, self-sufficient, and invulnerable. For some people it’s hard even to accept a compliment, let alone serious assistance! But this parable suggests that being a neighbor involves not just giving help but also being willing to receive it. It’s extra-challenging if the person who assists us is someone who don’t think of as being “like” us, maybe even—if we’re truthful—someone we think is “beneath” us.
I remember being 19 years old and arriving in London for a semester abroad. I took the airport shuttle to a big train station—maybe Victoria Station—someplace massive like Grand Central in New York with a million trains going everywhere and a million people rushing around getting on and off of them. I was alone and jet-lagged and confused about where the train to Cambridge might be. Suddenly, a tall African man with kind eyes was offering to help me. He picked up my suitcase, helped me find the right ticket booth and get the right ticket, and then walked me to the right track. He told me that he was a veterinary student from Nigeria, and that he understood how baffling and scary it was to be a stranger in such a confusing place. Eventually I had the presence of mind to ask if he didn’t need to go catch his own train, as he’d spent quite a bit of time helping me. “Oh, it’s gone already,” he said. Bam! Right there. At that moment, I was the man in the ditch, and this man was my Good Samaritan.
I hope everyone here could share a time when suddenly angels descended to care when we felt most alone. I hope everyone has a story of being treated with grace and kindness by someone who had nothing to gain from it. Moments like that open up our hearts in a million new ways.
Maybe that’s why some people suggest that the story of the Good Samaritan is Jesus’ autobiography. Jesus comes across people struggling, trying to lead good lives but never quite sure we are on the right track. Jesus kneels down beside us and takes care of us. He binds up our wounds, and lifts us up out of our ditches. He places us in the care of other people who will continue to provide us with blessings, and he promises to come back for us later.
When I think of it that way, the parable of the Good Samaritan doesn’t make me feel like I’ve been judged and found wanting. Because it isn’t me who is supposed to be the Good Samaritan. Only Christ can love all people at all times, and is never too tired or busy to be 100% present. It is Christ who loved the whole wide world, even people I can’t stand, so much that he would die for us all. It is Christ, and not I, who has saved the world, will save the world, and is saving the world. Knowing that I don’t have to be the Messiah takes a lot of pressure off.
But that doesn’t mean I can go back to being the Levite or the priest. Because I have been loved and cared for, restored to health and hope, and empowered with Christ’s own Spirit, I am compelled to share the blessings of God that I have first received. I do not have to help others in order for God to love me, but gratitude makes me want to care for the rest of God’s own precious children. That caring may not look like my putting a homeless person in my car and driving her to EGH or an emergency room. It might look like advocating on the local, state, or national level for more affordable housing. It might look like writing my legislators about the unconscionably foul conditions for children and other immigrants at our southern border. It might look like writing a big check to Lutheran Disaster Response after a storm like Hurricane Barry, or volunteering my time at a program like Teen Feed or Sanctuary Arts. It might look like giving someone on the corner a $1 bill or a granola bar. The important thing is to notice who’s in the ditch, to really see and acknowledge what is happening to one of God’s beloved, and to take steps to address the pain, as Jesus has done for us.
Perhaps the character in the story that suits us best, then, is that of the innkeeper. Jesus brings to his followers all kinds of people who are battered and broken and in need of healing. He says, “I’m giving you everything you need to take care of this person. And I’ll be back later.” Our job is to tend to those Christ presents to us for safekeeping.
The good news is that we don’t have to do it alone. I can’t imagine that the innkeeper did all the work of caring for that beaten man by himself. Maybe he called the local doctor or pharmacist to see about medications. And there must have been staff or members of his family who also took turns feeding and refreshing the bandages of the beaten man. Probably there were people who made sure he had fresh sheets and a clean bathroom. It takes a village. It takes a Church.
Jesus gives us one another as neighbors and entrusts us to each other’s care. We get to need one another and to be needed by one another. And whether we are walking the lonely road or manning the safety station, Jesus never stops coming along beside us to give us the resources we need for ministry—stories that enrich and baffle us, forgiveness and healing for our own bruised lives, and his precious body and blood as strength for the journey. By God’s grace, let us be just neighbors to each other.
Let us pray: “O Lord God, your mercy delights us, and the world longs for your loving care. Hear the cries of everyone in need, and turn our hearts to love our neighbors with the love of your son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.”
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