20 August 2010

Who is Your Neighbor?

Luke 10: 27-37

Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time/ 15th August 2010

I have a strong connection with this parable.  I associate this text with a junior high school presbytery youth retreat.  Newark Presbytery hosted the event at Central Presbyterian Church in Montclair, New Jersey.  Ten years later, I returned there as a seminarian assistant while I studied at Princeton.  We acted out the parable of the Good Samaritan.  And I was chosen to be the guy who was mugged and robbed.  It wasn’t fun. But in that experience I was given the chance to at least imagine what it might feel like to be the victim, to be cast aside and left for dead.  What would it feel like to open myself up to my neighbor, to allow myself to be cared for by my neighbor?  Who is my neighbor?

            Our familiarity with this story might lead us to assume that we know what Jesus is talking about.  The idea of a “Good Samaritan” has made its way into the secular vernacular.  We read this text and think that Jesus simply telling us how to live, teaching a lesson about the kind of lives we’re supposed to live, about how we’re expected to treat one another, especially the stranger, that person in need we come across.  We might think it’s a nice story designed to make us nice people.  But this story is more than an object lesson.

            Parables are not simply morality tales, providing guidelines for ethical behavior. That’s not what parables do.  Parables are related to the Hebrew tradition of teaching through proverbs, riddles, and wise sayings.  But as a form, they are utterly unique to the New Testament.  Jesus is the first teacher to employ them and do so in remarkable ways.  Parables are not simply illustrations or examples to help us understand complex theological ideas.  They are short narrative fictions that always refer to some external symbol.  And that external symbol is the Kingdom or Realm of God.  This is the lens through which we must hear Jesus’ words. 

            The parables are always intentionally shocking.  They are designed to wake us up and turn us inside out.  We return to them again and again in order for us to penetrate the mysteries of God, so that the truths they contain might enfold us, encourage us, and penetrate our lives.  Parables pack a powerful punch right to the gut of our complacency and dullness regarding the Kingdom of God.  That’s what this parable does.  And it packs a powerful punch – especially to the lawyer, the rabbinic scholar who tried to test Jesus by asking, “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?”

            This rabbinic scholar, this student of the Jewish Law, is not interested in this question in order to know what he might do to get into heaven.  Indeed, that’s how you might have heard this text, Jesus telling us if you want to get to heaven, then this is how you must behave.  It’s not that simple.  The lawyer is worried about the state of his soul.  He wants to be assured that he is inheriting the fullness of life that comes with God’s covenant with the Hebrew people. For the lawyer, the way to the life of God is by following the Law (Torah) in every excruciating detail.  He is obsessed with “getting it right,” obsessed with perfection, a cold, ethical exactitude, and he’s afraid of getting it wrong.  There’s a lot of anxiety around this.  We know that around this time there was a saying about the study of Torah that “the study of the Law is of higher rank than practicing it.”  This guy knows the Law and his responses to Jesus are correct.  But you can be technically observant, know all the answers, but be very far the intent of the law. 

Jesus throws the question back at him, “You’re the expert, why are you asking me?”  And, again, the lawyer’s response is scripturally correct.  He pulls from Deuteronomy, he quotes the correct scripture.  God has a claim over every aspect of our lives – heart, soul, strength, and mind.  We are called to love God with the depth of who we are, with our innermost being, to love God with energy, strength, inner resolve and intellect.  We are to withhold nothing back from God.  The lawyer knows the answer.  It’s in his head.  He knows the Law.  He knows the facts – yet, he is lost and far from the Kingdom of God as far as Jesus is concerned.  It’s not enough to simply know these things – we have to do them.  Really do them.

            But who is my neighbor?  Ah, that’s the tricky part.  Society during Jesus’ time was made up of strictly ordered boundaries – and you did not cross them.  The lines were strictly drawn.  You defined yourself against the person or group on the other side of the line.  That line meant you were not like them.  To remove the line would mean there was nothing separating you from them, thus producing a crisis of identity.  Society was hierarchical and patriarchal.  There were Jews and then Gentiles – and Samaritans were in a class all by themselves. They were foreigners who were not expected to show sympathy to anyone.  It was your religious duty as a Jew to maintain these boundaries all the time, because boundaries allowed groups to assert power over the other.  Your “neighbor,” generally viewed, didn’t mean everyone, because there are limits.  Your respect and care only extended to your particular group, you didn’t reach out to “those” people.  Because many Jews at this time were anxious about whether they were keeping every aspect of the Law and because they were trying to maintain the strict boundaries of their society, they were also wondering: What is the absolute limit required for me, what is the minimum I can get away with in order to fulfill the Law and no more? There was a reluctance to do anything more than the minimum.

            The road from Jerusalem down to Jericho descends 3,300 feet over seventeen miles.  It was a very dangerous place, full of bandits.  This man, unidentified, is beaten, stripped, and left for dead.  He has no identity, except need.  The priest was expected to help – but he passed on the other side of the road.  The Levite was the lay associate of the priest.  Maybe he passed on the other side and looked away because if this man was dead, the priest and Levite were obligated to bury him.  And burying him would have made them ritually unclean for a time.  It’s easier to avert one’s eyes and just keep going.

            Then Jesus knocks the lawyer in the gut.  The next person who comes along is a Samaritan – and it is the Samaritan who does what the Law requires, indeed he does more than the minimum.  He exceeds the Law and ignores the societal boundaries.  Just imaging how shocking it would have been for this lawyer to hear this story.  Jesus was being intentionally offensive toward this rabbinic scholar in order to wake up. 
From a Jewish perspective, Samaritans were not good people.  Only a non-Jew could see a Samaritan as good.  They were pseudo-Jews, subhuman.  They were a ritually unclean people, descendants of mixed marriages with people of Assyria (2 Kings 17: 6, 24).  This account would have been earth-shattering, mind-blowing for the lawyer. It would have meant the complete collapse of his moral universe, the collapse of his reality.  It would have been offensive, shocking.  He probably went away with a massive headache, dizzy, stunned, and in a daze.  By depicting the hero as a Samaritan, Jesus was demolishing all the exclusionary boundary expectations of his time that dehumanized people – and he calls us to do the same.  Social positions, categories – race, religion, region, gender – are not what define a person.  In a world where there were strict lines of insiders and outsiders, the Jesus movement came along and dissolved all these boundaries.  It’s really quite extraordinary.   So that after these categories are stripped away, what’s left is the individual, a person like you and me in need.  The neighbor, we discover, as Kierkegaard (1813-1855) reminded us, is the one who is standing before or beside you, no matter who he or she might be.  The neighbor is everyone – and he or she has a claim on you.  Breaking down the barriers that divide, you reach across and you show mercy so that the one seen is thereby acknowledged as worthy of love and respect.  This isn’t easy.

You might have seen the new television show on ABC called What Would You Do?[1]  It’s a study in human nature.  People are thrown into ethical dilemmas and forced to make decisions which are being filmed and analyzed.  The actors perform scenarios intentionally designed to trigger a reaction.  On one episode teenagers vandalize a car in a park as people just walk by and, for the most part, ignore them.  Other scenarios have included the hurting of homeless and multiple episodes dealing with all forms of racism.  Last Friday’s episode took place in a delicatessen in Linden, New Jersey, with an actor behind the counter refusing to serve two Hispanic men (also actors) who don’t speak English.  The employee tells them he won’t serve them. They don’t speak English which means they’re probably illegal aliens and therefore taking away jobs from American citizens.  Customers come in throughout the day, the actors repeat this scene, and the cameras watch their reaction.  Most ignore the exchange, others step in and defend the customers, others are so mad by what they’re witnessing that they vouch never to return there again.  Some took risks, reached out and came to the aid of the two laborers.  It’s not easy.  We, of course, have to be savvy about when and how we respond to people in need. But what guides such acts of mercy?  Why are we called to live with mercy?

            Why?  Not because if you live this way – behave this way, simply nice and civil – you get to go to heaven.  Not because this is what God expects from us and therefore we have to do it, as if it were our duty.  This is about more than ethical duty.  If we hear this parable as only a command, as a law to be followed then we’re not hearing it.  It’s more than a command.  It would be cruel for Jesus to set this up as an ethical ideal knowing full well that no one can fulfill it and then judge us for failing.  The gospel is good news precisely because it does not offer us ethical legalism, does not offer us one more list of do’s and don’ts, it does not offer us yet one more empty strategy to improve our lives in quick, easy steps that we can master in a few weeks.

            This parable packs a punch because it allows us to fathom the divine mystery and tells us something about God. Because as Jesus showed, it is really God who reaches out across the great divide that separates us from God and shows mercy.  Ultimately, this parable is not a moral lesson for us as much as it is a profound disclosure into the very depths of God’s being, of God’s nature.  Jesus says, This is God.  Through this parable Jesus seems to be saying, You’re far from God because your imaginations need to be re-ignited.  You have to be open to the unimaginable.  If you want to take part in the life of God, then you must rethink how you envision God.  If you want to take part in eternity, then you have to give up the ways you have thought about God.  If you want to realize the promises of being a child of God (which is eternal life), then give up childish ways of looking at God, then think of God in this way. 

            God is like that Samaritan who reaches out for the victim and cares for the one left for dead along the side of the road.  For Jesus to use this image, this metaphor would have been offensive, scandalous – which is the point.  God is scandalous.  As Jesus said, “Blessed is the one who takes no offense, who is not scandalized by me” (Luke 7:23).  God is like a Samaritan who will not walk on the other side of the road to avoid us.  This is who God is – Yahweh, like the Samaritan, is not limited by destructive boundaries, nor does Yahweh act with a calculating heart, doing the required minimum, but is rich in mercy and free to show mercy.  That’s who God is.  God is rich in mercy.

            When we know that God is merciful – that’s when we know how to be merciful.  It cannot be taught, it has to be experienced, received.  Loving our neighbor must not be divorced from the wider mercy of God.  Our love for our neighbor is an expression of the love God has for us already.  Those who show mercy (and receive mercy) are living in the Kingdom.  We don’t worry about rewards.  We don’t get the Kingdom if we’re merciful.  We get to live in the Kingdom, when we know God is merciful. 

            When mercy is shown, we discover that the Kingdom is nowhere other than here.  It’s the quality of life we receive when we know God’s mercy and with hearts that are generous and good, we reach out toward the other.  The invisible suddenly become visible to us.  We take notice.  We see our neighbor, not from a distance but up close.[2]  We at times stop along the highways of our lives and notice people – really see people, hold them with high regard, not as an it, but as a thou, as Kierkegaard said, and struggle for what’s best for them, reaching out to them, our neighbors.[3]  Or, as Jewish theologian Martin Buber (1878-1965) put it so well, we can either relate to people from an I-It relationship, or an I-Thou relationship.[4] We are called to see the other as Thou, not as an It, but as personal, as You.  We see our neighbors as thou  the barrista at Starbucks who can’t quite get our drink right; the person at the register at Safeway who is having a bad day; the person who challenges your patience; the people we meet in need; the homeless; all the people we meet who are usually invisible to us, such as the immigrant worker (who is, for the most part, invisible to us, yet doing the jobs we would rather not do); the person who triggers all kinds of anxiety in us.  They are all thou-s – to be treated with respect, with honor.  And we treat them as such, not because we have to; but because we want to.  This makes all the difference in the world. This is the difference, of whether we are near or far from the Kingdom.

Image: Christ as Good Samaritan from the Syrian Codex Rossanensis (mid-sixth century AD).

[2] “At a distance every man recognizes his neighbor, and yet it is impossible to see him at a distance.  If you do not see him so close that you unconditionally before God see him in every man, you do not see him at all.”  Søren Kierkegaard , Works of Love:  Some Christian Reflections in the Form of Discourses, trans. Howard and Edna Hong; preface by R. Gregor Smith (New York:  Harper Torchbook, 1964[(1847]), 73ff.

[3] “It is characteristic of childhood to say:  Me want – me – me.  It is characteristic of youth to say, ‘I – and I – I.’ \ The mark of maturity and the dedication of the eternal is to will to understand that this I has no significance if it does not become the you, the thou, to whom the eternal incessantly speaks and says:  You shall, you shall, you shall.”  Kierkegaard, Works of Love.

[4]See Buber’s classic text on this idea, I and Thou [Ich-Du], first published in Germany in 1923, influenced by the Kierkegaardian premise of existence as encounter.

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