27 August 2017

Who is My Neighbor?

Luke 10: 25-38

Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost

The Parable of the Good Samaritan.  We know it well.  Perhaps too well.  So well that it’s probably difficult to get anything new out of it.  We know (or think we know) what it’s about. So, how do we listen for the Word in the words when we’ve heard these words many times before? 

We can start by saying what the text is not.  Jesus’ encounter with the lawyer and the parable isn’t an “example story” with a moral.[1] That is, if we come away from this text thinking, “The Samaritan did a good deed, we ought to do good deeds,” then we haven’t heard the text.  If we believe that Jesus was only a teacher of morality, providing us with an ethic to follow, to imitate, then we haven't experienced the full reach of the Gospel.  

Yet, how many sermons have we heard, how many Church School lessons have held up the actions of the Samaritan as the ideal, as someone we should all emulate and aspire to be like?  I agree with David Henson, an Episcopal priest and writer, who says we have made this text “into little more than a mushy morality tale about random acts of kindness to strangers….”[2] “We have whitewashed this radical parable,” he says, “into a fantasy of the privileged and wealthy in which we believe Christ calls us only to apply bandages, throw money at the pain and injustice in the world, and trust it is enough.” Such a reading, he suggests, “justifies, but also glorifies drive-by charity as the pinnacle of Christ’s command to love thy neighbor.” [3]  But, drive-by charity is not loving one’s neighbor. These moralistic readings turn the Christian life into a moralism, they reduce the Gospel to an ethic. "Go to church and be nice to others." Some think that’s what it means to be Christian. Is that all it is, an ethic? No, this is not an “example story,” it’s not morality tale. It's a parable. And Jesus was masterful in the use of them.  If we really hear the parable about the Samaritan it can’t be used by the religious to endorse conventional morality.   It’s far more radical.

Parables pack a punch.  They’re designed to generate an experience, touch us deeply, hit us in the gut, and knock us off our feet.  They make us think. They force us to wrestle with the truth.  They give us headaches and mess with the way we view the world.  They are intentionally disorienting, which is probably why we want to turn parables into safe, morality tales.  But then they wouldn’t shock us and they’re meant to shock. 

Why does Jesus offer this parable to the lawyer? Because Jesus is being a good neighbor to him. It’s offered in love. But first it must wound him.  

The lawyer is being hostile to Jesus, he’s testing Jesus, and the lawyer is trying to justify himself.  He’s an expert in the law.  And the law in question is not Roman law or civil law, but the Law, Torah, the Jewish Law, the Ten Commandments and all the other associated laws that go with it.  The Torah attorney knows the law, knows it inside and out.  He knows what the text says and what it doesn’t say.  The lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher—Rabbi—what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  Being a good teacher Jesus throws the question back at him, “What do you read there?” The lawyer dutifully answers, because he knows the law. Citing Deuteronomy (6:5) and Leviticus (19:18), he says, “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, …soul, …strength, …and mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”  “You have given the right answer,” Jesus tells him, “do this, and you will live.”  The Rabbi asked his question, received an answer—sort of.  Jesus answered correctly—sort of. 

So why did the lawyer not stop here?  The Torah attorney should have remained quiet, but he didn’t because he was beginning to see that Jesus wasn’t the one on trial—he was on trial.  The lawyer asked the question, but Jesus never really answered it.  Jesus responded with a question and then affirmed the lawyer’s response and then Jesus finished with, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”  Do you hear the shift?  You have given the right answer.  The lawyer senses this because then the text says, “But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’”  He goes on the defensive.

That response—“And who is my neighbor?”—opens a window deep into the lawyer’s psyche.  The lawyer is not a bad man.  He’s smart, well educated, has a respectable profession.  He has standing and authority in his community.  He’s a religious person, a faithful worshipper of Yahweh.  He’s fairly conventional. He’s self-assured about his place in the world, his perspective on faith and society.  His world is clearly demarcated, divided up, neat, in order: he knows what’s holy and what’s profane, what’s Jewish and what’s Gentile, who is in and who is out, who is clean and who is impure.  And it’s obvious that his religious perspective helps to make sure that the dividing lines are clear and strong.  So why does the lawyer test Jesus?  Because he senses, correctly, that Jesus was messing with the status quo. A lot of Jesus’ ministry and actions are anything but conventional; they do not conform to values of the moral majority (often the majority isn’t moral).  On the surface, Jesus’ response to the lawyer is very conventional, traditional in many respects.  Indeed, the lawyer looked to the tradition to make sure concepts such as “love God” and “love neighbor” remained fixed and stable, it’s “a system of religious justification, and, like most of us, he had found a sweet spot in that religious system that allowed him to be satisfied with himself and his life.”[4]  The lawyer used his faith to justify the status quo. So that when the lawyer asked, “And who is my neighbor?” he probably expected Jesus to reinforce his view of the world, confirm his morality, justify him and his prejudices.  That’s when Jesus unleashed this scandalous parable, shattering his neatly ordered world.

“A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead….” You know the rest.  First a Jewish priest, a religious professional comes across him, sees the man in the road and intentionally walks on the opposite side in order to pass him.  A Levite, a religious lay associate, not a priest, comes along and he, too, avoids the man.  Neither wants to be bothered.  They also don’t want to risk contamination, because if he were unclean, that is a Gentile, then they would have to go through a process of purification.  And if he were dead, then they would have to go through an even lengthier process of purification.  They obviously feel that they have no obligation to him; he is not their neighbor.  But then a Samaritan comes along.

We need to remember that by Jesus’ time Jews and Samaritans hated each other for a thousand years, a millennium of political rivalry, ethnic hostility, and religious bigotry seared into the psyche of this people.  They despised each other. 

So, this is the real shocker, the twist in the parable, it’s this religious outsider, a Samaritan, an unclean nobody—from the lawyer’s perspective—an untouchable, a nonhuman who comes near the man in the road. “And when he saw him,” Jesus tells us, “he was moved with pity.” I’m not sure why the NRSV reads pity, when the word compassion is better. Behind pity or compassion is a form of the Greek verb we’ve encountered countless times in this series over the summer: splagchnisthe, meaning to be moved in one’s gut.  It’s a gut-wrenching emotional response to what he encountered along the road.  It’s not reason or thinking that moves the Samaritan to action, it’s feeling, a depth of feeling, which moves him to action.  With little thought he goes to the man (without worrying about contamination), touches him, cares for his wounds, pours oil and wine on them.  The Samaritan lifts and carries him, bears the weight of this helpless man.  The Samaritan puts him on his own animal. Then the Samaritan provides lodging for him, spends the night with him.  Then, the next day, the Samaritan gives the innkeeper plenty of money to care for him (two days’ worth of salary)—he trusts the innkeeper, who’s under no obligation to him. “Take care of him…,” he says, “and when I return, if you need more money, I’ll give it to you then.” Open-ended generosity flows from the heart of this Samaritan.  It’s not limited or calculating or cautious.  It’s grace upon grace.

“Which of these three, do you think was a neighbor…?” The lawyer gets the point, although he can’t even bring himself to say, “the Samaritan,” an unclean word.  He simply says, “The one who showed him mercy.” Go and do likewise.

Can you see why this isn’t an example story or a morality tale? Because it’s not really about the Samaritan. We need to focus on the lawyer, the one forced to hear this disturbing and morally offensive story. At some level, we are all just like the lawyer, intent on justifying ourselves before God. We’re the ones on trial.

Again, the lawyer’s not a bad man; he’s a conventional fellow, he probably looked very Presbyterian (except that he’s Jewish, but you know what I mean).  And yet Jesus is very hard on him; this is a blistering parable to have to hear.  Luke says that the lawyer “stood up to test Jesus,” stood up and blocked Jesus’ path on his way to fulfill his calling in Jerusalem.  Jesus knows that convention regularly stands in the way of the Gospel.  Very often, it’s not the people on the left or the right that hamper God’s movement in the world, but the people in the broad middle, the moderates who stand behind convention and religious respectability. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1926-1968) made the same blistering claim in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” (April 16, 1963), which was addressed to the religious leaders of Birmingham, Protestant, Catholic, and Jew.

With the telling of the parable, Jesus actually throws the lawyer into the ditch beside the Jericho road.  It’s a striking contrast. “Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus,” and then Jesus offers a parable with someone thrown to the ground.  The victim left for dead in the parable is the lawyer. Tom Long, former professor of homiletics at Emory University (Tom was one of my professors at Princeton Seminary), says that Jesus “is not doing violence to him; he is, instead, using a parable to disclose the man’s true condition.  He is showing that this lawyer, who thought he had a righteous place to stand, has nowhere to stand in his own strength but is in fact, like all the rest of us, lying face down and naked by the highway.  The lawyer wanted to be seen as already righteous, but Jesus showed instead that he was simply a member of the human race, in desperate need of rescue.  Jesus undermines the lawyer’s standing in order to show that the lawyer, like all the rest of humanity, needs not to stand his ground but to see the face of grace, and then to move [with Jesus], to repent.”[5]  

We each need to be rescued by a Samaritan.  The Samaritan is a Christ figure.  We see in him what grace looks like.  It looks like a man who wants to “justify himself” but is instead rescued from distress by Jesus Christ.  Shockingly, Jesus is the Samaritan. The work and witness of Jesus is like the despised, unwanted Samaritan who comes with compassion to save us.

And that’s why in the telling of this parable, “Jesus ironically gave the lawyer a great gift, a word of kindness, even though the lawyer may not have thought so.”  Jesus invited “the lawyer to see himself in a new way, to see himself not as one who stands at a distance and defines the term ‘neighbor’ objectively, but as someone who might himself needed to be neighbored—as a wounded traveler in need of rescue.”[6]

“The real answer to the lawyer’s question ‘who is my neighbor?’ is that you have no idea who your neighbor is until you, yourself, know how needy you are, and in that need, receive the unexpected grace of being neighbored by God.”[7] 

Acknowledging our neediness….  Most of us don’t want to acknowledge this.  This kind of confession requires help.  But the truth is: we are all needy.  Everyone of us.  It’s only when we stop trying to justify ourselves, acknowledge our need, embrace our woundedness, allow our wounds to be tended by God are we then able to have compassion toward our neighbor, extending real mercy and grace. 

Unlike the priest and the Levite in the parable, God not only sees, but sees and has compassion toward us. Both the priest and Levite see the man left for dead, and then step away to the other side of the road.  The Samaritan, however, sees him, is moved with compassion, and then moves in closer to the man.  Jesus sees us and has compassion and then moves closer toward us. Compassion moves us toward the person in need; compassion moves us to act. William Wilberforce (1759-1833), British Member of Parliament and Evangelical who pushed for the Slavery Abolition Act (1833), said, “You may choose to look the other way but you can never say again that you did not know.” As followers of the Jesus, we’re called to do the same, to see, to notice, to look and then not look away from a person in need.

Who, then, is my neighbor, then? Sören Kierkegaard (1815-1855) is helpful here: your neighbor is the human being who stands before you, beside you.  No distinction.  Everyone is your neighbor.[8]  Because we have been neighbored by God, because our wounds have been cared for, Jesus calls us to tend to the wounds of the people we meet along life’s way, he calls us to enter into their wounds, whoever they are, even if they’re “Samaritans.” You’re called to pour oil and wine on the wounds of the men, women, and children who now sit beside you, one to the other, being generous, showing mercy, having compassion, until we are healed and whole.

And do you know what?  When we are compassionate or when we receive the compassion of another, when this happens—and every time it happens—we discover what it means to inherit eternal life, to experience God, to experience the life of God that heals and makes us whole.

[1] I am indebted to Thomas G. Long’s reflection on this text, “The Lawyer’s Second Question.” 
[2] David Henson’s remarks continues, “…that, at its worst buttresses the damaging and pervasive charity industrial complex in American churches.”
[4] Long.
[5] Long.
[6] Long.
[7] Long.
[8]Sören Kierkegaard, Works of Love (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1964), 72.

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