Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | July 10, 2016

2016.07.10 “Who is My Neighbor?” – Luke 10: 25 – 37

Central United Methodist Church
Who is My Neighbor?
Pastor David L. Haley
Luke 10: 25 – 37
July 10th, 2016

good-vangogh

Vincent van Gogh, 1853-1890 Good Samaritan, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN

Just then a religion scholar stood up with a question to test Jesus. “Teacher, what do I need to do to get eternal life?”

He answered, “What’s written in God’s Law? How do you interpret it?”

He said, “That you love the Lord your God with all your passion and prayer and muscle and intelligence — and that you love your neighbor as well as you do yourself.”

“Good answer!” said Jesus. “Do it and you’ll live.”

Looking for a loophole, he asked, “And just how would you define “neighbor’?”

Jesus answered by telling a story. “There was once a man traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho. On the way he was attacked by robbers. They took his clothes, beat him up, and went off leaving him half-dead. Luckily, a priest was on his way down the same road, but when he saw him he angled across to the other side.  Then a Levite religious man showed up; he also avoided the injured man.

“A Samaritan traveling the road came on him. When he saw the man’s condition, his heart went out to him.  He gave him first aid, disinfecting and bandaging his wounds. Then he lifted him onto his donkey, led him to an inn, and made him comfortable.  In the morning he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, “Take good care of him. If it costs any more, put it on my bill — I’ll pay you on my way back.’

“What do you think? Which of the three became a neighbor to the man attacked by robbers?”

“The one who treated him kindly,” the religion scholar responded.

Jesus said, “Go and do the same.” – Luke 10: 36 – 37, The Message

 

It has been another week that makes us thankful that we are church going people, which gives us a time and a place to reflect on the events of the week, to collect our thoughts and to pray, not least for the victims of this week’s violence.

From Sunday through Thursday, I was in DC visiting family. With 10 members of my family present, I was engaged from morning to night, and had no idea what was happening in the world. Also, during that time I had computer problems, which shut down my usual means of keeping up with the news.

On Thursday – thanks to our daughter Becca’s summer internship with our Representative Jan Schakowsky – we were walking the halls of the Capitol. Sad to say – from all appearances – the Capitol seemed as unaware of what was happening in the world as we were.

After arriving home and beginning to catch up, like everyone else I was filled with horror and grief at what happened this week:

Alton Sterling

Alton Sterling

– On Tuesday, the shooting by a police officer of Alton Sterling, 37, in Baton Rouge, LA, after being approached by police for selling CDs outside a convenience store.

Philando Castile

Philando Castile

– On Wednesday, the shooting by a police officer of Philando Castile, 32, in Falcon Heights, MN, after being pulled over for a broken tail light.

– On Thursday, the shooting of five Dallas police officers – Lorne Ahrens, Michael Krol, Michael J. Smith, Brent Thompson, and Patrick Zamarripa – apparently in self-appointed retaliation for the previous shootings – by a former Army reservists named Micah Johnson.

DallasOfficers

Lorne Ahrens, Michael Krol, Michael J Smith, Brent Thompson, Patrick Zamarripa

All three of these events were either captured on video, or live streamed on Facebook, and went viral. The other common denominator was guns. With increased open and concealed carry and public access to assault weapons, this is only going to make police officers jobs harder and more dangerous, as the incident in Dallas illustrates, regardless of what the NRA says or doesn’t say.

What to say? I have read many insightful and expressive commentaries, but none of them alleviate the mix of anger and sorrow and frustration most of us feel, and especially black Americans on the one hand and police on the other. As Chief Brandon del Pozo of the Burlington Police Department in Vermont, said, “One of the worries that cops have is that no cop can control what another cop does, but all cops will be judged by what the other cop does.” (Michael Wilson and Michael Schwirtz, “In Week of Emotional Swings, Police Face a Dual Role: Villain and Victim,” The New York Times, July 9, 2016). There is too much hate and injustice and violence in America right now – and there are way too many guns – and it is both volatile and frightening. You are not going to get any grand pronouncements from me; this is not a simple problem. It has been a long time coming, and will take a long time to fix. Rather than speaking out like the Biblical prophets Isaiah or Jeremiah, I feel more like Job, who covered himself with sackcloth and ashes in mourning and went for days without speaking.

What you will get from me is a steady diet of Gospel, challenging us in our attitudes and actions as followers of Jesus. In fact, it would be hard to find a more appropriate Scripture that the one we read today, the familiar but challenging story of the Good Samaritan, posing to Christians throughout the centuries as well as to us today, the question, “Who is my neighbor?”

Even if you didn’t grow up in Sunday School, you likely know this story. It is a story whose main character we know so well, we’ve named hospitals, nursing homes, relief agencies and philanthropic organizations after him. We have even created a law in his honor: any modern-day “good samaritan” who stops to help a stranger in distress – which, in at one time or another, almost everyone of us has done – has certain legal protections for our trouble.

But while we know the story, we know it so well we may miss its challenge. As Amy-Jill Levine says in her study of Jesus’ parables, Short Stories by Jesus”: “If we hear a parable and think, ‘I really like that’ or, worse, fail to take any challenge, we are not listening well enough.”

The story begins with a question asked of Jesus by a religious scholar: “Teacher, what do I need to do to get eternal life?” Isn’t it interesting Jesus didn’t answer the way we think he might, or at least as others have led us to believe? Jesus didn’t tell him to be born again as he told Nicodemus; he didn’t ask him to go and sell all he had and come and follow him, as he told the Rich Young Ruler. What Jesus said was, “You’re a lawyer; you tell me.”

So the lawyer comes up with an answer, a good answer, one that we’ve been quoting and even living by ever since: “Love the Lord your God with heart, soul, strength, and mind – and your neighbor as yourself.” “Good answer!” says Jesus. A+! “Do that and you will live.”

But the lawyer has a follow-up question (don’t they always?) “Who is my neighbor?” Really, what the lawyer is asking is this: “Who is not my neighbor? How much love we talking here, Jesus?  Where do I draw the line? I mean, there is a line … isn’t there?” Is it outside my front door? At the edge of my neighborhood? Is it my family, my friends, my people, my race, my country?

Perhaps the lawyer was using the tactic of talking to put off getting his hands dirty (we’ve all done that); but Jesus doesn’t take the bait, but instead tells a story, one of his best stories.

A man walks the road from Jerusalem to Jericho and gets mugged. Stripped of his clothes and beaten, he is left in the ditch for dead. A priest comes by, passes by on the other side of the road. A Levite does the same. But then a Samaritan – a hated Samaritan – comes along. Seeing the victim, he goes to him, gets down on his knees in the ditch and helps him. He gets him to help, pays the bill, and promises there is more if needed.

The moral of the story is easy: “So, which of the three was a neighbor to the man who was robbed?” Along with the lawyer, we all raise our hands to answer: “The one who showed mercy!” “Go and do likewise,” says Jesus. Show mercy. Extend kindness. Don’t think love; just do it! “Do this and you will live.”

Makes sense to me; doesn’t it to you? But here’s the problem; we are not challenged by that answer, so what are we missing?

Debi Thomas*, in her excellent commentary on this story, “Go and Do Likewise,” notes that the story changes according to where we locate ourselves in it. On bad days, we are the Priest and the Levite who pass by, feeling guilty, because we are too busy or too scared or to overwhelmed to act. On good days, we are the Good Samaritan, the hero of the story.

But what if he is not? What if Jesus’ parable is not an example story, but a reversal story, intended to blow up our categories of who is good and who is bad? Maybe the whole point of the story is that the hero is not us.

When Jesus told this story, the hatred between Jews and Samaritans was old, entrenched, and bitter. They disagreed about everything, and hated each other for it, to the point of avoiding social contact. So Jesus’ choice to make a Samaritan the hero was shocking to 1st century hearers, even scandalous. Think about it: Who is the last person on earth you’d want to call a “good guy,” the very person who might save your life?

Debi Thomas suggests some possibilities:

“An Israeli Jewish man is robbed, and a Good Hamas member saves his life. A liberal Democrat is robbed, and a Good conservative Republican saves her life. A white supremacist is robbed, and a Good black teenager saves his life. A transgender woman is robbed, and a Good anti-LGBTQ activist saves her life. An atheist is robbed, and a Good Christian fundamentalist saves his life.”

Somewhere in those possibilities, couldn’t we fit also both police and young black men?

What Jesus did when he called the Samaritan “good” was radical and risky; stunning his Jewish hearers. He was asking them to dream of a different kind of world. He was inviting them to consider the possibility that people might be more than the sum of their political, racial, cultural, and economic identities. He was calling them to put aside everything they knew, including the prejudices they nursed. He was asking them to leave room for divine and world-altering surprises.  Sound familiar?

Last Tuesday morning I dropped the family off near the Lincoln Memorial to visit the Vietnam and Korean War Memorials, which Michele’s parents had never seen. I parked and walked back, stopping in briefly to hit the bathroom at the Lincoln Memorial. I couldn’t leave without saying “Hi” to Abe, but then, when I walked out, there was the spot where Dr. King spoke, marked with an inscription. That’s a place that gets to me, as I stand there and look out, on the panorama that Dr. King saw, filled with people. It’s a place where Dr. King shared a dream not that different from Jesus’ dream, of a world where people respect each other and love one another and care for one another, regardless of the color of their skin. We have made progress, but we still have a ways to go, to this dream real in every town and village and neighborhood in our country.

If we haven’t gotten it yet, perhaps we find ourselves in this story not in the priest or the Levite or even the Good Samaritan, but as the wounded man, lying in the ditch. He is the only character in the story not defined by profession, social class, or religious belief, only by his naked need.

In fact, maybe we have to occupy the victim’s place in this story or any story, for that matter, to appreciate the compassion of the Good Samaritan. Because only when we occupy the victim’s place do all the “isms” that divide us fall away; when we’re lying bloody in a ditch, bleeding out in the front seat of a car or lying in the middle of a city street. The only thing that matters then is not whose help you’d prefer, whose religion you like best, whose politics you agree with, what color your skin is. The only thing that matters is whether anyone will show us mercy before we die, or at least a measure of justice afterwards. The only thing that matters is whether we can swallow our pride and prejudice and reach out to take hold of the human hand we never hoped to touch. In Dallas, this week, both Black Lives Matter and the police are learning this lesson.

“Who is my neighbor?” Our neighbors are rich and poor, black and white, near and far away. Our neighbors are in Ferguson and Charleston, in Baton Rouge and Falcon Heights; our neighbors are in Dallas. As the story of the Good Samaritan teaches us, if by the grace of God we can transcend our entrenched categories and the bloody boundaries that separate us with respect and compassion, then we will teach each other what it means to be “good.”  If we can do this, we shall live.

*I want to acknowledge my indebtedness to Debi Thomas’ excellent commentary on the Parable of the Good Samaritan, “Go and Do Likewise,” at The Journey with Jesus: A Weekly Webzine for the Global Church, July 10, 2016. http://www.journeywithjesus.net/essays/1023-go-and-do-likewise

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