Who was a neighbor?

Lessons for the Day: Amos 7:7-17; Psalm 82; Colossians 1:1-14; Luke 10:25-37.

The parable that we heard today from the Gospel according to Luke is perhaps the most familiar and popular chapter in Luke’s Gospel. I am sure that you all know the story, at least the outline of the story: 

A lawyer challenges Jesus demanding exact instructions of how to attain eternal life. True to form, Jesus answers the lawyers question with a question of his own. The lawyer, of course, already knows the answer to Jesus’ question, and demonstrates to Jesus and everyone else present that he knows the answer. The way to attain eternal life – the way to win in the end is to follow the two most important commandments: Love God and love your neighbor. 

But not satisfied, this lawyer insists on following up with another question. Sparring with Jesus to test him, the lawyer asks, “And who is my neighbor?” Now, as he likes to do, Jesus tells a story.

“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” (Luke 10:30)

This was a particularly treacherous stretch of road, one that you should not travel alone because of the bands of robbers who regularly attacked travellers.

By chance, there was a priest who came along by the same way. The Priest was very important in Jewish society, part of the very elite class.  And the lawyer listening to Jesus would have known that the Priest was a power-broker, a conduit between God and the people. The Priest saw the injured man, but crossed to the other side of the road and passed on by without stopping to help.

Likewise, a Levite came by. Levites were also part of the Temple leadership, assisting the priest in the work of the Temple. Born into their position, Levites would have fallen into the power hierarchy somewhere near the top. Jesus tells us that the Levite saw the hurt man, but also crosses the road, passing the man on by. He was in a hurry with things to attend to at the Temple.

Then came a Samaritan along the road. The lawyer listening to Jesus would have immediately understood the contrast being made. The Priest and the Levite were socially elite, and represented the kingdom of Judah and the Davidic reign. The Samaritan, on the other hand, was not only an outsider to the Jews but represented a despised people. The animosity between the and the Samaritans dates to the time when the twelve tribes of Israel divided and split after the death of Solomon. The ten tribes in the north became the Kingdom of Israel, and planted their capital at Samaria. The two southern tribes (Judah and Benjamin) kept their capital in Jerusalem, and occupied the Temple. From the beginning there was ethnic hostility, and political and religious rivalry between Jews and Samaritans. So when Jesus said Samaritan, the lawyer immediately knew where that man fell in the ranks of power. But, of course, you know what happened! The Samaritan stopped and helped the bleeding man, bandaged him, took him to safety, and provided for him until he was well. The Samaritan is the good guy.

The way we’ve usually heard this story interpreted goes something like this: The lawyer asks, “Who is my neighbor?” In essence, the lawyer wants to be clear about what he has to do, who he has to help. The answer we’ve always heard, of course, is that the hurt man on the side of the road is our neighbor! We should always go out of our way to help whoever needs our help, no matter who they are. The Samaritan demonstrates this…and this of course is a very nice way to interpret this parable. It is an interpretation that Jesus would have taught if Jesus had been the sort of teacher whose main objective was to leave us with a nice morality tale that makes us feel guilty.

But, let’s look again. I find it tricky to hear those beloved and oft-told narratives from our sacred story. I tend to assume that I know it and what it means. But we should always be sure to listen carefully because we don’t want to mistake familiarity with understanding. 

There was a traveller going from Jerusalem to Jericho. It was a bad idea to travel all alone! Well, you know what happens: The man ends up lying broken and bleeding on the side of the road. A priest comes along, sees the man, and crosses the road to the other side. Of course he does. He is the priest, who has a people waiting for him at the Temple. His presence and his service are indispensable. He is the mediator between God and the people of Israel. To touch someone hurt and bleeding would mean that he was unclean and unable to do his work. His obligations to God meant he had to pass on by and hope that the man got some help soon. Same with the Levite. Holy, powerful, pulled by the obligations of position, he couldn’t stop either. 

It might not be completely fair to label the Priest and the Levite as shady, power-hungry, and selfish. They passed on by but they may very well have passed on by with regret that their obligations to God and Temple prevented them.

Regardless, it was the Samaritan who stopped. The one of the three who was decidedly unholy, with no power in society to speak of. For whatever reason, the Samaritan has the time and impetus to stop and help, and he did. Jesus asks the lawyer: Three men (two powerful and holy, one an outsider) saw the man. Who is the neighbor? And the lawyer has to admit, “The one who showed him mercy.” It was the Samaritan who was neighbor to the man.

Notice, however, that wasn’t the question the lawyer asks. The lawyer had asked, “Who is my neighbor?” But Jesus’ story answers, “Who is being a neighbor?” This is precisely the pointZ: Jesus uses the parable turn assumptions on their heads. Jesus uses the parable to show us different expression of power. In Jesus’ response to the lawyer, Jesus didn’t take out pen and paper and make a list: the homeless guy on the street corner, the person with the flat tire, the checker at WalMart, the college student with no place to go for Thanksgiving…so that the lawyer could check them off one by one and meet the legal requirements for heaven. 

Jesus doesn’t answer the lawyer’s question at all. Instead, Jesus asks a different question all together. Are you ready to be a neighbor? As usual, Jesus completely reframes the conversation. For the lawyer standing there that day having a scholarly conversation with young, up-and-coming rabbi, the theoretical questions that he posed were about religion and rule. But Jesus’ story about powerful and holy people doing what was right, alongside a societal outcast who actually did what was right sends an upside down message to the lawyer in search of his next step up the social ladder. 

Do you think that you are powerful because you follow the rules? If you do, you’re headed down the wrong path. True power comes from faith the animates our lives and transforms our hearts. It’s not about who you are on the power grid of human life. It’s about the power of sacrificial love that knows that the outward trappings of power mean very little. It’s inner transformation that results in the radical actions of love that seem to all the respectable people…well, a little strange.

True power doesn’t come from professional position, or societal position, or economic label – your power in the world. He thought that he, a powerful lawyer, was having a theoretical discussion with a powerful rabbi where they could come to some sort of intellectual understanding of the rules. But Jesus changed the question. He switched the paradigm. He described a world in which people who looked powerful on the outside were distracted by outward expectations and human constructs. While the pitiful societal outcast was the real powerhouse.

Who is my neighbor? Could I have a list? Yeah, that’s not so important.

How do I be a neighbor? Now, that’s a better question.

I try to imagine how this scene might play out in the big and powerful modern city. It would certainly happen at a coffee house, don’t you think. Jesus would be sitting at a table surrounded by coffee drinkers, most certainly a good number of ministers, and priests, and youth workers. And someone would ask, “Jesus, what kind of legislation do you think we need to pass to address the racial injustices, gender inequalities, and discrimination in our society. And i imagine Jesus maybe telling another story.  

On the night of February 26, 2012, in Sanford, Florida, a young high school student wearing a black hoodie to ward off the falling rain, walked down the street to a convenient store to buy some skittles…

On the night of June 12, 2016, men and women were dancing and having abundant life at the Pulse Night Club in Orlando…  

On June 25, 2019, Oscar Alberto and Angie Valeria were crossing the Rio Grande to seek asylum and refuge…

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