Being Neighbor

July 10, 2022 (Proper 10C) 

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

For those of us who grew up in the Church, we know the Parable of the Good Samaritan. This story that Jesus shares with the lawyer is part of the Church’s ethos and is likely the most familiar and popular in the gospels. We know the story because we’ve heard it so many times — in sermons, Sunday School, and as moralizing instruction from parents, teachers, and neighbors. 

A lawyer approaches Jesus to ask Jesus to define a matter of the law; but, in good rabbinic fashion, Jesus turns the question back to the lawyer: “What is written in the law?” As any teacher, cleric, or religious master of the day would have, the lawyer already knew the answer to Jesus’ question. The lawyer first demonstrates his knowledge by quoting part of the Shema from Deuteronomy 6,

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind…” (Luke 10:27a)

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” (Deuteronomy 6:5)

This part of the Shema was, in first-century Judaism, likely already the centerpiece of the daily morning and evening prayer. For the prayerful Jew, the passage was a means of detailing the particular ways in which the faithful should live — namely, by loving the LORD God. 

The lawyer then follows up with the essential Jewish law with the second law to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27b). What does it mean to love one’s neighbor? Rabbis and Jewish scholars have been debating this for well over fifteen centuries, so we will not solve it today. For now, It will be enough to note three particulars:

  • “Love” is not an emotional response; but, rather, it is an active response of just and righteous treatment.
  • For the early Israelites, “neighbor” referred to fellow Israelites (and would have possibly been extended to sojourners or aliens in the land). This is, I think, a main point in the parable — a point that Jesus will turn on its head — thus making the law new, complete, or fulfilled. We’ll get back to this point.
  • By the first century BCE and into the first century CE, “as yourself” meant that Israelites were to treat their neighbors as they themselves would wish to be treated. This would become quite explicit in the Damascus Document (2nd c. BCE) and in the Babylonian Talmud (1st c. BCE).

These two parts of the law quoted by the lawyer had, by the first century CE, become the most essential prayer in all of Judaism. The lawyer demonstrates his learning by repeating to Jesus and everyone else present what he knows. 

After Jesus affirms the lawyer’s answer, the lawyer seeks further justification, following up with another question: “And who is my neighbor?” Remember, for the early Israelites, neighbor meant quite specifically a fellow member of the Israelite or Judahite community. If we look back at Leviticus 19 — from which this law comes — the immediately preceding context makes this more clear.

You shall not hate your brother in your heart;
you shall reprove your kinsman, and not incur guilt because of him.
You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people,
but you shall love your neighbor like yourself; I am YHWH.” (Leviticus 19:17-18)

Notice the term “neighbor” is the fourth in a sequence that includes “brother,” “kinsman,” and “your people.” Neighbor, like the previous three, refers to a fellow Israelite. This is the answer that the lawyer is expecting as he seeks justification. But Jesus turns the lawyer’s expectation on its head by telling him the story that we are so familiar with — the Parable of the Good Samaritan.  

We will return to the lawyer’s expectation and Jesus’ unexpected response in a moment. First, however, I noticed something that I found interesting in the story about the location of each of the travelers to the man who was beaten and left to die. Jesus begins, “Now by chance, a priest also is going down that road…” (Luke 10:31a). In ancient Judaism, the priest was seen as the mediator between God and the people of Israel, a vital role in their religious and national identity, which required the priest to remain pure and undefiled. To touch a bleeding man, Jew or Gentile, would bring uncleanliness, meaning he could not mediate until after ritual purification. The priest’s obligations to God and the people meant he had to pass by. So, as soon as the priest “saw him,” the priest made as wide and “passed by on the other side” (Luke 10:31b). Next, a Levite came by. Levites were also part of the Temple leadership, assisting the priest in the work of the Temple. Like the priest, they had to remain ritually clean in order to carry out their tasks. Nonetheless, the Levite does seem to approach the man, coming to “the place” where he was. His curiosity satisfied, however, the Levite also “passed by on the other side” (Luke 10:32).

Jesus follows the Priest and the Levite on the road to Jericho with a Samaritan coming down the same road. Jesus’ audience on that day, the lawyer included, would have immediately been struck by the contrast being made. Samaritans were complete outsiders, a people despised by the Jews. It was an ancient animosity, dating 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, planted their capital at Samaria, and set up to worship on Mount Gerazim — an original holy site for the Israelites from the time of Joshua and the settlement. The two southern tribes (Judah and Benjamin) kept their capital in Jerusalem and occupied the Temple on Mount Zion. From the beginning, there was ethnic hostility and political and religious rivalry. Moreover, the Samaritans also become connected with those who resettled the land (along with the few who remained) after the Assyrian conquest of the Kingdom of Israel in 721 BCE — the result of which was adulterated worship that included both the LORD and the gods of the places from which the colonizers came. In short, then, Samaritans were seen as false worshippers, faithless, and not true to the LORD God. It was the Samaritan — the outsider and faithless one — who “saw [the man] and was moved with pity” and who “went to him and bandaged his wounds” (Luke 10:34). 

Interestingly, the Greek word that is translated as “neighbor” literally means, “one who draws near.” So, with the story told, Jesus asks the lawyer, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” (Luke 10:36). And the lawyer responds, “The one who showed mercy” (Luke 10:37a) — the one who drew near! The one who drew near enough to see, near enough to care, near enough to act was the neighbor

Are we the “can’t be bothered” priest?  Are we the curious but non-committal Levite? Are we the Samaritan, the would-be outsider, and enemy, who takes a bold stand for mercy, justice, and reconciliation, getting involved with the broken and bruised? It’s all too easy to leave this place with good intentions, thoughts and prayers, ideas of good deeds but never really be the neighbor. It’s far too easy to cross to the other side and walk on by. I know this because sometimes I do just this – that’s my confession for today. We are, of course, invited to be like the Samaritan. We are invited to empathize with suffering, indignation, and injustice. We are invited to draw near because where we stand makes all the difference.

There is more, though! Recall the question that the lawyer asked Jesus: Who is my neighbor? The lawyer wanted to know who he was to serve? The lawyer wanted a list – the lawyer wanted Jesus to reiterate the common teaching that one’s neighbor included those members of the tribes of Israel or Judah. Notice, however, how Jesus trunks the question on its head because Jesus doesn’t actually answer the lawyer’s question! 

Instead Jesus’ asks and answers a different, more fundamental question: “Who is being a neighbor?” In other words, Jesus wants to know which of the three acted like a neighbor to the man who was broken and bruised. Jesus’s storytelling turns the lawyer’s expectation on its head. Essentially, Jesus is completely disregarding the lawyer’s question. Jesus doesn’t want to make a list of neighbors! Instead, Jesus uses the parable to demonstrate a different paradigm: Instead of worrying about who is in and who is out on your list of neighbors, worry about how you are acting as a neighbor! 

Jesus completely reframes the conversation, the theoretical questions about rule, obligation, and list-making, to become teaching on the heart of the law, inner transformation, and what it means to love.

Let us go, and do likewise.

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