Who is my neighbor?

One time an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”“What is written in the Law?” Jesus replied. “How do you read it?”

The legal expert answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”“You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”

But the legal expert wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. 

A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 

But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. 

The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’

“Which of these three,” Jesus asked, “ do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”

The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”

– Luke 10:25-37

The story of the Good Samaritan other one of those stories that define what it means to be a Christian.

Jesus is talking with his friends one day, and a lawyer stands up in middle of the crowd. A “lawyer” in this case doesn’t mean a regular attorney, somebody who writes contracts and stands up in court and says, “Objection, your honor!” There wasn’t very much of that kind of law in Jesus’ day.

A lawyer meant someone who was skilled in religious law. A lawyer was somebody who could quote you chapter and verse from the Bible on any given subject, who could recite every decision and every memorable quotation by every religious leader for the past 500 years.

A lawyer wasn’t a priest, or a rabbi or teacher. A lawyer was more like a walking, talking, encyclopedia of religious law. These people were the authorities on how God wants human beings to act and respond in every conceivable situation of human life. You’ve probably met someone like that.

So, this religious expert asks Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Could be he was trying to trap Jesus into saying something wrong. Or could be he was trying to get Jesus to answer a test question, so that he would know what side Jesus was on.

Jesus answered, “Hey, you’re the expert. You read all the rule books. You know it all. What do you say?”

So, the lawyer answers, straight out of the Five Books of Moses, “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; and [you shall love] your neighbor as yourself.” (Deuteronomy 6:5, Leviticus 19:18)

And Jesus says, “Bingo! Go to the head of the class! Do this, and you will live.”

But you know, some people don’t know when to shut up. The lawyer should have quit while he was ahead. But instead, he asked, “So, who’s my neighbor?”

Jesus might have pointed out to this guy that the Bible text which he, the lawyer, had just quoted, goes into great detail about who our neighbor is and how what our relationship is with our neighbor.

It says that when I gather my crops, I should leave some leftover grain in the field for the poor and for the foreigner. It says not to deal falsely with anyone; not to oppress or rob my neighbor; not to hold back the wages of people who I employ; to care for people with disabilities; to do justice without regard to a person’s status, wealth or power.

It says I shouldn’t make up fake news about my neighbor, or do anything that would endanger my neighbor’s life. God says, “You shall not hate your neighbor in your heart, but you shall reason with your neighbor. You shall not take vengeance or bear any grudge, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

For somebody who was supposed to be an expert in religious law, that question, “Who is my neighbor?” was a really stupid question to ask. It’s almost as stupid as the question that Cain asked God. God asks Cain, “Where’s your brother?” and Cain answers, “Hey, am I my brother’s keeper?” Whoo. Bad one.

Every time we ask the question, “Who is my neighbor?” it reveals a kind of spiritual and moral blindness in us. On the other hand, every time we explore the answer, every time we sincerely try to learn who our neighbors are, about how we act and respond towards our neighbors, we learn something important about being a friend of God.

Today, Jesus told a story about a man who was traveling in the mountains. He was on a dangerous road. He met a group of robbers, who stripped him naked, beat him, left him half dead at the side of the road.

We all know the rest of the story. The first person to come along was a priest, who didn’t stop. The second passer-by was a temple servant, who also didn’t stop.

Do you remember who Jesus said the third person who came along was? He was a Samaritan. And we’re so used to calling this story “the good Samaritan,” that we really don’t appreciate how discomforting this story really is.

Samaritans a religious minority. Jews and Samaritans were mortal enemies. Each side thought the other side were traitors to God. They were enemies who had fought to the death for hundreds of years.

The Samaritans said that God gave the five books of Moses, and that nothing more should be in the Bible. They also said that God wasn’t in the Jewish temple in Jerusalem – they said that God lived in their temple, on a mountain in their territory.

Samaritans said that they were the real Jews. Those other Jews were all wrong. During the wars that raged 150 years before the birth of Jesus, the Jerusalem Jews slaughtered the Samaritans, and destroyed the temple of the Samaritans.

By the time of Jesus, the open wars were long over. But the hatred still remained. Jews and Samaritans wouldn’t speak to each other. They wouldn’t buy anything from each other. Their children were forbidden to play with each other. Their young people certainly wouldn’t marry each other.

So, picture the situation. Here I am, lying half-dead and naked by the side of the road. A priest walks by. A temple servant walks by. Finally, somebody stops, picks me up, and loads me onto the back of their donkey.

He takes me to a motel, gets me settled into bed, gives me first aid, pays the bill for a couple of weeks, and finally leaves his credit card with the manager in case I need anything more. Who is this third person, the one who stopped? It’s my own worst religious enemy.

I always take this story very personally, because years ago, I used to work on an ambulance, in the slums of Buffalo. Three 24-hours shifts a week. I can still see and hear it all, so clearly. The times when my partner and I went out to pick up people who had been left for dead on the worst part of the city.

Two or three o’clock in the morning, night after night, the call would come in – “Car 532, code 2, corner of Best and Jefferson. Report of a cutting.”

Or during the winter we’d get a call, “Person found in a snowdrift,” and we’d go out and find somebody with frostbite and hypothermia.

I won’t say that I saw everything. But I sure saw a lot. Shootings. Stabbings. Industrial accidents. Domestic violence. Suicides. Drug overdoses. It was a different life from what I do now.

One thing I learned, was that when somebody is stretched out, naked on a table in the Emergency Room, I don’t know what religion they are. I can’t tell. I don’t know if they’re gay or straight. People who are hurt, look pretty much the same. I guess I still feel that way, all these years later.

I sometimes wonder, if the Samaritan in today’s story had the same kind of experience. Maybe he looked at the person, lying stripped and dying by the side of the road, and he couldn’t tell if the person was one of his own kind, or not. Maybe he really couldn’t tell the difference. Maybe God spoke to the Samaritan in that moment and said, “It doesn’t matter. This is your neighbor. This is your brother.”

Maybe the Samaritan stopped, because he was already a compassionate, caring human being. Maybe he was just a good guy, who happened to be on the wrong side.

But maybe the Samaritan in today’s story was converted, right there on the road. He wasn’t converted to being a Jew. He was converted to a sense of common humanity. He was converted to an understanding that we are all children of God.

I wonder if this is really a conversion story, because there’s a kind of extravagance in the Samaritan’s response to the person in need, that makes me think there was a deep, spiritual movement going on in the Samaritan’s mind and heart. This is more than just being kind and generous. This is a kind of conversion.

The frustrating thing is, we don’t really know what happened to everybody later. So far as we know, the Samaritan didn’t become a Jew. He headed on down the road, went home to his family, and he probably kept on being a Samaritan.

We assume that the person who was beaten and robbed was a Jew. It doesn’t say whether he was a particularly good person or not. We don’t know if he was grateful, whether the experience changed his life. He might have felt a certain lack of trust towards religious leaders from that point on. But we really don’t even know that for sure.

Jesus asked the lawyer, “Who was the neighbor?” The lawyer replied, “The one who showed mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go, and do likewise.”

This story isn’t just about being nice to people. It isn’t even about being nice to strangers, although that’s important, too.

It’s about showing mercy to someone in need, who by every rule in the book is my enemy. It’s about helping people who I believe with all my heart are wrong. It’s about opening my heart and doing the best good that I know to someone who may not even appreciate it.

This story has had a powerful influence on millions of people. It’s influenced people to give up their vacations, and spend their own money, to go and help rebuild the homes of families who lost everything they had in devastating hurricanes. Those families were complete strangers to them.

This story has influenced people to spend their careers teaching poor children, in a neighborhood and a school system and in a community that doesn’t always work very well.

This story has influenced people to give money and food to strangers through the food pantry here in High Point, and to help millions of people through other worthwhile programs.

I don’t have to give a lot of other examples. This story is behind almost every story, where people decide to help, where people discover that their enemies are really just their neighbors.

This story of Jesus’ is very simple. But the real world is often complicated. Acting like the good Samaritan in this morning’s story often isn’t easy. We run into politics, and precedents, there are people who say we shouldn’t help for one reason or another. And we run into the frustration and anger and exhaustion and burn-out that are also a part of caregiving of all kinds. It isn’t simple.

We teach this story in Sunday School to our children, but this story is not just for kids! Helping other people in ways which are genuinely helpful, in ways which respect the needs they express, and in ways which don’t create dependency or cause further damage – helping is not an easy task, and the answers are not always obvious. The principle is clear, but the application can get pretty interesting. Just ask anyone who’s tried to help their neighbor.

Helping other people is not a specifically Christian activity, either. Jews do it. Muslims do it. Just about every major religion in the world commands it. Nearly every religion, if we listen carefully to its teachings, promotes kindness, compassion, and assistance to the poor and helpless.

There are all kinds of fine organizations which help people who are in trouble or in need. I’m glad we support some of them. I’m a Christian, but the organizations I respect most don’t care what a person’s religion is.

God didn’t put anyone here on this earth to be hurt, to be abused or starved. God doesn’t recognize the borders and walls we humans put up between each other. God only knows that each human being on earth is a child of God – without exception. No one is more human, or less deserving, than another.

God doesn’t seem to recognize all the problems involved with helping, feeding, serving and reconciling people in difficult situations. God only says, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength; and you shall love your neighbor as yourself. . .”

God helps us when it’s difficult. But God never lets us escape from the commandment. Our neighbor is always with us.

Let’s take this into worship together.

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