Neighbors, am I right?
In the sleepy little neighborhood where I grew up, we had some really interesting people. Some were quiet and we hardly heard anything from them like George and Jannie across the street. Some had kids the same age as my sister and I, which created a revolving door effect in those houses (and left open doors where flies could get in and cold conditioned air or heat could get out). Most of us in the Stoneybrook subdivision got along just fine, looked out for one another, took care of each other, did the things neighbors do.
But then, there were others.
I don’t know their names, I was too young at the time, but I know they lived directly across the street from us. The mom and dad worked during the day and in the summer time that left the oldest kid in charge. That was akin to leaving a juvenile wolf in charge of a litter of pups in the middle of sheep pen. One fine summers morning, my mother was taking care of things around the house when she began to smell smoke. My sister was still crawling and I was not yet experimenting with culinary masterpieces in the kitchen so my mother began trying to track down the burning smell. She went through the house checking the laundry room, kitchen, every room that had something in it that could start a fire. It was on her way through the kitchen, walking past the back door that she saw the kid sitting on the carport. He was huddled over a pile of something, intently focused on the task at hand. The task, as it turned out to be, was that of starting a fire on our carport.
He never saw my mom until it was too late and she started screaming.
Now, I know there are people in this world whose voice carries, but mother made an art form of projecting her voice over long distances. I believe the farthest I ever got that I could hear her was somewhere between three-quarters and mile from the house. She took a deep breath and let this kid have it from about three feet away. I’m not sure how long it was before the kid recovered, but I’m fairly certain it took a while for the ringing to die down and his hearing to come back. As the kid recovered, his oldest sibling got a chance to hear the tirade and then the parents and then the sheriff and possibly social services – I can’t remember I was too young – suffice it to say, there were many people who learned that it was neither condoned nor appreciated that a grade school kid was setting fires on the carport of the Jarrell household.
We all have interesting stories I’m sure. Neighbors, as you can see and well know, come in a curious variety both good and bad. But the scripture this morning asks some necessary theological questions of us: Who is my neighbor? What does it mean to love them? What is it to love a neighbor as God loves them?
A lawyer walks up to the Son of God…
It almost sounds like the beginning of a bad joke doesn’t it: “a lawyer walks up to Jesus and he says…” While it sounds like the start of bad sermon humor, it’s in actuality, part of the core that leads us in walking the Christian way. A little side-note here, one that I will say many times, Christianity is not about punching a ticket, it’s about taking a walk. If we are faithful in our walk, we will have many moments that are incredible connecting points with God. Remember, it’s a lomg walk, not a quick moment. That said, this is not an unfamiliar story to us. Last week we read the story right up to the parable and stopped. This week, we are looking into the conversation and the parable as we try and understand what Jesus meant by ‘love your neighbor.’
First off, love your neighbor is predicated on the idea of loving God. If we cannot love the Lord our God with all our heart, being, strength, and mind, we are not yet ready to love our neighbor. We will not know how to love our neighbor until we first, know how to love God and second, live out our love for God. After we start beginning to learn the lessons and the lifestyle of loving God, we are ready to begin learning how to love neighbor. That is not to let us off the hook with loving our neighbor. You can’t say, “I have learned to love God so I’m not going to try loving neighbor yet.” Both can be learned at the same time; we simply start by learning to love God first.
As with learning to love God, we must have and keep the right attitude to love neighbor. As we begin to look at what the Samaritan in our story did, we must start with having the correct heart and mind orientation. In other words, we must truly know and experience love as it was intended for us and from that experience pour love out into the lives of those around us. A few short definitions and reminders of love from the New Testament:
- eros – to covet a thing or person oneself (love for the sake of self / “I love you because I can get something out of it.”)
- filia – the inclination of strong emotions and feelings for those close to you (brotherly love / “I love you because we have a lot in common.”)
- xenia – love for the stranger and the foreigner in need (“I love you because you are in need.”)
- agape – love that exists not for the sake of self, but for the sake of other (“I love you because you are there.”
When we look at these forms of love, we see two expressed by the Samaritan in the parable: xenia and agape. The first, xenia, is shown in that the Samaritan is providing care for someone who is not a fellow countryman. If we look deeper, we find Jesus motive for using a Samaritan as part of the story. The lawyer who comes to Jesus is a Pharisee, one who specifically is an expert in the Jewish laws and customs. He is someone who knows what is both legal and proper in regard to the Jewish people. The first two people that Jesus talks about in the parable are of the same group and caste if you will, as the lawyer. They are specifically Sadducees who are most likely going to Jerusalem to take up their appointed duties for a time at the temple, a common enough occurrence. As they travel, they happen upon a man robbed, beaten, and left for dead. The fact that both the priest and the Levite walked past without helping seems appalling to us. To a Jew in the first century, this would probably make perfect sense. For two men going to the temple to serve for a month, touching an injured man would make them ceremonial unclean and unfit to serve for a week at least. The temple would not have enough priests to fulfill its duties to the Jewish people and the greater good would be diminished.
That Jesus would tell the story with someone giving aid to the traveler is not so outlandish, but that the person giving aid is a Samaritan would be. Samaritans saw themselves as the true remnant of Israel, left behind after the Assyrians deported the majority of the upper classes of Israel in 721 BCE. They see themselves as descended from Ephraim and Mannaseh, who remained behind and held to the true tradition of Abraham while the Jews of captivity developed a watered down version of Judaism as a result of being in Assyria and later Persia. Jews of the captivity see them as people who were brought in from Assyria, Cuthah, Aveh, and Emeth, foreigners who were given the land that was rightfully theirs. In fact, in the previous chapter of Luke, James and John want Jesus to call down fire from heaven to burn a Samaritan village that refused Jesus hospitality.
So the Samaritan being the hero has a sting to it for the Jews. But what makes the Samaritan a hero? What does he offer that shows us love of neighbor?
If we look at verse 33, we see that the Samaritan had the right heart motivation for the man in need.
“A Samaritan, who was on a journey, came to where the man was. But when he saw him, he was moved with compassion.”
The word here for compassion literally means to have mercy on another person. It is the same word used to describe Jesus feeling for those he healed just before feeding the five thousand in Matthew 14 and the healing of the blind men on the Jericho road in Matthew 20. It is a feeling of deep sorrow for what another person is experiencing and deep desire to do something in response to that.
It’s the feeling that wells up in you, or should well up in you, when you see an images of children from war torn and poverty stricken areas. It is the feeling that drove Mother Teresa to the streets of Calcutta to found centers of care for orphans, this sick, and the dying. Compassion is the root emotion that drives loves for neighbor.
So we feel compassion, the sense of knowing need in others, now what? Well if we follow the example of the Samaritan, we will respond to the need. In the parable, the Samaritan feels compassion, then responds to it:
“The Samaritan went to him and bandaged his wounds, tending them with oil and wine. Then he placed the wounded man on his own donkey, took him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day, he took two full days’ worth of wages and gave them to the innkeeper. He said, ‘Take care of him, and when I return, I will pay you back for any additional costs.’” (v.34-35)
Notice here that loving neighbor is not just that we feel something for those around us but that we do something about it. In the same way that the Samaritan responded to the need out his compassion, we too should respond to the needs around us in the same way. It’s reminiscent of the adage, “People don’t care how much you know”, or in this case feel, “until they know” or can see “how much you care.” The Samaritan put his money where his mouth was and not only felt something for the man but did something about it. And what he did about it was to care for the man in all the ways needed.
Being a neighbor
So now we get to the end of the parable and the beginning or for some the continuation of our walk with Jesus. We have to hear and respond to question of Jesus:
“What do you think? Which one of these three was a neighbor to the man who encountered thieves?” (v.36)
We know the answer, it’s obvious. The neighbor is the one who cares for the man in need without regard to himself. As the lawyer said,
“The one who demonstrated mercy toward him.” (v.37)
The one who not only felt something but responded to that feeling with action. And now the admonition of Jesus,
“Go and do likewise.” (v.37)
Go and be a people who are willing to love neighbor not just in thought or word or but to live out a walk with Jesus that ‘demonstrates mercy’ in the real world. Jesus said,
“This is my commandment: love each other just as I have loved you.” (John 15:12)
“I give you these commandments so that you can love each other.” (John 15:17)
It’s not just a good thing, not just a good example. It is the fulfillment of the law and the prophets and the commandment of Jesus that we love God and love neighbor. As God has demonstrated mercy to us in Jesus Christ through the ministry of Holy Spirit, let us go and do likewise to others. Amen.