Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago
“And who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:28) The lawyer’s face-saving question, put another way is, who is not my neighbor? Who can I exclude?
When I think of a neighbor, Mrs. Dugan comes to mind. It was 1970. I was eight years old. We lived in a house on Rodney drive in Champaign, Illinois. 1970 was a big year for me. I got to stay up late enough to watch “Love American Style.” It was also the year my dog Frisky died. Our next-door neighbors, the Dugan’s, had a special knock. Mrs. Dugan would announce herself with that knock and pretty much walk straight into our house. She helped out when Frisky got sick. Mrs. Dugan even attended the informal back yard funeral we had when she died. Mrs. Dugan was my neighbor. Neighbors transform streets into neighborhoods. Local communities of care are great to grow up in.
Today, I notice we seem willing to trade this old-fashioned neighborliness for anonymity and the efficiency of polite, impersonal, transactional relationships. The barista knows how to make my coffee before I ask for it, without any expectation of friendship or mutuality in return. Starbucks has literally made a fortune trading on this faux-friendly-familiar but not quite neighborly vibe. Neighbors like my Mrs. Dugan seem rare these days.
I think we could all use much more neighborliness and perhaps, the task falls to us to create it. Yet it doesn’t seem reasonable for anyone to really know and be neighbor to more than perhaps two dozen people or so. Life itself imposes a limit on our time and energy. So I wonder, in the neighborhood of God, like the one the VBS kids imagined and display behind our altar today, would people always know everyone in their building? –everyone living on their block? –how about in their zip code? So, we return to the same question the lawyer asked. If being neighbor is how I inherit eternal life, surely that can’t include everyone—right?
The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. once said, ‘he was glad Jesus commanded us to love our neighbor because certain people are just so hard to like.’ Loving our neighbor as ourselves does not require friendship but to mercy, compassion, kindness, and justice.
The parables of Jesus are like gemstones. We get a different insight into divine mystery by looking through the story from each perspective. The Good Samaritan offers a glimpse into the extravagant loving character of God. Jesus’ command ‘to go and do likewise,” gives us a window into our own call to discipleship. The man who lays bleeding and dying in the ditch is synonymous with Christ on the cross. Perhaps the quickest way to immediately answer the lawyer’s question correctly is from the perspective of the victim. Ask him –who is your neighbor—and the answer is—anyone, anyone—anyone at all who will help me.
In 2006 my father died in hiking accident. Another hiker, a medical student in training, was the first to come to our aid. He just showed up. Park Rangers arrived next in response to my 911 call. They came by truck up an old mining road as far as they could then ran the rest of the way up the mountain. Others came by helicopter. It was unbelievable. To this day, I don’t know their names, or where any of them lived. I never saw them again. Each of them was my neighbor.
Our understanding of Jesus’ parable is deepened when we realize that nobody listening would have thought there were any ‘good Samaritans.’ The Samaritans were enemies. Substitute the name gang-banger, or ‘Taliban’ for ‘Samaritan’ and you begin to understand why Jesus’ lovable parable made the temple leaders blood boil.
Notice the wounded man is the only character in the story not defined by profession, social class, or religious belief. “He has no identity except naked need. Maybe we have to occupy his place in the story first — maybe we have to become the broken one, grateful to anyone at all who will show us mercy — before we can feel the unbounded compassion of the Good Samaritan. Why? Because all tribalisms fall away on the broken road. All divisions of “us” and “them” disappear of necessity. When you’re lying bloody in a ditch, what matters is not whose help you’d prefer, whose way of practicing Christianity you like best, whose politics you agree with. What matters is whether or not anyone will stop to show you mercy before you die.” (Debie Thomas, Afflicting the Comfortable, Journey With Jesus, 7/07/19)
Jesus shows us that all people are our neighbors; everyone is a child of God. The basic meaning of neighborin Hebrew, Greek, and English is “to be near.” (Brian Stoffregen, CrossMarks) The Priest and the priest-helper proved not to be true neighbors because they widenedthe distance between themselves and the injured man lying in the ditch. They looked but did not see. They saw but were blind. They would not come near the man in the ditch. They proved they are not true neighbors, despite their impressive credentials.
The Samaritan took the wounded man to the inn keeper and paid for his care. We don’t know what transpired between them after that. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that we see those who are broken and wounded by life and respond with kindness, mercy, and justice.
There are so many people in the ditch today –what except the power of evil and the devil can explain our willful blindness to them all? So often it is the weak, powerless, and wounded who are made to bear the brunt of the sins and short-comings of those who are actually responsible. The poor migrant becomes the target for what’s wrong with our broken immigration system rather than the factory owner, the politician, or all the rest of us –the electorate—who benefit from the work done, the taxes paid, and the consumer goods purchased by immigrants living in our community. Today, as we brace for mass deportations and family separations, our scriptures ask who will be neighbor?
If you want to know God, then love your neighbor. If you want to know your neighbor, then love God. Loving God and neighbor are not separate items on some pious to-do list. They are two sides of the same coin. They form a single pathway into the abundant life God intends for us all. Devotion to God and service to neighbor form a double-helix in the tenth chapter of Luke’s gospel. They are the DNA structure upon which the whole chapter hangs, and the key to unlocking the pain and bewilderment we face today. Here—here is the doorway that opens to the fullness of grace. It is never far from you, but it is always only as far away as the person next to you.