Seeing Our Neighbors
By Pastor Daniel W. Brettell
The lawyer answered Jesus, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself” (10:27).
But then the lawyer turned to Jesus and asks, “Who is my neighbor?”
There was a time in this great country when we knew our neighbors—I mean really knew them. And I firmly believe that there are some neighborhoods today where people truly know most of their neighbors. I happen to live in one such neighborhood. We know each other and we count on each other. But truth be told, there are some people living in my neighborhood that most of us don’t know very well and there is one that we all know far-too-well––and frankly we don’t want to know more about him or have any dealings with him.
So I have to ask myself the question that the lawyer asks Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?”
Are my neighbors only those people with whom I have the most in common? Are my neighbors only those people with whom I have developed a good relationship? Are my neighbors only those people whom I trust?
Think about this parable that Jesus tells us in today’s Gospel. You know, this particular Gospel lesson is often viewed as real “gimme” by preachers. It’s one of those Gospel lessons that is considered almost as a “sermon in a box.” Some might even say, “It preaches itself.” After telling the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus asks the lawyer, “Now which of these three do you think seemed to be a neighbor to him who fell among the robbers?” Do you think there is anyone who might answer anything different from what the lawyer said—”He who showed him mercy?” Of course not, it’s the obvious answer isn’t it?
Once you’ve heard the parable—if you’re a person with any normal sensitivity—you’re never going to say that the Priest or the Levite was the true neighbor. Obviously, the Samaritan was the neighbor to the man. The answer is just so incredibly obvious, isn’t it?
But you know what? There’s another side of the story of the Good Samaritan. The story is really not as simple as it might at first seem. And we need to be very careful that we don’t too quickly place ourselves in a position of judging the actions of the Priest or the Levite.
Let’s consider a few things about these two men who are so often judged harshly when this parable is read.
First, who are the real bad guys here? The real bad guys are the robbers who have done so much damage to the poor traveler. But they are quickly out of the story. Or are they? Jesus simply says that they stripped the man, beat him, and went away leaving him half dead. But how far did they go? Is it possible that they have left this poor traveler there as bait for the next person to pass by?
Second, what are the Priest and Levite thinking as they walk along this road on that day? This particular road from Jerusalem to Jericho was well-known at the time for being populated by thieves and murderers who were just waiting to pounce on unaware and unprotected travelers. Are these two fearful for their own lives? What if the injured traveler is bait? What if they stop and become victims themselves? What if they are on their way to attend or perform a religious service? What if the victim is already dead? You know, under Mosaic Law, if you so much as touch a dead person you are considered unclean for seven days and must go through a cleansing ritual before you can even associate with another Jew, let alone go into the Temple.
Let’s put the situation in present day context. You’re driving along a deserted back road. You’re all alone in the car. It’s late afternoon in January and it’s dark. There are no streetlights anywhere and the road is lined with thick woods on either side. Suddenly, you see a car off the side of the road and there is a man standing behind the car waving for you to stop. He’s obviously injured; it looks like there is blood on his shirt. What do you do?
Let’s add one more thing to this modern scenario. Recently you’ve read in the paper about a series of robberies and assaults that have occurred on this particular stretch of road. Do you stop?
All right, let’s go a little further with the scenario. You are driving to a wedding and you are dressed for the ceremony. If you stop, you’re probably going to get dirty trying to help the man. What do you do?
Since you have a cell phone, couldn’t you call for police help and keep going? After all, the police are trained to help in this kind of situation.
My brothers and sisters, are you the Priest, the Levite, or the Samaritan? Are you a neighbor to this man? The question becomes a whole lot more difficult when put it in the context of present day society. But the situation is not all that different from when Jesus told this parable.
You see the key to understanding this parable is not in the story itself. Nor is it in the response of the Lawyer. The key to understanding is in the very last line of the parable. Jesus asks the Lawyer, “Now which of these three do you think seemed to be a neighbor to him who fell among the robbers?”
And the Lawyer quite properly responds, “He who showed him mercy.”
You have to give the lawyer credit. He knew the correct response.
But then Jesus says the one thing that the lawyer –and we—tend not to hear clearly. And this is the key to the parable. Jesus says, “Go and do likewise.” He doesn’t say, “Go and do likewise unless your own life is in danger” or “Go and do likewise unless you’re dressed for a party” or “Go and do likewise unless you can get someone else to help.” He simply says, “Go and do likewise.” There is no caveat and no qualification to what Jesus is saying to us; just “Go and do likewise.”
What’s interesting here with this parable is that we don’t know how the Lawyer reacted to being told to “Go and do likewise.” Did he actually hear what he was being told or was he still hearing the praise he had received earlier when Jesus had said to him, “You have answered correctly. Do this, and you will live” (10:28). Praise often has a way of making us selectively deaf to anything else for a brief period of time. So, did he really hear what Jesus had finally said to him? Or was he still a bit puffed up by Jesus’ praise?
We have no way of knowing, because Luke doesn’t choose to tell us anything more about this parable or about the encounter with the Lawyer. Luke transitions directly into the story of Mary and Martha which is the Gospel for next week. So, we have no way of knowing whether or not this Lawyer went and did likewise throughout the rest of his life. However, we can take a look at how we hear what Jesus is saying to us.
Jesus asks, “Who was this man’s neighbor?” However, there is implied question that Jesus is also asking. To the lawyer—and to us—the answer to “Who was this man’s neighbor?” is obvious. I said earlier; taken on face value, this parable preaches itself. But, Jesus is also asking us, “Do you see your neighbor?”
“Do . . . you . . . see . . . your neighbor?” You see, it’s one thing to acknowledge—in theory—that you—that we—are neighbors to everyone else. It’s something else entirely to “see” your neighbor. You can’t be a neighbor unless you first see your neighbor.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King once said:
“The ultimate measure of a man
is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience,
but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.
The true neighbor will risk his position, his prestige, and even his life
for the welfare of others.
In dangerous valleys and hazardous pathways,
he will lift some bruised and beaten brother
to a higher and more noble life.”
Unless you “see” your neighbor, you cannot be a neighbor. And “seeing” your neighbor means loving that person as much as you love yourself. Here’s another part of Parable of the Good Samaritan that is not always abundantly clear.
That man who beaten and robbed? He was a Jew. We know that because of how his journey is described. He was going “down from Jerusalem to Jericho.” He was coming from the Temple and going home. Those two that ignored him? They were also Jews. But the man who stopped to help him was a Samaritan. Samaritans hated the Jews and the Jews hated the Samaritans. That hatred went back hundreds of years to the time of the Assyrian exile. The strange thing was that both the Jews and the Samaritans each practiced their own version of Judaism, and each thought the other was wrong. So they hated each other. They had no contact with each other if they could avoid it.
But here in this parable, the Samaritan SAW his neighbor and he LOVED him—despite their differences and the historical and cultural animosity.
So, when Jesus says, “Go and do likewise” to that lawyer—and to us—he means “Go and do likewise” for everyone; love everyone; accept everyone; welcome everyone—without any qualification. Just as Jesus opened his arms to save all, he’s telling us to open our arms and be healed with our neighbors.
Let us pray.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding, keep our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord and Savior who welcomes us all and tells us to do and do likewise. Amen.
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible
Copyright 2010 Daniel W. Brettell. Used by permission.