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Who Are You A Neighbor To?

Back many years ago, many, many years ago, when my children were young, we would get in the van, load it up with camping equipment, and head to the mountains of Colorado or New Mexico in August. I know to get out of Texas in August.

I remember one summer, as we were getting in to the mountains, and we were weaving around and going up and down, we were almost there, and the children were getting increasingly antsy about getting out. We topped a hill, and on the way down, there on the side of the road, a man was lying, not moving.

I passed him by, drove ahead a couple hundred yards or so, pulled over, stopped, got out of the car, told Kay, my wife, to lock the car and not get out. I walked back up to see if he was OK.

I got 10 feet away, calling him, and he stood up. As soon as we started talking, I realized that he was mentally disabled, and that this was the way he tried to get rides. It was  the middle of nowhere. I said, “Well, I don’t have any room in the car. Here’s some money.” And then I said, “Don’t do this. Don’t. This is not safe for you.”

Every once in a while, I think about him. I thought about him a lot this week, as I read and meditated and prayed over this Gospel passage of “The Good Samaritan.”

A lawyer, a teacher of the law, a teacher of the Torah comes to Jesus, trying to trick Him. “How do I get into eternal life?” This was not a trick question, because this was the kind of question that rabbis and disciples, rabbi to rabbi, debated all the time.

But he was trying to trick Jesus into say something that he could grab hold of to use against Him. He was testing Jesus to see if he could find a weak spot in the argument.

None of us do that, do we? When we’re in debate or discussion, we listen with our whole heart and ears, don’t we? We’re not looking for a weak link in someone’s argument? We’re not looking for a hole. We’re not looking for something to use against them, are we?  Yes, I think this is what we do.

Jesus turns it around and says, “You tell me what you think?” “Love the Lord, your God. Love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus says, “Yes, you got it. That’s it.”

Then we’re told that he says, trying to justify himself, in other words, make himself look good, get himself out of the hole that he’s just dug, he wants find a way to turn this around, “Well, who’s my neighbor?” Again, a legitimate question within the dialog of rabbi to disciple.

In most Judaism, your neighbor was an Israelite. There were clear boundaries about who your neighbor was. One more time, Jesus agrees with the teaching, but He reinterprets it. In fact, He not only reinterprets it, but He is the one who turns the moment around. Instead of saying, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus wants to ask, “Who are you a neighbor to?”

He begins the parable of The Good Samaritan by talking about a priest and a Levite. Why a priest? He and the Levite are symbols of the faith, they are seen as holy men.

A priest is going down from Jerusalem to Jericho. The Levite does the same. Probably their rotation at the temple is over, and they’re going home, or they’re going to Jericho for business.

The road from Jerusalem to Jericho was a very important road. For centuries, it had been used by armies, as trade routes, as the way to go from north to south. Even though Jericho is north of Jerusalem, you always go up to Jerusalem, or you go down from Jerusalem. Even if you’re headed north by compass, you still say, “I’m going up to Jerusalem,” or, “down from Jerusalem.”

They were going down from Jerusalem to Jericho. We’re not told why, but we also know this. That road from Jerusalem to Jericho was called “the way of blood.” There’s a little canyon there called the Valley of Darkness.  It was known to be full of robbers, muggers.

Why? Because it was a trade route, because so many people went back and forth ‑‑ merchants, businessmen, caravans. You knew it was dangerous, and you took care.

We don’t know why the priest or the Levite walked by the man. Maybe they were tired. They’d been working. They wanted to get home to their families. Maybe they were afraid it was a trick, and they didn’t want to get caught. Maybe they were going to an important meeting. Maybe they thought, “Well, that man’s probably dead, and I can’t touch him, because that would make me ritually unclean.”

We don’t know why they did. Jesus doesn’t say why they did, and He doesn’t condemn them. He just says, “They walked by,” and we know what that means.

How often do we rationalize not doing what we know God is asking of us? How many times do we find a way of explaining away why we don’t do a good thing? “Too busy. Too tired. On my way to work.”

Life is full of people lying on the side of the road. This has been a very difficult week for us. We know in our own hearts that because this week has been so hard for us we are tempted to walk by, to ignore, to go around. We pretend not to see…

Jesus then lifts up the Samaritan. Remember, the Samaritans and the Jews are at enmity. They hate each other. They’ve done horrible things to each other for centuries.

We just heard in the Gospel earlier how the Samaritans rejected Jesus. James and John wanted to call fire from heaven down on them, and He says, “No.” Jesus rebukes them.

Samaritans are hated. Think of who you hate. Think of who your enemy is. Think of who you believe is outside of your neighbor. The odds are that that’s who Jesus would use if He were telling this parable to you. Jesus is reminding us that we are all created in the image of God.

The Samaritan bends down, anoints, and applies unction to the wounds of this man. He picks him up and takes him to a place that would continue to care for him so that he goes then on with his business. Unlike the others, he stops.

This week, we’ve been reminded of people lying on the side of the road, literally and figuratively. We have seen them. People in pain. People wounded. What do we do? We can find all sorts of reasons to walk by, to ignore, to explain why we do not show compassion.

But Jesus is trying to tell those who would be His followers that there is a different world, a response to the wounded and that this Kingdom of God we belong to is meant to move us toward that peaceable kingdom. That we are called to pay attention to and to care for those who are lying on the side of the road, those who are wounded, physically, emotionally, spiritually, mentally.

We are called to live out that Kingdom of God. Doctors heal. Police protect and serve. Fire fighters protect and seek to save us, (sometimes getting a cat out of a tree).

If this is what they do, we as Christians are called to be people of grace, mercy, and love. We are to be a people who seek to heal and bind the wounds of those who need to be cared for.

Yes, this is a week that has been very wearying. In a world that tries to tell us why we should ignore, take sides, why we should walk by, why we should do other than what Jesus Christ tells us to do. We can come up with all kinds of reasons not to do what Jesus asks. I know I do.

But Jesus shows us what it means to live reaching and working for the peaceable kingdom in a world that doesn’t want that, but also for a world that longs for that. We are called to be a source of unction, of anointing and healing to all people. That is who we were created to be. We are not created to walk by or to choose to ignore.

Jesus asked the teacher, the lawyer, and He asks us, “Whose neighbor are you?” and we don’t get to pick and choose.

I’m going to close with this quote from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “On the one hand, we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside. But that will only be an initial act. One day, we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”

Amen.