Who Is My Neighbor?

Sermon Preached at St. Mary's Episcopal Church
Stone Harbor, NJ
July 10 and 11, 2010
Proper 10 C - Luke 10:25-37
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We live in a litigious society. If you don’t believe me, just Google the phrase “have you been injured in an accident” and see what you find. I found 60,400 results most of which seemed to be links to lawyers and law firms from around the country. To quickly narrow the search, add New Jersey” to your search and you’ll have just under 10,000 results to sort through. We live in a country that is so fearful of - or perhaps obsessed with - lawsuits that we even have laws about how to be a good neighbor. Consider New Jersey P.L. 1963, c.140 – the so-called Good Samaritan Act. According to this act:
while a person is under no obligation to “provide emergency assistance at the scene of an accident, a person who chooses to do so may be held civilly liable if he or she is found to have acted in a negligent manner.
To encourage individuals to render assistance at accident scenes . . . New Jersey’s ‘Good Samaritan Act’ provides immunity to (1) any individual, including health care professionals; (2) the members of volunteer first aid, rescue and ambulance squads and (3) municipal, county and State law enforcement officers, who in good faith render emergency care at the scene of an accident or in an emergency or who, in the case of volunteer members of first aid, rescue and ambulance squads, transport the victims of an accident or emergency to a hospital or other facility for treatment.”(a)  
We are a nation obsessed with laws. So, you and I should be quite comfortable with the beginning of today’s Gospel reading. A lawyer asks Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus, knowing the man is a lawyer, responds, “What is written in the law?” In other words, “you are the lawyer, you tell me? What does the law say?” And, sure enough, the lawyer responds with the law as it is written in the great law books of the time - Leviticus chapter 19, verse 18 and Deuteronomy chapter 6, verse 5: “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 your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus affirms the lawyer and adds, “do this and you will live.” I suppose the story could end here and we’d have a simple reminder of good Judeao-Christian ethics. Obey the law.

But the story doesn’t end here, does it? No, it continues with the lawyer asking yet another question, “and who is my neighbor?” “Who is my neighbor?” And this is the question upon which the entire pericope turns. It is the climax of the story. Because the lawyer’s perspective on “neighbor” and Jesus’ perspective on “neighbor” are very different.

In the book of Leviticus, where it is written, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” the context is very clear that “neighbor” means a fellow-Israelite. In fact, the full expression is “You shall not take vengeance or bear any grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD” (b)  And this law is placed in the midst of a series of laws on what it means to live a life of holiness - to be God’s chosen people, set apart from the other nations. The lawyer understands what it means to be a good neighbor from the perspective of these holiness laws. And now we know that the lawyer is trying to trap Jesus, trying to publically accuse Jesus of violating the law. Just last Sunday we heard the story of Jesus sending the seventy out in pairs to cure the sick and to proclaim the kingdom of God. In that story, Jesus tells the seventy, when you arrive in a town, do not move about from house to house but instead “Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide. . . . eat what is set before you.” Eat whatever is provided?! Really?! From the lawyer’s perspective, this man, this Jesus, who claims God’s authority for himself, who gives that authority to his followers, has no understanding of the holiness code at all. He is a teacher who does not know the law – the very basics of the faith!

Jesus is prepared. And, as he does so often, he tells a story. This time the story of a man who has been left for dead on the side of the road by a band of robbers. Soon, a priest comes down the same road. But when he sees the man, he crosses to the other side. Likewise, a Levite, when he sees the half-dead man lying there, he crosses to the other side.

Let’s pause for a moment to consider how Jesus’ audience might have heard the story up to this point. In the first place, they would certainly be very sympathetic to the victim at the side of the road. It could have been any one of them. The passageway between Jerusalem and Jericho “was notoriously dangerous. It descended nearly 3,300 feet in 17 miles. The road ran through narrow passes at points, and the terrain offered easy hiding for the bandits who terrorized travelers” (c).  And so, Jesus’ audience, upon hearing this story, can immediately sympathize with the plight of this traveler – an “innocent victim of random violence and brutality” (d). 

And yet, in light of the lawyer’s challenge to Jesus, this audience now has the holiness code at the back of their minds. Has the law of purity caused these religious men – a priest and a Levite – to cross to the other side of the road? Is the threat of contact with the blood of another human being – or worse, the threat of contacting a dead body - such an abomination so as to require the utter disregard for a person in need – to require, in fact, that one cross to the other side of the road? Perhaps. But I wonder if the ancient laws of hospitality – also a part of the ancient legal code - would have played a part as well? Early nomadic tribes needed assurance of safety when passing through foreign tribes and the best guarantee of safety was to offer that same assurance within one’s own tribe. Deuteronomy reminds us that “the great God, mighty and awesome . . . executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and . . . loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (e).  To be sure, the Jews in Jesus’ time were no longer nomads; however, the laws which came from this period – whether pertaining to ritual purity and holiness or hospitality and neighborly relations - still applied.

So we can safely assume that the listeners would have had great sympathy for the victim at the side of the road; but it is less clear how they might respond to the action – or lack of action – on the part of the priest and the Levite.

Back to the story. . .

Along this same road, comes a Samaritan. In the second century BC, the Jewish high priest John Hyrcanus I destroyed the Samaritan sanctuary on Mt. Gerizim where the Hebrew patriarchs had worshipped God. And while this was not the beginning of the disregard the Jews and Samaritans had for one another, it certainly intensified the hatred (f). So, as Jesus’ tells the story, you can imagine perhaps some booing or hissing in the audience as the Samaritan is introduced for the first time. As the audience quiets down, Jesus says, “when [the Samaritan] saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds . . . Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him.” As Jesus ends the story, he turns his attention again to the lawyer and says, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” The lawyer responds, “The one who showed him mercy.”

When you and I hear this story today, it is easy to put ourselves in the place of the Samaritan. We are Christians. Of course, we would stop and help the stranger at the side of the road. But a careful reading of the story today and a look at our focus on laws suggests to me that we might learn more if we put ourselves in the place of that early first century lawyer asking Jesus, “who is my neighbor?” Because the answer Jesus gives does not, in the end, redefine who our neighbors are – for the law is clear that even strangers in our land are our neighbors – but instead redefines what it means to shower our neighbors with love. The answer Jesus gives suggests that knowing the law is not enough. The answer Jesus gives suggests that obeying the law is sometimes not enough. The answer Jesus gives stretches us to an uncomfortable place where we have to consider whether the law sometimes get in the way of our doing the right thing, whether the law sometimes becomes an excuse to protect us from doing the right thing, or whether the law sometimes shields us from even seeing an opportunity to do the right thing.

Jesus calls the lawyer and each of us to see the world in a new way – to re-imagine the world.
  • Jesus calls us to imagine a world in which our enemy – whether that is the Samaritan on the road to Jericho or the terrorist in Afghanistan, Iraq or Pakistan – can becomes one’s teacher. 
  • Jesus calls us to imagine a world in which mercy wins over legalism every time – so that we don’t need to ask if we are safe under the law – whether that is the law of holiness or a “Good Samaritan Law” - because the love of Christ will naturally spill out of our lives into all that we do. 
  • Jesus calls us to imagine a world in which we choose to stay on the same side of the street as the wounded, the sick, the outcast so that we can purposefully touch the broken places, work to make them whole, and, in the process, find ourselves to be healed, renewed, and forever changed.

(a) Extract from NJ law: P.L.1963, c.140 (C.2A:62A-1 et seq.).
(b) Leviticus 19:18.
(c) R. Alan Culpepper, “The Gospel of Luke: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections” in The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, Volume IX (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), p. 229.
(d) Culpepper, p. 229.
(e) Deuteronomy 10:17-19
(f) Raymond E. Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament, (New York: Doubleday, 1997), p. 57, 78