Who Is My Neighbor?

 

Meditation on Luke 10:25-37

The Presbyterian Church of Coshocton

July 14, 2019

 

mercy

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 26 He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” 27 He answered, “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.” 28 And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”

      29 But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” 30 Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32 So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ 36 Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” 37 He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

***

It’s another beautiful day in Coshocton! Jim and I have our air conditioning restored, so it is comfortable at 1626 Marion Drive, even when it is hot and humid outside. Actually, I was cold last night and was wearing a sweater in the house!!

More good news: I am enjoying my daily walks. Are you following me on Facebook? I post photos of lovely homes and yards that I pass as I am walking. Some friends respond by telling me who lives there. People really know the neighborhood! I also post pictures of flowers, birds, the occasional bunny, and pets that come up to greet me, such as a little black and white dog named Lily on Buena Vista and a grey, striped tabby cat with white paws on Marion.

I am happy to see church members as I walk in my neighborhood. Saw Kirsten and Anne and Lew on Monday. Saw Barb and Ari eating ice cream cones on their front steps Friday night. Others have walked with me for part of the way–Lisa Thompson, Linda Magness, and Dolores Millward with her dog Callie. I hope that more of you may want to walk with me, too.

Most of the time, I talk to strangers. My smile and wave often lead to curious questions—“Who are you? Where do you live?”—and some sharing of stories.

For that hour of walking, I let go of the problems of the day and have no other agenda except spiritual, mental, and physical well-being, and keeping alert to anyone who might want to talk and/or walk with me. This is my way of being more intentional about reaching out to my neighbors and seeking to be known and available to help people in need.

***

Jesus is ever patient with the expert in religious law in our reading in Luke 10. The man is trying to trap him into saying a word or phrase that can be misconstrued and used against him. He asks a seemingly innocent question.

“What must I do to inherit eternal life?” he asks. The question is flawed. Can anyone do anything to inherit something? An inheritance is a gift one receives after a relative or friend dies.

The subject of eternal life in First Century Judaism is a hotly debated issue. Everyone is talking about it. So Jesus asks the lawyer what he thinks about it. “What is written in the law? What do you read there?”

The lawyer quotes Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18, essentially, “Love the Lord your God and your neighbor as yourself.”

Jesus answers, “You are correct. Do this—hold to these standards of loving God and neighbor and you will have eternal life.”

What’s the problem with what Jesus tells the lawyer? As Paul says in Romans 7, the problem isn’t with the law of God. The problem is that we aren’t able to keep it. “ I do not understand my own actions,” Paul says. “For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. But, in fact, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.”

The lawyer isn’t finished with his questions. He wants to justify himself. To be justified in biblical language means to be granted the status of one whom God accepts as one stands before God. He believes that he can satisfy the law’s requirements through his own goodness and intellect.

He asks Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” He is counting on a narrow definition of   the neighbors whom God’s people are told to love. Leviticus 19:18 may seem to support his assumption, saying, “‘Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.” The context of “love your neighbor” is “your own people.” But reading on to Leviticus 19:34, we find a broader definition of neighbor. “The alien or stranger who sojourns with you shall be to you as the citizen or native among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.”

Then, Jesus tells a parable, a spiritual teaching device that draws from images, attitudes, and real-life situations in his world. In the Parable of the Good Samaritan, robbers attack, strip and beat a man traveling the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. The assumption is the man is Jewish. They leave him for dead. Who is the first to find him? A priest. This is a hereditary position; the priesthood is a wealthy and elite class in Jewish society. If the wounded man were a Jew, the priest would be duty bound to help the man. But if he were already dead, then the priest would be ceremonially defiled if he touched him and would have to go back to Jerusalem and undergo a weeklong process of purification. It would affect his family and servants, and hold up the distribution to the poor. The priest, afraid to take the risk of becoming defiled, passes the man on the other side of the road, leaving him to die.

Next comes the Levite, who serves as an assistant to the priests. Since a priest in front of him has passed the man by, the Levite, seeing him, could also pass by in good conscience and not help the wounded man. Besides, if he rode into Jericho with the wounded man, he would be insulting the priest, who neglected his duties.

A third person comes along. Jesus’ audience is expecting this person to be a Jewish layman who will be the hero of the story, to help a fellow Jew in trouble. Not a Samaritan, a hated outsider! Those hearing the story would rather hear that a Jewish man would reach out and show compassion to a Samaritan than how a Samaritan helped a Jew. We get an idea of just how much the disciples hated Samaritans in chapter 9, after a Samaritan village refuses to receive Jesus. And James and John ask, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” But Jesus turns and rebukes them.

Kenneth Bailey, a professor of Middle Eastern New Testament Studies at an ecumenical seminary in Jerusalem, says that the Samaritan risks his own life to transport the wounded man to an inn within Jewish territory. A Samaritan wouldn’t be safe in a Jewish town with a wounded Jewish man strapped to the back of his riding animal. This may stir the community to take vengeance on him, even if he has saved the life of a Jew.

In the final scene of the parable, it is the following day.  The Samaritan gives the innkeeper two denarii, which would cover the bill for food and lodging for at least a week or two, so the wounded man would not be sold as a slave for not paying his bill, which was common practice. What the parable doesn’t say is if the Samaritan survived after he paid the bill. “Was there a crowd awaiting him outside the inn?” Bailey asks. “Was he beaten or killed?” We are left wondering.
And Jesus never answers the question, “Who is my neighbor?”

He answers a better one that the lawyer never asked. “What does it mean to become a neighbor?

      For being a neighbor has nothing to do with religion, ethnicity, language, or even geography. A neighbor is one who loves by showing mercy, being willing to risk one’s own life to save even an enemy.

Jesus says, “Go and do likewise.”

***

In this very familiar passage, sometimes preachers will ask us to put ourselves in the story. Are we feeling beaten and wounded in body and spirit, helpless and hopeless, longing for a compassionate neighbor to respond to our need?

Are we living in fear, like the priest or the Levite, allowing our concern for our own personal risk keep us from answering the call to love our neighbors and show mercy to those in need?

Are we like the lawyer, trying to find a way to justify ourselves? Looking to earn or achieve what is a free gift of eternal life, offered to all people, through the mercy and sacrifice of Jesus Christ?

Or are we ready to follow Jesus, who, like the good Samaritan, was the hated outsider, giving his own life to reveal the goodness and mercy of God.

The parable is for all Christ’s followers, who would like to be excused from loving and forgiving the people we struggle to love. The parable is for us, who, seeking to justify ourselves, might ask, “Who is my neighbor?” when a better question is, “How do we become a neighbor?”

By showing love and mercy, by being willing to take personal risks to help another.

Jesus says, “Go and do likewise.”

 

Let us pray.

Holy One, thank you for calling us your children, for forgiving us for our selfish ways, for not always wanting to help our neighbors and, in doing so, reveal your love and glory. Thank for your mercy and compassion for sinners and for sending your Son to die for our sins when we could not, not matter how hard we tried, justify ourselves or make ourselves right with you. Help us, Lord, to become good neighbors, to reach out right where we live and seek to help people in need. Give us courage, Lord, and strength to “Go and do likewise.” In Christ we pray. Amen.

 

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