Who Is My Neighbor?

Meditation on Luke 10:25–37

First Presbyterian Church of Smithtown, NY

Pastor Karen Crawford

July 10, 2022

Link to live-streamed video: https://fb.watch/edw3JlGZJ8/

Long Islanders like our white picket fences and stone walls!

That’s my conclusion from talking walks in our St. James neighborhood. Decorative rocks line the streets on both sides, where the grass ends and pavement begins. I follow the rocks as I walk, noticing when one is missing, raised, or turned the wrong way.

At the end of my street a tall, wrought iron fence surrounds a large house. Wrought iron gates block the entrance and exit to the circular driveway.

I wonder, as I walk by, if the iron walls are for keeping people out or for keeping someone or something in? This reminds me of Robert Frost’s poem, “Mending Wall,” with that wonderful, memorable line, “Good fences make good neighbors.”

 “Mending Wall” begins,

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,

That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,

And spills the upper boulders in the sun;

And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.

The work of hunters is another thing:

I have come after them and made repair

Where they have left not one stone on a stone,

But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,

To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,

No one has seen them made or heard them made,

But at spring mending-time we find them there.

I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;

And on a day we meet to walk the line

And set the wall between us once again.

We keep the wall between us as we go.

To each the boulders that have fallen to each.

And some are loaves and some so nearly balls

We have to use a spell to make them balance:

‘Stay where you are until our backs are turned!’

We wear our fingers rough with handling them.

Oh, just another kind of out-door game,

One on a side. It comes to little more:

There where it is we do not need the wall:

He is all pine and I am apple orchard.

My apple trees will never get across

And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.

He only says, ‘Good fences make good neighbors.’

Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder

If I could put a notion in his head:

‘Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it

Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.

Before I built a wall I’d ask to know

What I was walling in or walling out,

And to whom I was like to give offense.”

We learn from Luke’s gospel today that there are all sorts of fences and walls in Jesus’ times. The kind Frost was talking about and the kind that divide people, born of prejudice, fear, and hatred. The two groups who are enemies in this passage are Jews and Samaritans, who are actually cousins, descendants, both of them, of the 12 tribes of Israel.

The set up for the Parable of the “Good” Samaritan is Jesus talking with an expert in religious law who wants to test him and trap him into saying something that will get him in trouble with the authorities.

I have heard that lawyers are trained to only ask questions in court that they already know the answers to. Is that true? The expert in religious law in Christ’s day thinks he already knows the answer to his question. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 

Jesus answers with a question of his own. This is how he teaches. He points to Scripture—debating what an expert in religious law would already know. “What is written in the law?” Jesus asks. “What do you read there?”

The lawyer’s confident answer combines two verses in different parts of the law.  Love God is from Deut. 6:5; love neighbor is from Leviticus 18:19. The order is important, and they are connected. First, we love God, and through our relationship with the Lord, we are empowered to love those whom God loves—our neighbors. All our neighbors. Everywhere.

Therefore, if we don’t love God, we don’t have the power to love others—especially the neighbors we may have been taught since childhood cannot be our friends.

The lawyer comes up with the correct answer, “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.”

Then Jesus answers the man’s question, “Do this,” he says, meaning, love the Lord your God and your neighbor as yourself, “and you will live.”

The lawyer isn’t ready to give up. “Wanting to justify himself” and his lack of love for certain people, he asks, “Who is my neighbor?” He expects Jesus to interpret Leviticus 19:18 to mean only “the sons and daughters of your own people.” When we keep reading to the end of the chapter, we discover that our neighbor isn’t just people from our own religion, country, culture, and extended family. Lev. 19:34 says, “The stranger who sojourns with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.”

***

Studying this parable this week, I began to see Christ in his work of mercy in the Good Samaritan. Was he talking about himself? Was he foreshadowing what is to come? He would be hated and rejected by his own—God who humbled himself and became human, like us, when we were lost and perishing in our sins. The Samaritan, like the Lord, is filled with compassion, binding up the wounds of the stranger, left for dead. He brings healing and wholeness through ordinary elements made holy in their divine use—the oil of anointing and wine of Communion.

The One born in a lowly stable because there was no room at the inn brings the wounded stranger on his own animal to a room in a Jewish inn, a place of safety, refuge, and comfort, prepared for him.

Bible scholar Kenneth Bailey points out that the Good Samaritan, by bringing the man to a Jewish inn, was risking his life to do so. “Putting the story into an American context around 1850,” he says, “suppose a Native American found a cowboy with two arrows in his back, placed the cowboy on his horse and rode into Dodge City. After checking into a room over the saloon, the man spent the night taking care of the cowboy. How would the people of Dodge City react to the Native American the following morning when he emerged from the saloon? Most Americans know that they would probably kill him, even though he had helped a cowboy. After the Samaritan paid his bill, he had yet to escape the town. Was there a crowd awaiting him outside the inn? Was he beaten or killed? We do not know…(why the Samaritan exposed himself to potential violence.)” (Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, 296).

The wounded man has done nothing to help himself. He is powerless to save himself; he has nothing of value—no clothing, possessions, money. He hasn’t spoken—doesn’t ask for help. Doesn’t thank the Good Samaritan. He has done nothing to deserve mercy or generosity—and yet, it is offered to him, as the Lord’s grace is lavishly offered to all.

The Samaritan— Jesus—gives a large deposit and pledges to pay the full price for his room and care when he returns. Do you wonder why he leaves the wounded stranger after a day? And why is it the innkeeper’s job to care for the injured man?  

Could it be that we the Church are the innkeeper? The Lord invites us into the work of repair for our wounded world. God chooses to be co-creators with us because of the Lord’s desire to be in relationship with us. Our Creator and Redeemer uses wounded healers like us who trust in the One who is Love. The healing, transforming work begun by Christ will be finished in us on the day he comes again! In the meantime, in this in-between time, it is our work to be done, with the Spirit’s help.

In binding wounds, showing mercy, and the generous giving of ourselves, we are strengthened to hold the things of this world more loosely. The injured man had and needed no possessions in order to possess everything–life everlasting with the Lord. In Christ, he had all that he needed.

In responding to our call to care for the world, we become more eternally minded. We start to care less about the accumulation of things. We can’t take it with us, can we? Sometimes, having too much stuff is a burden. If we have a bigger house and yard, we will only have to erect taller fences with iron gates that wall in and wall out to protect what we own.

In our loving of God and neighboring, we come to see the Other, the Stranger, as God’s beloved child. Friends, in doing this, we will live.

Good fences don’t make good neighbors, though every spring, we mend the wall together.

One day, we will see our Lord face to face. Love will wipe our tears away.

“Well done, good and faithful servants,” the Savior will say. “Enter into the joy I have prepared.”

Let us pray.

Holy One, we learn so much from the teachings of Your Son. Thank you for the example of the Good Samaritan, and the lesson that your costly love has no walls or boundaries. Give us eyes to see every stranger without judgement or fear, your beloved child, like us. Thank you for your love for us and desire to be in relationship with us, and your great patience with us when we fail to love. Thank you for the gracious gift of eternal life in Christ, something we don’t deserve and can’t earn, but is offered to us, nevertheless. Empower us to co-create with you, dear Creator, to be agents of change as we ourselves are changed by you. Stir us to love you with all our heart, soul, mind and might and our neighbors as ourselves. Amen.

Published by karenpts

I am the pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Smithtown, New York on Long Island. Come and visit! We want to share God’s love and grace with you and encourage you on your journey of faith. I have served Presbyterian congregations in Minnesota, Florida and Ohio since my ordination in 2011. I am a 2010 graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary and am working on a doctor of ministry degree with Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. I am married to Jim and we have 5 grown children and two grandchildren in our blended family. We are parents to fur babies, Liam, an orange tabby cat, and Rory, a standard poodle.

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