July 10, 2022

“A Good Neighbor”

(From Luke 10: 25-37)

An expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” 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.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” But wanting to vindicate himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and took off, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came upon him, and when he saw him he was moved with compassion. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, treating them with oil and wine. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 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.’ Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

     State Farm Insurance Company used to say that they were “like a good neighbor,” because they were there when they were needed, offering their clients help through coverage in their times of need.  I recall the commercial of a house with a tree that had fallen onto and damaged its roof.  The State Farm agent assured the anxious homeowner that they were covered and that the roof repairs could begin right away.  Now, we have Jake from State Farm, who gives his clients such great insurance coverage and rates that they give him free pizzas, and mega-steaks as a token of their deep appreciation.  Jake from State Farm takes the time to listen to his client’s needs and to understand them; and he then meets these needs with policies at a fair and reasonable in cost.   Jake is like a good neighbor to his clients-he takes good care of them.    

    In our lesson from the Gospel of Luke today, Jesus spoke on the topic of neighbors.  As he was teaching, a lawyer stood up and asked him, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  Jesus asked the man to share his understanding of the Jewish law on this matter.  The man replied, “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 replied, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” But the man was not satisfied with this discussion, and he retorted, “And who is my neighbor?”

      Jesus had a very keen understanding of human nature.  He knew how defensive folks can be, and how easy it is to rationalize our behaviors and to defend our personal choices. That is why, when the expert in Jewish law asked Jesus the question “And who is my neighbor?” in response to their previous discussion, Jesus chose not to give him a direct and formal answer.  That would have opened the window of opportunity for a debate over the interpretation of various points of the law.  The lawyer was testing Jesus about the law, hoping to narrow and define the scope of those people to be classified and treated under Jewish law as neighbors to his advantage. Jesus could have run off a laundry list of people from surrounding territories and nations, people of differing social and economic statuses, including in his list those with differing beliefs and traditions than the lawyer, all of whom represented his neighbors.  Then, that would most likely have placed this man even further on the defense, for the scriptures tell us that he was already seeking to justify and vindicate himself before Jesus.  As an expert in the law, he likely would have found some legal loopholes for many of the people Jesus would characterize as his neighbors.  We have all experienced how laws and legal loopholes go hand in hand. The debate over points of Jewish law, and their accompanying loopholes, would have begun.  So, Jesus chose instead to tell all who were gathered around him that day a story.  After all, who doesn’t like to hear a good story?  Yet, woven into the fabric of the story’s content would lie its deeper meaning, the true answer to the lawyer’s probing question to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

     Like any good story, Jesus’ story was about people and events that were common, relevant, and meaningful to his listeners.  They were largely comprised of his Disciples and followers, as well as some people, like this lawyer and some of the Jewish rulers, who had their questions and doubts about him.  To suit this audience, Jesus told them a story about someone who proved himself to be a good neighbor, even under some very adverse life circumstances.  The story goes like this:

A man was traveling on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho.  This was a difficult and dangerous route of about 17-18 miles; one that was notoriously known for the highwaymen who lay in wait along the road to beat and rob defenseless travelers on their journey to and from Jerusalem.  Jesus’ listeners would have grasped the danger and intrigue that were inherent in this trip.  The man in the story fell victim to the thieves that awaited him, and they robbed and brutally beat him, leaving him on the road half-dead.

     As it happened, a priest was also traveling on the road.  When he came upon the man, the priest avoided him by passing him on the other side of the road, so that he could continue on his journey.   A Levite was also traveling on this road.  Males of the Levite tribe provided assistance to the Jewish priests during temple worship.  Like the priest before him, the Levite saw the man lying on the road, and he also passed by on the other side to avoid him.  Finally, a Samaritan man who was traveling this road came upon the man.  He would have been seen by Jesus’ listeners as an unlikely advocate for the man who fell among the thieves, for Samaritans and Jews were bitter enemies.  Devout Jews would travel miles out of their way to avoid traveling through Samaritan land.  Yet, in Jesus’ story, it was the Samaritan man who saw the injured man lying on the road.  The scriptures tell us the Samaritan had human compassion for the injured man, even though he was a Jew.   So he stopped to help him, bound up the wounds, and placed the man on his own animal to take him to an inn and further care for him.  The next day, the Samaritan paid the innkeeper to care for the injured man until he returned, offering to reimburse him any additional cost at that time. 

     When the story had ended, Jesus asked the question “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”  The lawyer replied, “The one who showed him mercy.”  “Go and do likewise”, Jesus told the lawyer and the group that was listening to him.  There were no legal loopholes to be found in Jesus’ story; no easy outs or points of debate for the expert in the law.  There was only one choice to be made; either to ignore or to help another person who was in need.  Jesus asked the lawyer and the listeners to determine which person had done the right thing in his story.  The answer was plain, clear and obvious to them-the one who helped the injured man.  “Go and do likewise” was Jesus reply; for that is what it means to be a good neighbor.

     “Go and do likewise” was Jesus’ message.  Act like a neighbor whether or not you feel particularly neighborly toward another person.  The scripture lesson does not tell us that the Samaritan ever personally liked the Jewish man he helped, for he was a Jew, a wounded and dying Jew. What the story of the Good Samaritan does show us how he showed love and compassion to someone in need.  The Samaritan showed love to someone he did not personally like.  He was a good neighbor.  “Go and do likewise.”  We have become so self-gratification conscious as a people living in the world today.  We allow “I don’t feel like it” to be our response to so many opportunities in life that we do not fully understand, or to those that take us out of our cozy comfort zone.  Church, we must stretch ourselves to learn and grow into the image of our Lord, Jesus.  We must be open to receiving new experiences and to welcoming new and diverse people into our lives if we truly desire to heed Jesus’s command- “Go and do likewise.”  That is how we will become good neighbors.  It is easy to judge what we do not know, and those we do not know because they are different than us.  The headlines, even our local ones, are filled with the accounts of acts of violence perpetrated upon those who are different, who look or act, or believe differently than we do.  Many of our perceived differences are only seen on the surface, and if we take the time to delve deeper, we will find more common bonds than points of separation and difference.

     Last weekend, I had the privilege of seeing the RAHAB ministry in action up close and personal.  Peter drove me to the center to drop off some items to get an early start on our summer clothing drive.  While I was there, a women on the staff stopped into the center.  She had a praise report to share.  She had met a woman dealing in prostitution just a few blocks away.   The woman from RAHAB took the time to stop and talk with and check on the woman on the street.  She prayed with the woman right there on the street, and she offered to bring her a meal—no judgement, no strings, just love.  The woman on the street was so moved that she accepted the offer of the meal.  In conversation, she then shared her desire to get away from the life she was living.  So, the RAHAB staff put together a meal, and then they went to pick up the woman and bring her into the safety of their shelter.  It was the love this woman was shown by the woman from RAHAB that broke through to her place of need.  I do not know all of the details of the events that followed, but I do know this—the gal from RAHAB proved to be a good neighbor to the woman who had fallen victim to circumstances of human sexual exploitation.  The woman from RAHAB did not judge the morality of the situation, nor did she look for legal loopholes to avoid dealing with this difficult and complicated situation; she was simply there to offer kindness to someone who was alone and in need.  She was simply being a good neighbor.  In the words of our Lord, Jesus, “Go and do likewise.”   Amen.