How Are You a Neighbor? (Fifth Sunday after Pentecost)

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Almost from the very beginning, Christians have referred to the parable in today’s Gospel reading as the parable of the “Good Samaritan.”  This is in spite of the fact that Jesus does NOT use the word “good” to describe the Samaritan.  And moreover, the phrase “good Samaritan” is really a slur – in our day, it would be like saying, “the good terrorist.”  Pretty much no Jew in Jesus’ day thought any Samaritan was particularly good or praiseworthy.  And there were a variety of ethnic, cultural and religious reasons why this animosity existed.

But it’s also the case that Samaritans also did NOT like the Jews!  The general disdain was a two way street.  And you may recall from a couple of Sundays ago that the disciples entered a town of the Samaritans on their way to Jerusalem.  The Samaritans threw them out, because the Samaritans didn’t like Jews any more than Jews liked Samaritans.

And so of course, when Jesus tells this story – and makes a Samaritan the hero of the story – it’s shocking.  And that shock effect is probably one of the reasons it was remembered.

But 2000 years later, as we read the story we call the “Good Samaritan”, we’re not shocked at all.  We think that of course, this guy is a good guy.  And moreover, he’s probably a really nice guy.  He’s just been ethnically stereotyped.  And maybe even he and the poor guy on the road were destined to become good friends.

But that would probably not have been how Jesus’ first listeners would have imagined this guy.  Not only did they not like Samaritans, but they also knew most Samaritans did NOT like them.  And far from thinking, “gee, maybe this Samaritan is going to be different”, they would have thought, “why would somebody who doesn’t like us be willing to help one of us?”

And indeed, that seems to be one of the keys to understanding this parable.  And so for a moment, let’s consider this story from the point of view of Jesus’ first listeners.  Let’s suppose that this Samaritan is NOT inclined to like the guy in the ditch.  He has no personal warm fuzzy feelings for the victim of the robbers, or for Jewish people in general.  He is not the “good” guy we usually imagine.

And yet, it’s this Samaritan – who doesn’t really like the half-dead guy – who acts as a “neighbor.”  And if the Samaritan really doesn’t like this guy in the first place, then this story seems to imply that being a neighbor means:

  • Focusing on the need of the other person, not necessarily the person himself or herself – initially, like the priest and the Levite, the Samaritan can only tell that there’s a naked, half-dead guy by the side of the road.  He may presume he’s Jewish, but he doesn’t really know.  Yet, he doesn’t have “compassion” because of the person, but because the of the need.  And that’s actually what the word means in Greek – it’s about being moved because of the situation, not because you like the person or because the person is worthy of your help.  The Samaritan, as neighbor, focuses on the need, even if, as is likely, he doesn’t know, and wouldn’t probably like, this person…!
  • Disregarding your own reputation – perhaps one of the reasons that Jesus makes the Samaritan the hero is that any of the others – the priest, the Levite (or even the “Israelite”, who would have been the natural third person in these stories) would have been people who would be praised by others for helping.  “What a good person they were to help out a fellow Jew in need!”  Moreover, the Samaritan, who probably doesn’t particularly like this guy, would be just as happy if none of his friends found out about his “good deed”…!  Perhaps ironically, the Samaritan acts as neighbor precisely because he figures nobody what will know what’s he done…
  • Using what you have to help – probably both the priest and the Levite had the simple things the Samaritan had – oil, wine, and a couple of coins.  All travelers would have had those things. But perhaps the others thought, “he’s really beyond my help – he’s half dead already.” And probably many of Jesus’ first listeners had seen situations like that, and they were right – the person would have been beyond help.  Often, those experiences cause people to simply walk on by.  But the Samaritan, as neighbor, uses what he has to help, not because he has more optimism for the victim’s survival, but simply because he has the opportunity to try…

And Jesus’ point in using the shocking character of the Samaritan to become the hero of the story is NOT to get his fellow Jews to re-think their views of Samaritans (although he may want that as well)!  Rather, he uses this story to twist the question!

You may recall that the story started when the lawyer asked Jesus “who is my neighbor?”  That is, who is the other guy?  And which other guys count as my neighbor?

But as Jesus concludes the story, he twists the question around.  Jesus asks, “which person was a neighbor?”  That is to ask, “who are YOU going to be as a neighbor?” 

And that’s really the question Jesus is still asking.  Who are we as neighbors?  And how do we live as neighbors?

And sometimes, we also get hung up with this “good” stuff!  How can I be a neighbor unless I’m really “good”?  What if I don’t feel warm and fuzzy towards those who need my help?  What if I don’t even like them now, and won’t later on either?

In many ways, Jesus’ parable tells us those things are beside the point.  Instead, for us also, the point of living as the neighbors God calls us to be is really about:

  • Focusing on the needs of others, not their personal attributes – that’s why we can help people we don’t even know, and won’t ever know.  And it’s why it’s possible and sometimes even necessary to help people we don’t like.  It’s not about them, but about their legitimate needs.  In the end, the lawyer (who can’t even bring himself to say the word “Samaritan”) says the neighbor is the “one who showed mercy.”  And mercy, by definition, is something given to somebody who doesn’t “deserve” it…
  • Disregarding our own reputation – “what’s in it for me” is a powerful force in our lives, but it can sometimes cause us to move on to the kind of “helping” which will earn praise, acclaim, or at least make us feel good about ourselves at the end of the day.  But being a neighbor often means doing the right thing even when you’d just as soon nobody found out about it…!
  • Being willing to use what we have to help, instead of waiting for somebody else or just complaining about the problem – the Samaritan in the story could help one guy.  He probably couldn’t have helped 10 others that day, and he didn’t have any way of solving the deeper problem of bandits picking off travelers on the road to Jericho (which was, in fact, a common problem back then.)  Faced with those kinds of dilemmas, many people today throw up their hands or simply post righteous indignation on Social Media.  But being a neighbor often means simply taking what you do have – even a few school supplies or cans of food – and doing something yourself to address the need…

In the final analysis, one of the most shocking things about this parable is that the Samaritan is actually the character who most emulates God.  In Jesus, God has become a neighbor to us by focusing on our needs, not our worthiness.  In Jesus, God has become a neighbor to us by disregarding his own need for praise, and emptying himself on a Cross.  And in Jesus, God has become a neighbor to us by taking what he has and using it to help us.

And therefore, the point of being a “neighbor” is not to earn the love of God, which we’ve already got.  (Or, like the lawyer, because we somehow think that’s how we get into heaven.)  Instead, Jesus calls us to be neighbors so that we can be people who are instruments of God in the lives of others, and so that God can work through us to be the neighbors others need.