07/14/2019: Neighbor in Need

NEIGHBOR IN NEED

Luke 10: 25-37
A sermon by Thomas R. McKibbens
July 14, 2019

When you look at the stories Jesus told, it is no surprise that he was always getting into trouble with some people. This story likely generated a lot of controversy. The “Good Samaritan” has been enshrined in our culture. MA has a “Good Samaritan Law” that encourages someone who witnesses a drug overdose to call 911 without fear of being arrested for drug possession. There is a Good Samaritan Medical Center in Brockton. The leading suicide prevention organization in MA is called The Samaritans. The list goes on and on.

I

All these ministries named for the Good Samaritan are good, but it is easy to miss the point of the story. The story is not about charity. The question was not, “Which of these three was charitable?” The question Jesus posed was, “Which of the three…was a neighbor?”

This question becomes very contemporary when we contemplate the swirling racial issues we face in our country. Beneath all the turmoil is the larger question Jesus asked, “Who is my neighbor?” Are we able to cross the racial and economic barriers we have erected to be neighbors to one another?

I raise this as an illustration of how contemporary this ancient story told by Jesus really is. In his context, this story broke all the rules of how Jews would relate to their neighbors.

II

Jesus had just said something that pushed the lawyer’s button. Jesus had just declared that God had hidden wisdom from the wise and the intelligent. This lawyer had thin skin! He was clearly stung by any hint that he was anything other than wise and intelligent, so he decided to show that this uneducated, non-degreed, non-certified, non-credentialed son of a carpenter was himself neither wise nor intelligent. The lawyer asks Jesus this question: Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?

If we had been there and observed this question, I think we would have heard it as a kind of sneer. We would have seen the lawyer with the little leather box called a phylactery attached to his headband. Inside that leather box were the most important Jewish scripture texts. So in answer to the lawyer’s question, we would have seen Jesus point to that phylactery and ask, What do you read there? Now the lawyer was put on the spot, and he quotes what is written inside the phylactery, the ancient commandments to love God and to love one’s neighbor.

But here is where it always gets complicated. Every culture debates the question of who is considered a neighbor, and the lawyer’s culture was in the midst of a heated debate over whether the non-Jews were considered neighbors. So when we read this familiar parable about the Good Samaritan, remember that it is told in the heat of controversy. And at the end of the story, after Jesus has told about an unorthodox Samaritan helping a Jew on the side of the road, Jesus turns to the lawyer and says, Go and do likewise.

III

Now I want to make just a couple of observations about the Good Samaritan story. If there were a person who would be expected to be a villain in this story, it would certainly be the Samaritan. That is the reason this story was so startling to its readers.

But there is something else I want to point out about this Samaritan: his credit was good! The innkeeper readily accepted his credit! No matter how much of a theological heretic he was, this man was honest, and the innkeeper knew it. We all know people like that. And we are grateful for them! It is no surprise to find that the powers of orthodoxy are more interested in correct theological or political labels than in consistently ethical behavior or even basic kindness.

There is no hint in this story that the priest and the Levite, the ones who went by on the other side of the road, were in any way unorthodox. In fact, the priest was probably concerned about orthodoxy in not touching the wounded man. The law stated that if he touched a corpse he was declared unclean for seven days, and maybe the man on the side of the road was not just injured, but dead! And the truth is that if he was declared unclean for seven days, the priest was disqualified from doing his ceremonial duties in the temple. He chose the temple institution over the needs of the man in the ditch. He was exceedingly orthodox!

The Levite, on the other hand, may have just been street smart. It was no secret that bands of robbers often used decoys. One of them would pose as a wounded man, and when some unsuspecting traveler stopped to help, the others would ambush him. It may be that this Levite was just wise to their tactics! The Samaritan, on the other hand, may have been a heretic…and he may have been naïve…, but he knew how to be a neighbor.

IV

So the story ends like a multiple choice test. Which of these three…was a neighbor…? Check the correct answer with a #2 pencil. Here are the possible answers: (a) the priest in all his orthodoxy; (b) the Levite with all his travel savvy; or (c) the Samaritan in all his heresy and naïveté.

And the answer, which the lawyer filled in correctly with his #2 pencil, completely shatters the stereotypes of social boundaries and class divisions and racial stereotypes that pervaded their society and ours. And with those walls gone, what do we have left?

We have a good neighbor…who may be a person of any shade of skin, any creed, or any nationality. And in the end, this parable seems to imply that we will ultimately be judged less by the political labels we adopt; even less by the intricacies of the creed we hold; than by the life we live as good neighbors.