A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho
March 5, 2017
Who is our neighbor?
For the writers of Leviticus, quoted by the lawyer trying to test Jesus, your neighbor was the Israelite man who lived next to you and who submitted himself to the Law and the Holiness Codes. You can read through the whole book of Leviticus for a better sense of those codes. There were expectations of hospitality and welcome for the stranger, but strangers were not exactly neighbors in Leviticus. And Samaritans were certainly not neighbors.
And so imagine how this parable would have been received by the lawyer, and by the religious community listening in. The fight between the Judeans and the Samaritans was a family fight. These are people descended from the same religious tradition, who went different ways. They were not neighbors. They were estranged family, with the animus that comes with it.
Close your eyes and think of the person you dislike the most, that visceral revulsion that makes you not want to be within 100 miles of that person—that’s who you should picture in this parable. Now imagine, you’re the half dead person on the side of the road, and that person is the one who stops to take care of you.
Jesus is seriously messing with us in this parable, expanding our understanding of neighbor, both in the Parable, and also in his daily living. He eats with sinners, outcasts, and women. He touches lepers and the unclean. Jesus showed us that his Holiness was what was contagious, not our uncleanness.
Jesus calls his followers to see the world in a more expansive way than the writers of Leviticus were able to see it.
Our neighbors become the people who need us the most. Everyone, in a way, becomes our neighbor. And, even though I doubt it was the intention of the Levitical writers, Leviticus supports well what Jesus did and how he showed us to live.
“Who is my neighbor?” is the question the lawyer asks when he quotes Leviticus. But the parable Jesus offers, and this passage quoted from Leviticus might actually better answer the question “how do I act as a good neighbor?”
Leviticus instructs us to:
Provide for the hungry.
Deal fairly with both the rich and the poor.
Pay a fair wage at the end of each day.
Not to cheat the deaf or the blind.
Seek justice over vengeance.
Not to lie or steal.
At the end of chapter 19, the levitical writers address how to be neighbors, even to foreigners:
“When an alien resides in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides among you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.”
Turns out, we aren’t terribly surprised by this list of neighborly action. It isn’t a huge shock. We know how to be good neighbors.
But some days it is harder to live out than others.
Because we are imperfect people who love to use our rules to judge others while conveniently forgetting to apply them to ourselves.
And this is where I am thankful for grace, the free and un-earned mercy of God that loves and accepts us where we are, but refuses to leave us where it finds us.
The priest and the levite, walking down the road, are not bad people. They may have had their own worries about being on the dangerous Jericho Road, which was just as risky for them as it was for the man, half dead on the side of the road. Maybe they were in a hurry and trying to get off it before dark. They may have been late for a meeting, or on their way to worship.
We are all the priest and levite some days, seeing people in need of our help, but distracted by many things.
I suspect another way we are like the priest and levite is that we see people on the side of the road and see the half dead part, as Luke described the man, and determine we don’t need to intervene, that death has won.
The Samaritan, who would not have been seen as a neighbor by the lawyer or the crowd, managed to see the half of the man that wasn’t dead. The half living part.
As people who serve a resurrected God, one who conquered more than being “half dead”, we should note our tendency to let “half dead” be an excuse to walk on by someone on the side of the road.
We have to be the people who look at the body on the side of the road and see it half alive. The Samaritan—who worshiped wrong, believed wrong— he managed to live out our faith better than the people who knew the right answers. He saw the man as half alive, and that was enough.
It’s the “glass half full” equivalent for our faith. We are the people called to see the half alive part of everyone we meet, trusting that if resurrection is true for us, that it is also possible for people, half dead on the side of the road. And being a neighbor means we do what we can to help that process.
The Samaritan saw the half alive part of the man, and that was enough for inconvenient compassion to kick in.
I noticed the lawyer, when answering Jesus’ question about which person acted the neighbor, can’t quite bring himself to say the word “Samaritan”. He says “the one who showed mercy”. It’s not the wrong answer, but it whitewashes things a bit doesn’t it?
Showing mercy makes it sound like the Samaritan just waved his arm and showed someone mercy at a distance, over there. “Look—there’s mercy over yonder! I just showed it to you.”
But acting the neighbor came with a cost. It took time, and his money that he left with the innkeeper. It was up close, personal, and an invasion of space. And he likely got blood on his robe, which would have made him unclean. He didn’t just show something. He did things. Dirty, messy, inconvenient things.
Who is our neighbor?
The truth of the matter is, everyone in the story should be seen as neighbors. Yes, we are to offer care for the people we find, half alive on the side of the road. And we are to attend to the fact that the Jericho Road is dangerous for everyone, and do what we can to change the systems that put everyone in danger, because the priest and the levite are our neighbors too.
Even that precious lawyer, wanting to test Jesus, is our neighbor, because we know that even the people who have all the answers and want to make sure we know it are God’s beloved children—Jesus loves them too. They are at least half alive.
And sometimes we’re the one in need of the neighbor, in need of the care, the mercy, the person willing to invade our space to save our lives. I confess, I’d much rather be the neighbor than be the person in need.
I also confess that it is in those moments when I’m in need— where I’m not sure whether I’m half dead or half alive—in those moments when someone picks me up, cleans my wounds, puts me on their donkey, and takes me to the ER—that’s when I understand God’s love and the new life of resurrection in new ways.
Because when the world walks on by and determines you’re half dead, it’s hard to remember the other half, still alive, seeking hope and a second chance.
Friends, wherever you are on the Jericho Road right now, I pray we can be “the glass is half alive” kinds of people, sharing and receiving that promise of hope and resurrection as we need it.