“Who is My Neighbour?”
July 14, 2019 – Year C
In this age of fear of picking up hick-hikers and disregard for street people, it is hard for us to hear the story of “The Good Samaritan.” It pricks at our conscience. We don’t want to hear that we are called to love unconditionally.
There once was a man who was travelling along a highway. He had car trouble and had to pull over on the side of the road. He didn’t have his cell phone because he had left it on the charger on the kitchen table. Well, it wasn’t long before another car stopped. But the driver of the car didn’t look like he had “helping” in mind. He beat the man up, stole his wallet, slashed his tires, and set his car on fire. Then he left him.
As the beaten man lay on the side of the road, a car came by. It slowed down to take a look. The driver was a minister, but instead of stopping to help, he changed lanes and re-engaged his cruise control – he had a board meeting to get to, and people hated it when he was late.
Then a salesman drove by. He, too, slowed down to take a look, but then sped on. He had promised his boss he would be back in the office before everyone else left.
Finally, a van pulled up and come to a stop. Inside was a young woman with 2 small children. She picked up her cell phone and called 911. Then she got out of the van and helped the weak and bleeding man into the front seat. She got out the first aid kit she and her husband kept underneath the passenger seat and proceeded to clean the cuts on the man’s face.
The story of the Good Samaritan wasn’t an “old favourite” the first time around. How shocked the listeners must have been when a Samaritan – racially unacceptable and a heretic besides – was chosen as the model of love that is essential to eternal life. The parable is told in the context of a lawyer wanting to test Jesus. “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” A trick question perhaps? At best a somewhat selfish question, showing concern for preserving one’s own future. Jesus responds with a question that draws out the issue of concern for others, for one’s neighbor. The lawyer tries to evade the issue by challenging, “Who is my neighbor?” It was not more information he needed; rather it was action on what he already knew. In the tale that Jesus told, the first 2 travelers who passed by the wounded one were clergy – a priest and a Levite, or in other words, a priest’s assistant. Perhaps their lack of action was due to rules about touching a dead body or fears that his was a hoax – a reasoned response. But the Samaritan, unencumbered by should and oughts and intellectual arguments, saw only a human being in need and had compassion. Compassion literally means “to suffer with.”
12 years ago I arrived at the church on Easter Sunday morning only to find swastika’s and profanity spray painted across the exterior wall of the church. Who would deface a church in this way? After calling the police we gathered around the entrance and I said a prayer for the vandals, that they might come to know God’s great love and mercy so that their lives might be turned around. I prayed for us as a community of faith, that we might know deep compassion and forgiveness, so that we might continue to be good neighbours.
At its heart, we need to recognize this parable as deeply offensive and subversive to all that our culture holds dear.
The priest and the Levite, the minister and the lawyer, the people we might expect to give help to the helpless, passed by on the other side. But in Jesus’ time, they were expected to. Touching the victim would have rendered them unclean. They would have to purify themselves before they could operate the food bank, visit the hospitals, or provide legal aid to poor people.
Then the kicker. A Samaritan!
Family feuds are most bitter between the closest kin. The Samaritans were the Jews’ closest kin in the Middle East. And a Samaritan helped a good Jewish boy.
To get a comparable effect, we have to imagine the last person on earth we’d expect to receive help from, the person we’d go out of our way to avoid having contact with. Someone with HIV/AIDS, perhaps. Or high on fentanyl and living on the streets. A squad of Hell’s Angels. A frothing-at-the-mouth racist. A mass murderer.
That person, the parable asserts, is our neighbor.
Who is my neighbor? The person who needs my help, or who can give me help. Even if it’s the last person on earth that I’d expect.
Mitch Albom, the author of “Tuesdays with Morrie” tells of a conversation between himself and Morrie. “Life is a series of pulls back and forth. You want to do one thing, but you are bound to do something else. Something hurts you, yet you know it shouldn’t. You take certain things for granted, even when you know you should never take anything for granted. A tension of opposites, like a pull on a rubber band. And most of us live somewhere in the middle.”
“Sounds like a wrestling match,” says Mitch Albom.
“A wrestling match,” Morrie laughs. “Yes, you could describe life that way.”
“So, which side wins?” he asks.
He smiles at me, the crinkled eyes, the crooked teeth, “Love wins. Love always wins.”
Hans Kung writes in the book “On Being a Christian,” “Jesus is not interested in universal, theoretical or poetical love.
For him love does not consist primarily in words, sentiments or feelings. For him love means primarily the great, courageous deed. He wants practical and therefore concrete love.
According to Jesus, love is not simply love of another person but essentially love of neighbour. It is a love, not of people in general, of someone remote, with whom we are not personally involved, but quite concretely of one’s immediate neighbor.
Love of God is proved in love of neighbour, and in fact love of neighbor is the exact yardstick of love of God.
I love God as much as I love my neighbor.”
Back in 2007 I work in a church in a large Ontario city. One day I received a phone call from a family telling me they were in serious trouble. After over ½ an hour of listening to their story I realized that they were either very good story tellers or were in deep, deep trouble. I decided to interpret the situation in the later – but only somewhat. So, after explaining that I could help them with some food vouchers that the church provides and which I would deliver to them – I suggested a number of community resources – I felt I had done my job. But, that was the problem. I did my job.
So, later on that day I drove toward the airport and found the home, only to be confronted by such incredible poverty and squalor conditions that I wanted to vomit. The home they were living in was in the shadows of the airport, with doors and windows in disrepair. Rotting boards, holes in walls and no food in the fridge and no gas in the vehicle to get to work. The family was pleased to no longer live in their vehicle and instead have a house to live in. And as appreciative as they were for the food vouchers, they had no gas to get to the grocery store, which was several miles away.
And there was me, with my full tank of gas, my designer clothes and my beautifully decorated home. Needless to say, my drive back home was an uncomfortable one. So, the next day I arranged with the family that I would put gas in their vehicle, for they are my brother and sister in Christ. They are my neighbours. After all – it was the least I could do.
I continued to visit with this family for the better part of a year. I helped them access some community supports. I shared with them some hints and ideas of navigating through the Social Services system. But, most of all, I befriended them. There was nothing I wanted in return. They were my neighbours. I came to love them.
To love deeply and unencumbered is our call. To see the face of Christ in every person we encounter is our mission. To be neighbor to all God’s people is our great challenge. May we love with all our heart, and with all our soul, and with all our strength, and with all our mind, and our neighbor as ourself. Amen.