WHO IS MY NEIGHBOR?
Our nation has been wracked by terrible acts of violence when people with a political grudge or suffering from severe mental illness have taken guns to places of work, school, movie theatre, and night club and killed wounded many innocent people. One of those horrible incidents that stick in the memory took place in April of 1999 in Littleton, Colorado at the Columbine High School. Two boys, seniors at that school, came one morning with pipe bombs and guns and killed twelve people, wounded others, and then took their own lives. Recently a mother of one of the boys, Sue Klebold, wrote a book about her journey of seeking to understand why her son, Dylan, would be a part of such murder and mayhem. In the book she bares her heart and soul as she described what she felt was good parenting by her and her husband, raising Dylan and her other son with love and guidance. In this book we read about her journey seeking to understand mental illness and depression. She knew something was bothering her son in the last year of his life, but did not realize the depth of the boy’s depression and suicidal thoughts, which he became adept at hiding from his parents. Unfortunately the book said very little about faith. She did mention that after the shooting incident she felt there could be no consolation from religion because she felt God would be ashamed of her after what her son had done. She also wrote at the time she felt God would be no source of comfort since in some way God had permitted this tragedy.
The first person Sue Klebold and her husband met was their lawyer. He warned them of hard times ahead: media scrutiny, hate mail, and lawsuits. For a long time she could not turn on the television or read the newspaper because of the judgments made about her and her family. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that she felt mentally and physically beat up and stripped of all dignity and respect. But then there were letters that did come expressing compassion, especially from other parents who went through the shock of losing a child to suicide they did not see coming. Such letters were like healing balm for her, and some of them she kept on hand to read time and time again. There was nasty mail all right, but thankfully there were Good Samaritans who went against the grain of popular condemnation and offered comfort and wisdom instead.
In the Gospel lesson we heard one of Jesus’ best-known stories or parables. The parable has the familiar title of “Good Samaritan”, named after the one in the story who displayed compassion. Even those who don’t have a clue what a Samaritan is are familiar with the term: my sister, who is an RN, works for a nursing home that has the corporate name “Good Samaritan”. There are “Good Samaritan” laws which seek to protect those who try to help strangers in need. Many, many times I have participated with children the in acting out of this parable. It is an easy parable to stage because it has all the ingredients for plenty of action. Children were encouraged to give the timeless story some contemporary flavor, especially substituting a name of some despised group for the character of the “Samaritan.”
Jesus’ story was prompted by the questions of a lawyer who wanted to test Jesus. In the time of the New Testament lawyers, or experts in law, were guided by the Scriptures. Jewish people looked to their Scriptures for guidance not only for daily living, but for help in legal affairs. The Scriptures were considered God’s living word as we heard in the Psalm today, “Make known to me your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation, for you I wait all day long.” God’s salvation was considered an ongoing relationship of faith and righteousness, that God would guide you daily with God’s Word. Now the lawyer, a legal whiz-kid, wanted to check out Jesus’ understanding of this life-affirming word. So the lawyer asked the question that was on the mind of every devout person, “what must I do to inherit eternal life”, or how can I know I have a share in God’s life to come? Jesus gave the question back to the lawyer: “”What is written in the law; what do you read there?” The lawyer gave the answer from the center of his faith: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind; and love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus said in so many words, “Awesome: live those words of love for God, neighbor, and self and you will have a share in the life to come.”
But the lawyer wasn’t interested in Jesus’ complement; he wanted debate so he continued the conversation with a key question, “And who is my neighbor?” Thank God for that sharp lawyer who asked a question so important for all time. Notice Jesus did not give a socio-economic answer: your neighbor is your countryman who is poor, and you are commanded to give him or her help. That would be an okay answer. Neither did Jesus give a political-religious answer: your neighbor is one of your nation and ethnic group who believes as you do. Those who want to exclude would like that kind of an answer. But as we know Jesus didn’t issue statements he told stories. The story told of a traveler going down from Jerusalem to Jericho. The original audience would be familiar with this journey of 17 miles and how dangerous it could be with the rugged terrain offering bandits plenty of opportunity for ambush. In the story the traveler was not only robbed, but severely beaten, stripped of clothing and left half-dead and approaching dead as time progressed. By chance, Jesus said, who should be first on the scene but a priest. You would think a man who served God in the Temple would stop to offer assistance, which was at the heart of the Jewish faith: helping in matters of life and death took precedence over all other commandments. But the priest passed by on other side. Next came a Levite, also one who served in the Temple, assigned to assist the priests, and also in charge of the music. The minister of Music also chose to pass the beaten-up victim by. Scholars have speculated about the story’s detail of religious people passing by on the other side. Some have thought it had to do with keeping tightly regulated purity rituals; if the victim was dead, getting near a corpse could mean you would be unclean and unable to do your duty in the Temple rituals. But Jesus did not give a reason for their decision to pass by on the other side. He left that for us to ponder: why do some people today refuse to help when someone is in need?
Jesus kept the audience in suspense wondering what the third traveler would do. This man did not scoot to safety but came near to have a good look, and the sight must not have been pretty. But the man had compassion on the naked victim bleeding on the side of the road. The text said “moved with pity.” He rendered immediate first aid by bandaging wounds. Maybe he had some medical knowledge, using oil and wine to cleanse and disinfect. Realizing he could not just leave him there, the traveler took the wounded man to the nearest inn and paid for his upkeep and care. He also knew he just couldn’t leave him there, so he promised to come back, look in on him, and pay whatever expenses accrued for we know medical bills can add up.
Where is the surprise in Jesus’ story, the part that makes it edgy and challenging? One could point to the religious professionals who did not stop and help. But the detail that would be shocking for the original audience was the identity of the compassionate man as a ‘Samaritan.’ Jews and Samaritans had a history of bad blood and mutual hostility. A few Sundays ago we heard of a Samaritan village that would refuse to welcome Jesus. His disciples wanted to teach that village a lesson with fire and brimstone but Jesus soundly refused such violence in the name of religion. Today is no different. Some Christian folk don’t mind being violent and they think it is sanctioned by Jesus, but it is not. It is so tempting to stereotype people as undesirables and we don’t want them around because we are afraid of them, fear that is based fundamentally by a failure to understand our common humanity. If the lawyer in Jesus’ story wanted him to limit the definition of ‘neighbor’, Jesus refused by telling this story and then asking the key question “Which of these three, do you think, was neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” The lawyer may not have liked it but had to answer, “The one who showed mercy.” Life in the world to come is practiced now so Jesus said “Go and do likewise.”
Being neighborly is not limited location, geography, race, or ethnicity, but is practiced by showing mercy. Showing mercy reveals, as the second lesson said, “knowledge of the will of God.” It seems to be our human nature, ruled by the power of sin, to be tribal, racist, and therefore violent. Change comes from God, the gift of God spoken of in the reading from Colossians, “God has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” In Jesus we have redemption, chances to change inspired by his steadfast love and constant mercy. Bigots are redeemed by Jesus to be blessings for the people they formerly hated. Christians who want a comfortable, safe faith are redeemed to become activists not keeping silent or passing by the needs of others. Jesus has already given us the kingdom, our inheritance to make good use of now so we show mercy as his “saints in the light”, in the light of his mercy and forgiveness.
Lutheran pastor Peter Marty tells of a friend of his who is a skilled lawyer. Her name is Diane and she has given her professional career over to being a public defender. She often defends people who have made some terrible mistakes. Diane said a question she frequently gets asked is “How do you defend those people?” She answers, “Those people are real people whose stories need to be taken seriously. I have a lot of empathy for people on the other side. Most of the individuals I work with have lived through horrific experiences that I will never have to encounter. Chaotic and dysfunctional families. Generational addiction. Untreated mental illness. You name it. I rarely see a client from a stable, intact environment.” Notice what she said, “I have empathy—compassion, pity—for people on the other side.” She could easily pass by and condemn such people as criminals but instead she goes over to their side and sees what could not be seen from a safe distance, a flawed and wounded human being in need of help. Which one of us, in our own way, is also a flawed and wounded human being? In the gospel of Luke in the beginning it was announced that Jesus’ birth would reveal the “tender mercy of God for those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet in the way of peace.” Jesus has not passed us by. He comes to forgive and raise us to be his “saints in the light”, sharing the light of God’s mercy.