Caring Neighbors

Caring Neighbors

July 10, 2016
Written by Kathryn Matthews

Sunday, July 10
Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Focus Theme
Caring Neighbors

Weekly Prayer
Ever-faithful God, whose being is perfect righteousness: reconcile us in your Son with the helpless and the needy, with those we would ignore or oppress, and with those we have called enemies, that we may serve all people as your hands of love, and sit at the feet of those who need our compassionate care. Amen.

Focus Reading
Luke 10:25-37

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. "Teacher," he said, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?" He said to him, "What is written in the law? What do you read there?" He answered, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself." And he said to him, "You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live."

But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?" Jesus replied, "A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while travelling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, 'Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.' Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?í He said, "The one who showed him mercy." Jesus said to him, "Go and do likewise."

All Readings For This Sunday
Amos 7:7-17 with Psalm 82 or
Deuteronomy 30:9-14 with Psalm 25:1-10
Colossians 1:1-14
Luke 10:25-37

Focus Questions

1. What do you think went through the mind of the Samaritan in this parable?

2. What is "a higher righteousness"? How do you define "holiness"?

3. How might you retell this story in a way that would make your stomach churn?

4. Are there people for whom you have a hard time feeling compassion?

5. How are our lives structured in a way that keeps us from noticing those in need?

Reflection by Kate Matthews

It might be the world's most famous story about showing compassion even for people we may not like: a nice little story with a nice little moral, especially for those of us who like to do good deeds for those in need. Our story from the Gospel of Luke certainly doesn't make our stomach churn or offend our sensibilities; in fact, we may hear it with an almost satisfied ear, as if we believe we too would surely do what the "Good" Samaritan did when he was moved by compassion to help the poor victim of highway robbery. At least, we'd like to think we would.

In other words, when we hear this story, we put ourselves in the place of the Samaritan, and that's a pretty comfortable place to be. Reading enough commentaries on this familiar passage, however, will lead one to feel as if we are in unfamiliar territory, and on dangerous ground.

Where were they coming from?

To begin with, we have to deal with all sorts of perplexing disagreements among the scholars: was the question put to Jesus by the lawyer in sincerity, in respectful argument (what we might call a fruitful debate), or did it involved entrapment and shame? Maybe the answer to that question is less important than Jesus' answer to the lawyer's question: faithfulness has to do with what we do, not just what we say.

Indeed, we might hear this as an ancient version of "walking the talk," as Richard Swanson translates Jesus' final instruction to the lawyer ("go and do likewise") with the word, "walk," because the Hebrew words for "walk" (halak) is used to speak of doing Torah. This prompts all sorts of interesting questions about grace, and about salvation being predicated on simply accepting Jesus as your Lord and Savior. Jesus, however, doesn't mention these when he instructs the lawyer to "go and do likewise."

Pointing to the goodness of God

There is also the issue of the Pharisee's attempt to "justify himself," which we may hear with different ears than a Jewish audience of Jesus' or Luke's day. "In such a context," Swanson writes, "'be justified' ought rather to be translated as 'be strictly observant,' which means to live a life shaped by Torah, a life which points to the goodness of God and the possibility of safety." We don't know what was in the heart of the lawyer, but it seems reasonable to hear in his question a request for some clear boundaries for his "neighborhood."

The road to Jericho doesn't run through comfortable, familiar territory. Instead, travelers there find themselves on dangerous ground, uncertain and often, alone. Much better to stay home in Jerusalem, with one's own kind, surrounded by the temple and the walls of the city and the institutions and community that provide what's needed, including a safety net if anything goes wrong. At home, we know who we are: we are "Somebody" in the web of relationships that we've wrapped around ourselves, and that identity gives us a lot of comfort and assurance.

Whom is it okay not to love?

Now, for the lawyer who tests Jesus, this identity draws lines around people and protects us from one another, but it also puts some reasonable limits on the possibly unreasonable demands of the Jewish Law he cares so much about obeying. Give me some parameters, he says to Jesus, I mean, whom might it be okay not to love? After all, I'm only humanÖjust give me a list of which people I have to take care of, and who's on the outside of that line I need to draw around my community of care.

Yes, yes, of course I know that I need to love God ó that's a no-brainer ó remember, I knew the answer to your question when you asked me what's in the Law (I am a lawyer, after all), but give me a break, okay? Whom all do I need to love just as much as I love myself? Who is this neighbor whose needs and welfare need to be as important to me as my own? The question itself implies, of course, that there are people who are not my neighbor, people who it's okay not to love.

What do we think Jesus will say?

You think Jesus is going to give this lawyer a pass? Do you think the Jesus we know from the Gospels and from the past two thousand years of a church struggling to be faithful and from our own personal and communal relationship with him, is going to say, "Well, if you can manage to love your family and friends and maybe throw a coin at a beggar every once in a while, that's pretty good. Just be sure to worship regularly at the temple, obey all the religious laws about sexual morality, and pay your pledge every year. Then you're all set ó or as you put it, you'll inherit eternal life, and you'll go to heaven when you die, because, after all, you will have earned it."

No such luck. But Jesus does help the man out in his search to be faithful, to live an observant life shaped by the Torah, the Law of his people. He helps him, as he so often does, with a story. Laws can spell things out, list them, forbid them, require them, but stories ó stories get to the heart of things, to the heart of us, to that place of feeling and gut response. And Jesus goes for both the heart and the gut this time.

Who's listening to the story?

But as we hear the story, let's remember that there are two other audiences for it, in addition to us today: there's the group of people, including the lawyer, gathered around Jesus that day, presumably all or mostly Jewish people. Then there are the early Christians of Luke's community who are trying to live their lives as followers of this Jesus, and they're just as interested in being faithful and in knowing what that means for how they live their lives. So let's hear the story through their ears, if you will, as well as our own:

All of us know the taste of fear. The traveler in Jesus' story was probably nervous on that road from Jerusalem, and his worst fears were realized when he was set upon by bandits who beat him and robbed him and left him for dead, stripped naked and bleeding by the road. What a nightmare, lying there, hoping that someone would come and helpÖand then, Jesus said, along came a priest.

Things get tense

Now in that setting, the folks listening would have tensed up. For a lot of reasons, these peasants and tax collectors and lepers and women and other pushed-out people would have resented the priestly classÖJesus hung out with sinners, we recall, with people who were unacceptable in the eyes of the religious elites, and that's what the priest and the Levite were. And that may be why Jesus put them in the story.

No matter what some folks say to try to excuse them, they didn't have to worry about ritual purity if they touched a corpse ó if they were on the road away from the Temple and its rules, as Sharon Ringe observes, then that wasn't a problem, and besides, the Law said they had to help someone in need. Besides, when so-called holiness keeps us from being compassionate, Jesus knows what true religion is, and what the Law says about helping those in need.

A priest, a Levite and an Israelite...or not

In those days, Stephen Patterson tells us, it was commonplace for a story to begin, a priest and a levite came by, just as we might begin a story, a doctor, a lawyer and a priest walked into the bar ó you know ó and the people there expected to hear that the next person was an ordinary IsraeliteÖthat was the usual third person in that trio: a priest, a Levite, and an Israelite.

The first two, according to Patterson, the religious elites, were ones the Jewish audience around Jesus would have had very strong feelings about, and they would have expected them to show indifference to human suffering. But the next one around the corner, they were sure, would be one of their own, the everyday Israelite: Yay! One of our kind, a regular guy like you and me, and he'll come to the rescue of the poor, wounded man. He'll save the day! (Pattersonís reflection on this text in The God of Jesus: The Historical Jesus and the Search for Meaning is particularly helpful).

A most unwelcome hero

Instead, Jesus' audience is shocked and probably deeply offended that the hero coming around the bend is a hated Samaritan. Even the earliest Christians hearing this story would have remembered a few verses back (9:53), when a Samaritan village had refused to welcome Jesus, not a good move in a time and culture when hospitality meant everything. Charles Cousar calls the Samaritans "half-breeds," traitors who had colluded with Syria against the Jews. Roger E. Van Harn notes that the lawyer, even after this moving story, "could not bring himself to say the 'Samaritan' word." That's how deep the hatred ran.

This was a most unexpected and unwelcome hero for either audience to consider. It's not one of our own kind who saves the day ó it's that enemy, the hated Samaritan, a guy who's definitely on the outside of our community of care. They don't worship like us, they don't hate the same people we hate or love the same people we love, they don't live where we live, and there's no way they should provide the hero of the piece. The stomachs are churning by this time, and the sensibilities are definitely offended.

More than enough hatred to go around

A lot of hatred, of course, is religiously based and rooted in historical things like wars and other arguments. The Samaritan had probably been taught, from his side, to hate the Jews, too. And remember that he's in their territory, and the robbers could still be hanging around, waiting for their next victim. But this man doesn't let the Law, or fear, or the knowledge that he is hated keep him from what Cain Hope Felder calls a "higher righteousness." And a higher righteousness is what Jesus is all about.

I think the most moving words, and the most challenging ones, written about this story are, again, from Stephen Patterson: "You Need Your Enemy." Jesus seems to have it all backwards: when asked what we have to do, he tells a story about us. But he's not talking about "us, the good Jewish lawyer," or even "us, the 'good' Samaritan." No, Jesus tells a story about us, the person lying there in the ditch. That's the place we ought to find ourselves in when we hear this story.

We're the ones in the ditch

We're lying in that ditch, and we desperately need our enemy to have compassion on us, no matter what. We need our enemy, Patterson writes, to forget what he's been taught and what he understands his rights to be. He needs to forget the risk and the robbers, and to stop and help us in our need. He needs to be moved by pity for our suffering.

I wonder when I hear this story about what might have happened to the traveler afterward. Once his wounds were healed and his family came to get him and he went home to the security and comfort of life among his own kind, I wonder if he still laughed at Samaritan jokes. I wonder if he turned the other way when someone said unkind things about a Samaritan person, or treated them cruelly. I just wonder if his heart was broken open, permanently, long after his broken bones were healed. I wonder.

Costly, risky compassion

And that's not all. When I think about this story, I think not just about people as individuals, long ago, and each of us today, but about communities, nations, and races. Bernard Brandon Scott says that we have to "cross the lines" weíve drawn both individually and as communities, that every act of kindness, random or otherwise, toward an individual brother or sister is a starting point and an inspiration for wholesale kindness and compassion, woven into the fabric of our communities, our institutions, our world, reminding us of who we all are as beloved children of God. We kick-start this kindness especially when we act in times and circumstances that are both costly and full of risk.

I once heard a story of a would-be robber in Washington who walked into a group of people having a backyard barbecue. He pointed a gun at the head of one of the women. Everyone remained very calm. One woman said, "Why don't you point that gun at me instead of her?" He did. They asked him, calmly, what his mother would think of what he was doing. He said, "I donít have a mother." Their hearts were moved to pity. They said, "I'm so sorry," and offered him a glass of wine and some cheese. The would-be robber, with his hood down, took a sip of wine and a bite of Camembert cheese and put the gun in his sweatpants.

What happens "after"?

Then the story got even more bizarre. According to the New York Times , the man with the gun apologized and said, "Can I get a hug?" The guests stood up one by one and wrapped their arms around the man. A few moments later the man walked away with a crystal wine glass they had given him. It was good wine, I guess, but I suspect the compassion, and the hospitality, were more powerful than even the wine. Like the traveler, and the Samaritan, we might wonder what happened to him "after."

But for our purposes, the inheriting eternal life thing, the question arises: are we talking about how to earn a place in heaven, after we die? I don't think so. I think we are talking about an inheritance, a gift, a blessing, that we can enjoy here and now, the fullness of life, as Jesus says, all of God's good and abundant gifts for our bodies and our souls, a sweet balm for our wounded spirits, and gladness and joy for every human heart. We just have to open our hearts, our eyes, our minds, to these gifts all around, and then share them with one another in gratitude and joy.

A preaching version of this commentary (with book titles) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.

The Rev. Kathryn Matthews retired from serving as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).

You're invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.

For further reflection

Ralph Waldo Emerson, 19th century
"Always do what you are afraid to do."

Shirley MacLaine, 21st century
"Fear makes strangers of people who would be friends."

The Dalai Lama, 21st century
"If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion."

Henry Ward Beecher, 19th century
"Compassion will cure more sins than condemnation."

John Green, Looking for Alaska, 21st century
"The only way out of the labyrinth of suffering is to forgive."

Plato, 4th century B.C.E.
"Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a harder battle."

Arthur Schopenhauer, 19th century
"Compassion is the basis of morality."

Mother Teresa, 20th century
"If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other."

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