Caring Neighbors

Sunday, July 14
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 Huey

It might be the world’s most familiar story about showing compassion especially for people we may not like: a nice little story with a nice little moral, especially for those of us who enjoy doing good deeds for those in need. Our story from the Gospel of Luke certainly doesn’t make our stomachs churn or offend our sensibilities; in fact, we feel pretty good when we hear it, because we believe that we too would surely do what the “Good” Samaritan did when he was moved by compassion to help the pitiful 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.

After reading what the scholars have to say about this familiar passage, however, we suddenly feel that we’re in unfamiliar territory and on dangerous ground. To begin with, we face several 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 involve entrapment and shame? Maybe the answer to that question is less important than Jesus’ answer to the lawyer’s question: faithfulness is expressed in what we do, not just in what we say. This sounds like an ancient version of “walking the talk,” and in fact, Richard Swanson translates Jesus’ final instruction to the lawyer (“go and do likewise”) with the word, “walk,” because the Hebrew word for “walk” (halak) is used to speak of doing Torah. This prompts all sorts of interesting questions about grace and about the “requirement” of salvation being equated with accepting Jesus as one’s Lord and Savior. Jesus, however, doesn’t mention that particular requirement when he instructs the lawyer to “go and do likewise.”

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 would have. “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. It certainly might make things more manageable.

The road to Jericho doesn’t run through comfortable, familiar territory. Instead, travelers there find themselves on dangerous ground, uncertain and often alone; Stephen Patterson calls it “an ambush waiting to happen.”  We would rather stay home in Jerusalem, with our own kind, where the temple and the walls of the city and the institutions and community surround us, providing what we need, including that all-important 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 provides us a lot of comfort and assurance.

Knowing who we are, and who belongs to us

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 would it be okay not to love? After all, I’m only human…just 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 in order to describe it. Yes, yes, of course I know that I need to love God–that’s a no-brainer (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 do I have 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 at least some people who are not my neighbor, people whom it’s okay not to love.

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–do you think that Jesus 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; 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.”

Turning to story for an answer to the heart of the question

No. 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–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.

But as we hear the story, let’s remember that there are two other audiences for it, besides us here 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 too are 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 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 help…and then, Jesus says, along came a priest. 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 class. Jesus hung out with sinners, remember, 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 puts them in the story.

What the Law really required to be holy

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. 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. 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.

In those days, Stephen Patterson tells us, it was commonplace for a story to begin with “a priest and a Levite came by,” just as we might begin a story, “a doctor, a lawyer, and a ____ walked into the bar”–and in those days the people would have expected to hear that the next person was an ordinary Israelite. That was the usual third person in that trio–a priest, a Levite, and an Israelite. According to Patterson, the first two, 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 would have expected, would be one of their own, the everyday Israelite, the hero of the piece: 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!

Wait a minute: who’s the hero of this piece?

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, including life or death. Charles Cousar calls the Samaritans “half-breeds,” traitors who had colluded with Syria against the Jews. And Roger E. Van Harn notes that the lawyer, even after Jesus’ 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–it’s the 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 day. The stomachs of both audiences are churning by this time, and the sensibilities are definitely offended.

How high is your righteousness?

A lot of hatred, of course, is religiously based and rooted in historical things like wars and other conflicts. The Samaritan had probably been taught, from his side, to hate the Jews, too. And we 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 himself is hated keep him from what Cain Hope Felder calls a “higher righteousness.” And a higher righteousness is what Jesus is all about, and doesn’t he call us repeatedly to a “higher righteousness” as well? In our aspirations for holiness, we may miss the heart of the Good News and the Law: “At what point,” Rebecca Kruger Gaudino asks, “does the quest for holiness violate God’s commands to love?” How do you define, or describe, “holiness”?

Perhaps the most moving words, and the most challenging ones, written about this story are, again, from Stephen Patterson in a section he calls “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,” Patterson writes. No, Jesus tells us 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 lying in that ditch, and we desperately need our enemy to forget what he’s been taught and what he understands his rights to be. He need to forget the risk and the robbers, and stop and help us in our need. He needs to be moved by pity for our suffering.

Suddenly “Samaritan jokes” aren’t funny anymore

Sometimes I wonder, when I hear this story, about what might have happened to the traveler after he parted ways with the Samaritan. 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, his own appropriate community of care, I wonder if he still laughed at “Samaritan jokes.” I wonder if he turned the other way when someone said unkind things about Samaritans or treated them cruelly. I just wonder if his heart was broken open, permanently, long after his broken bones were healed. I wonder.

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, too. According to Bernard Brandon Scott, “Not just individuals have to cross the line, but communities have to cross the line. Yet the crossing of that line always begins with the first Samaritan whose heart is moved by a Jew. Such people are initiating a new world for all of us.” We kick-start this kindness especially when we act in times and circumstances that are both costly and full of risk.

Hearts moved to pity

I once read a story about 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 don’t 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. Then the story got even stranger. According to the newspaper article, 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 glass they had given him. It was a good wine they offered him, I guess, but I suspect the compassion and the hospitality were more powerful than even the wine. As with the traveler and the Samaritan, we might wonder what happened to him later (The Washington Post, July 12, 2007).

The point of all this, Jesus’ story and the lesson we all lear
? To “inherit eternal life,” which we are inclined to equate with “earning a place in heaven.” But Barbara Brown Taylor, in her sermon on this text, describes inheriting eternal life as “enjoying a depth and breadth and sweetness of life that is available right this minute and not only after we have breathed our lastÖ.Let the summer showers of God’s love soak the seeds of your right answers so that they blossom into right actions and watch the landscape begin to change. Just do it, and find out that  when you do, you do live, and live abundantly, just like the man said.”

Additional Note

On the waiting-to-be-read stack of books on my desk is a recent one that promises to offer some rich material for further reflection on the concept of “neighbor.” In The Art of Neighboring: Building Genuine Relationships Right Outside Your Door, authors Jay Pathak and Dave Runyon title their very first chapter, “Who Is My Neighbor?” in an echo of the lawyer’s question to Jesus in our text from Luke. They even use the story of the Samaritan as an illustration of good boundaries. The book provides a series of study sessions as well.

A preaching commentary on this text (with book titles) can be found at

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.”

Anne Lamott, 21st century
“You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”

Mother Teresa, 20th century
“I want you to be concerned about your next door neighbor. Do you know your next door neighbor?”

About Weekly Seeds

Weekly Seeds is a United Church of Christ resource for Bible study based on the readings of the “Lectionary,” a plan for weekly Bible readings in public worship used in Protestant, Anglican and Roman Catholic churches throughout the world. When we pray with and study the Bible using the Lectionary, we are praying and studying with millions of others.

You’re welcome to use this resource in your congregation’s Bible study groups.

Weekly Seeds is a service of the Congregational Vitality and Discipleship Ministry Team, Local Church Ministries, United Church of Christ. Bible texts are from the New Revised Standard Version, © 1989 Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Prayer is from The Revised Common Lectionary ©1992 Consultation on Common Texts. Used by permission.