“Who is my Neighbor?” A Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

Amos 7: 7-17

Luke 10:25-37

Once a lawyer approached Jesus to test him. I’ve had some experience with this as my son is a lawyer. You all know my daughter, Rebecca (the pastor here). Her older brother, Andrew, is a lawyer. In fact, he’s a prosecutor.

Last summer we attended a memorial service for Martha’s aunt, and they had a reception afterward. Someone had brought an assortment of pastries from a fancy Italian bakery, and there were some lovely little cannoli. “Did you get any cannoli,” I asked. “I had a couple of them and they were delicious.” “No he said, “They were gone by the time I got to them.” “Too bad, there weren’t too many of them. Actually, I only had one.” He asked “Were you lying to me before or are you lying to me now!”

So, the lawyer wanted to test Jesus and asked, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”  It’s a big question about the meaning, purpose and destiny of life.

But, in this case,it is a disingenuous question, because the lawyer knew the answer that Jesus would give him, the answer that any rabbi (or any devout Jew, for that matter) would give him.

“What must I do to inherit eternal life?” he asks and Jesus answers with a question: “What is written in the law?” and the lawyer rightly answers, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind (that’s Deuteronomy 6:5)’ and ‘Love your neighbor as yourself (that’s Leviticus 19:18).’”

Jesus replies, “You have answered correctly, “Do this and you will live.” Jesus knows real living means loving God and loving one’s neighbor.  And Jesus doesn’t distinguish between life after death and life now. Eternal life is not about here or hereafter, it is qualitative not quantitative, but somehow this fullness of life is wrapped up in the doing.

Have you noticed that when Jesus taught some people got it and some people didn’t?  I suppose it’s still like that today, some people get the Gospel and some people don’t. Or we get it some of the time and don’t get it most of the time.

In today’s story we have somebody who didn’t get it: a lawyer. In next week’s story we also have somebody who didn’t get it: Martha, the sister of Mary and Lazarus. Notice that Jesus has two different answers for them. To the lawyer he tells “go and do” and to Martha he tells, “sit down and listen.” Which should remind us that Jesus’ word is not the same to everyone.  He didn’t use a one size fits all template.

The lawyer doesn’t get it because he believes that his conversation with Jesus is a religious quiz. He doesn’t realize it is about his life. He doesn’t understand that it is not what you know, but what you do that brings you the fullness of life of which Jesus speaks.

So, the lawyer asks Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” He’s hoping Jesus will limit his liability. Who don’t I have to love? Who is exempt? He wants Jesus to give him that key that will unlock the mysteries. He wants it to come from outside himself, wants someone to do it for him.

But Jesus won’t do it. Have you noticed how often Jesus doesn’t answer a question? He might draw in the sand with a stick, or hold up a coin, or tell a pithy parable, or, as in today’s Gospel, tell a story.

It is a story we know well, about a man who is robbed and beaten on the Jericho Road and how two good religious figures walk by his broken body and don’t help him, while a despised foreigner stops and takes care of him.

Let’s try a thought experiment by putting it in a local setting. The Pastor of the United Congregational Church of Little Compton walks by, and a prominent deacon walks by, but some big hairy Hell’s Angel covered with tattoos with a Confederate Flag decal on his chopper stops and takes care of the mugged man. “Which of these three was a neighbor to the man?”

Let’s expand this thought experiment. Imagine two pious Christians with Red MAGA hats on their way to their megachurch passing by the poor man while an atheist stops to help. “Which of these three was a neighbor to the man?”

Or to flip it, imagine a justice activist and a liberal college professor on their way to a MOVE-ON meeting passing by the injured man while a conservative libertarian stops and helps. “Which of these three was a neighbor to the man?”

We see how Jesus turns the question back on the lawyer. The question ceases to be “Who is my neighbor?” What the lawyer really wants to know is: “Who isn’t my neighbor?” The question Jesus poses to the lawyer is this: “Are you fit to be a neighbor?”

“Which of these three was neighbor to the man?” Jesus asks the lawyer, who can only say, “The one who had mercy on him.” Jesus then ends the conversation, “Go and do likewise!”

So many sermons on this passage are simply moralistic, about the obligation to the neighbor. And indeed, we do have an obligation to our neighbor. But the deeper truth is that we need to be a neighbor as much as we need to help a neighbor.

“Do this and you will live,” Jesus says. Yet it’s not so easy is it to always be a neighbor, and the lawyer’s attempt to define the limits of his responsibility is perfectly understandable to us. We, too, want to know the limits of our liability.

Barbara Brown Taylor, who is an actual liberal college professor at Piedmont College, tells a story on herself about preparing a sermon on the Good Samaritan. She writes,

I have been thinking all week about the parable, reading creative commentaries on it and talking it over with my friends.  At least one of the truths I got from it was that God comes to us daily in unexpected encounters with unexpected people and if we are on the ball, we will not ignore them. Then Thursday I was driving to work through the early morning drizzle, my seat belt on and my doors locked, when I saw a car with its hood up on Howell Mill Road. As I approached a tall black man stepped into the road, holding up a pair of jumper cables and looking me straight in the eye.  Several hundred pieces of information went through my mind in about three seconds. ‘The man needs help—you are a single woman alone in a car—the man needs help—never open your door to a stranger—go to the nearest service station and send a mechanic—the man needs help—what if he cannot afford a mechanic—the man needs help—I am sorry, I cannot help—maybe the next person will.’ And I drove on to work, to complete my research on the Good Samaritan.”  (Barbara Brown Taylor, The Preaching Life, Cowley Publications, p 118)

It’s not an easy proposition to be a neighbor to anyone. The lawyer is thinking, as we are, where will it end?  I find myself having that that internal conversation all the time.  I wonder: Do I have to be neighbor to all the charities that send me their appeal letters? Do I have to be a neighbor to migrants on our Southern border? What about migrants in Europe?

And are individual acts of mercy all that is required of us? Our first lesson for today was Amos’s vision of a plumb line, a string with a weight on it that builders use to make the building straight.

Amos says God is judging Israel by holding up a plumb line to see if their national life is just and true. And the litmus test for judging the health of the nation’s life was how its most vulnerable people are being treated. In that society, a patriarchy, the most vulnerable members were widows and orphans, who had no husband or father to protect them, and sojourners, who had no attachment to the land for status. In our day we call the sojourner a migrant or a refugee. God holds the nation responsible for helping such neighbors in need. (For a sermon I preached on Amos 7 last year, go here.)

Martin Luther King once preached a famous sermon at Riverside Church on the Good Samaritan, in which he raised the question about whether our faith only asks us to do the act of mercy without addressing some of the deeper societal structures that cause evil and injustice. What if the man who was robbed and beaten on the Jericho Road was not a one off event, but a recurring case. What if a band of robbers was constantly preying on travelers? Wouldn’t we be called on to go to the city council and ask for more policing, better lighting? And perhaps we ourselves could set up a Neighborhood Watch Committee.

I was on a Neighborhood Watch Committee once. An arsonist was starting fires on people’s back porches. A local doctor and I drew the 12-3 AM shift and drove around the neighborhood looking for any suspicious activity. One night in the wee small hours we saw a car driving slowly through the neighborhood, so we followed it all over until it pulled up and parked in front of the police station, and two plainclothes police officers got out. We smiled sheepishly as we passed by. Anyway, we were trying to make our neighborhood safe.

Dr. King put it like this:

On the one hand we are called to play the good Samaritan on life’s roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.

“Who is my neighbor?” Jesus asks back, “Whose neighbor are you?” Jesus knows that the one he calls Father loves all his children, not just the powerful and the privileged.

So, Jesus won’t set limits on love and mercy. He leaves it all messy for us to struggle with and figure out. And it is messy to figure out.  But it seems clear enough to me that the promised eternal life somehow lies in the living of it and the doing of it and not merely in the knowing.  We are not saved by our works, but as James asks “Where is faith without works?”  If one loves God, won’t one also love those whom God loves? As Mother Teresa said, “It is impossible to love God without loving our neighbor.”

But you may be wondering, we can’t be neighbor to everyone! True enough. There are obviously limits of time and money that mean we do not get to neighbor the world. A trip to the Third World or the nearest big city will convince you of that soon enough.

And if we think that a frenetic activism is what Jesus requires from us we may need to listen carefully to Jesus next week when he tells Martha to stop fussing over him and sit down and listen like her sister Mary.

God’s mercy and love don’t stop on our street or neighborhood. “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy like the wideness of the sea” as the old hymn puts it. And Jesus is always inviting us into that mercy and love, by doing something of God’s work here and now, and in the doing knowing something eternal life.

What does it mean that we can’t fix the world? It means, for one thing, that we are not God. But just because we can’t be neighbor to everyone, is no reason to be neighbor to no one. That is the real sin: to be neighbor to no one. Or, worse, to even blame the needy for their neediness. As we have seen over the years in conversations about government aid to the poor. There was once something of a consensus that society had some responsibility for even those neighbors whose poverty was brought on by bad choices, the so-called undeserving poor. They were once considered our neighbors.

That has changed. Today is not a good time to be needy in America. Or poor, or sick. There is a cruelty that has seeped into our national discourse that damages the soul of America. Whether the Stock Market is booming or not, mercy is in short supply. Of course, when the question is “who is my neighbor?”  it isn’t hard to think of people who we imagine don’t qualify as deserving of our pity and mercy.

But notice that the Samaritan didn’t ask the beaten victim for a resume to make sure he was deserving. And Jesus had intentionally picked the Samaritan as the good guy in the story because he was from a hated group. As I said a couple of weeks ago, the Israelites and the Samaritans were kind of cousins, and hated each other with that special hatred that only estranged family members can have. Jesus picks him to be “the Good Samaritan” for this reason.

So, to get the right answer we need to have the right question. “Who is my neighbor?” and “Who isn’t my neighbor?” are both the wrong question. The right question that Jesus poses to us is this: “Whose neighbor are you?” Amen.

(I preached this sermon on July 14, 2019 at the United Congregational Church of Little Compton, RI.)


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