The Pastor’s Pen – July 14, 2019

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‘the neighbor…is you’

                         July 14, 2019   

Scripture: Luke 10:21-37

Our text this morning is from the Gospel of Luke, chapter 10 and verses 21 thru 37.  I would like to share this portion of God’s Holy Word with you in the form of a story…much as I believe it was originally passed down…holding closely to the text, but adding my imagination to fill in some color and depth…

Having just returned from their journeys throughout the region, and having witnessed and participated in the awesome and saving power of God as they preached and taught in Jesus’ name; the disciples gathered with Jesus to share their exciting stories.  There was surely a lot of commotion as each one jostled and anxiously tried to recount their adventures.  And I imagine that the commotion caused others to gather around also… others who had heard Jesus’ words of joy as he shared how blessed the disciples were to have seen what they saw, and to have heard what they heard. 

And over on the edge of the crowd I can see a lawyer, a student of the Torah, drawn in by all the excitement, curious as to what Jesus was talking about… curious about the ‘blessing’ these men supposedly had received.  Schooled in the Law of Moses since childhood, one who knew what the Torah said regarding how to serve God and how to live faithfully, I imagine he was wondering if what Jesus was saying was somehow different.  If this teacher from Nazareth was saying that somehow, there was ‘more’.  I imagine this lawyer was seeking to be assured that he too was ‘blessed’ through his knowledge and performance of the Law.  And, there might have been in his heart a certain uneasiness.  Maybe, just maybe he should listen. 

For Jesus’ support of His disciples seemed to be so strong… what about all the rest of the crowd?  What about those who hadn’t seen all of these awesome and wondrous things?  They too loved God, were they not also blessed?  The lawyer edged closer to Jesus in the gathering crowd…and when there was a pause in the conversation, he summoned the courage to speak.  “Teacher”, he asked, “What is it that I must do in order to receive eternal life?”  Jesus, knowing the man’s background, and aware of his knowledge and love for the Torah replied, “What is written in the law?  What is it that you find there?”  The lawyer responded quickly, quoting from Deuteronomy, “You shall love the Lord your God with all of your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  Jesus looked at him.  This man had truly spoken of the heart of the Law, the pathway to righteousness.  “You have given the right answer”, Jesus told him, “Do this and you will live.”. 

I imagine that those nearest to Jesus were listening intently, for very often when Jesus spoke with men such as this one, there would arise disagreement and conflict between the views of Jesus and those of the dominant religious establishment.  So far however the conversation seemed somewhat straightforward.  Perhaps this man truly was interested in Jesus’ thoughts on this matter, perhaps there was a point of agreement between them.  Maybe Jesus’ views, at least on this question, supported the lawyer’s own understanding concerning personal piety, faithfulness, and the way in which to please God.  But just to be on the safe side, just to be sure that Jesus and he were on the same page, the man pressed the issue further.  “And who is my neighbor?” he asked.

I think he fully expected Jesus to stay well inside the boundaries of conventional, social understanding and belief, to uphold well understood, and rigidly enforced social codes and mores…to stay true to the Law.  I am almost sure the lawyer expected Jesus to uphold the words in Leviticus which taught that one’s neighbors were “your people” … your neighbors were your kind… your neighbors were…fellow Israelites.

The somewhat quiet afternoon suddenly became alive in the minds of the disciples, for they had seen this before, they knew what the man was asking Jesus, they knew the answer he was expecting and…they knew Jesus.  They had walked alongside of Him for so long, seen him stand against societal and religious convention on so many occasions, they had listened to Jesus for far too long not to know that this was a point of departure between the lawyer’s, and Jesus’ views.  They waited to hear Jesus’ reply.

You know…it would have been so simple to just say what the lawyer wanted to hear.  He was obviously a student and lover of the law and of God, and all he wanted was affirmation that his life of dedication to God would give him a chance at eternal life, and so he asked, “and who is my neighbor?”

Jesus also knew what was behind the man’s question, and he also knew of the social and religious conventions, the whole structure of social hierarchy and proper behaviors that were associated with the lawyer’s inquiry.  In so in reply, Jesus began to tell a story…

“A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into the hands of robbers”, he began.  That Jesus chose a “man” as the first character in the story is telling and important, not because He chose a man over a woman, because either one could work in the story, but because this “man” was not described in more detail.  He was not classified by race, by class, or by age…we don’t even know if he was Jewish…he was in effect un-categorized… just…a man… it could have been any man, or perhaps every man…or every woman.  And the road from Jerusalem to Jericho is literally “down”, in that it drops some 3300 feet over a distance of just some 17 miles.  The road is also very rocky with a number of large boulders strewn about the landscape and along the edges of the roadway making it an ideal ambush point and frequent hiding place for thieves and bandits who lay in wait for unsuspecting passersby.  Jesus told how it was here that the man was accosted, robbed of what he had, stripped even of his clothing, beaten, and left to die over on the side of the road. 

Well by now, I am certain Jesus had everyone’s attention.  The concern the disciples had felt initially now turned to curiosity as the master storyteller wove together his tale and continued to draw them all in. 

Jesus continued, “A Priest happened to be going down the same road”.  Aha! A glimmer of hope, perhaps this man of God had been sent to care for the one suffering so gravely in the dust.  After all, were not Priests bound by the Law to do so?  That thought was dashed almost as quickly as it came to mind however as Jesus continued, “When the Priest caught sight of the man he crossed over and passed by on the other side of the road.”  He didn’t even pause!  And he couldn’t have gotten farther away from the man if he tried…the other side of the road?  What was his hurry?  Why didn’t he do what Priests were supposed to do?

I imagine at this point that the disciples were beginning to shift a bit uncomfortably as they began to realize that once again Jesus’ answer was not going to be what some might have expected.  But wait a minute, Jesus is continuing his story…

“Another came down the road, a Levite”.  Some may have thought to themselves, “Oh good, a chance to redeem the holy ones”.  For Levites, as assistants to the Priests also knew the Law’s commands to care for others in need.  Surely this Levite would stop and tend to the wounded man.  However, by now the disciples were probably even more unnerved.  For they had been here before and they were sure that there was no way Jesus was going to uphold the actions of a Levite either.  Jesus continued, “So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw the man, injured and lying helpless on the side of the road, passed by, on the other side of the road.”

By now the tension was almost electric… Jesus had been deeply critical of two of the most prestigious and honored offices within the Hebrew faith.  How would he ever resolve the lawyer’s question in a way that wouldn’t completely alienate him?  The disciples had to be looking nervously back and forth between the lawyer and Jesus, as well as between themselves.  They knew Jesus, but they also were well aware of the power and authority of the religious hierarchy which Jesus had directly challenged yet again.

By now, everyone knew that Jesus’ third example would provide the story’s resolution.  They knew that Jesus’ third person happening along the Jericho road would be the one to offer aid and assistance to the one in need.  They also knew that this third person was the one who was going to be seen as “the neighbor”.  All eyes and ears were attuned as Jesus continued his story.

“But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came to where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him.  He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine.  Then he put the man on his own donkey, took him to an inn, and took care of him.  The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper.  “Look after him”, he said.  “And when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.”

I imagine, in fact, I am fairly certain that when Jesus finished His story you could have heard a pin drop… even in the dust.  They had to be wondering if they had heard him correctly.  A Samaritan was surely the last one anyone would have expected to be the hero of the story, the last one to reach out and save the man lying injured by the roadside.

No, this simply could not be.  Samaritans were “bad” people, Samaritans were people to be despised, people who were not like us, people who were not full-blooded Jews.  They were ‘other’ than us, they were “them” and not “us”.  How could Jesus be so critical of the Priest and the Levite in his story and then say that somehow, with the failure of those called to uphold the Law of God, that an ‘unclean one’ could actually be the one who behaved in a manner that was pleasing to God, that an unclean one could be the ‘neighbor’?

I am sure that by now all of them, including the disciples, were wondering just what Jesus was up to.  Jesus continued, turning to the lawyer who had asked the question and asked, “Which of these do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”   Probably somewhat hesitantly, and surely conflicted within, the lawyer replied “the one who showed him mercy”.  Jesus replied, “Go, and do likewise.”

This is the word of God for the people of God…thanks be to God…

*****

In the past, whenever I have considered the term ‘neighbor’, I think I have always thought of those who lived nearby, as those who were a part of whatever community I lived in, and in particular those who were closest to my own home.  As a kid, it was those other families with kids who lived close enough to walk to and play with…when I moved to Patterson with much larger expanses of open land between houses, it was still those closest to walk to and to gather with in the back fields to play soccer or ice hockey with on MacLachlan’s pond.  Neighbors were the ones you most often got together with, the ones you had bar-b-q’s with or said ‘hello’ to on a walk through town.

In our scripture passage today however, we see a very different sense, a very different definition of ‘neighbor’ given to the lawyer by Jesus.  Jesus took this traditional sense of who we consider our neighbors to be and turned it completely around, basically telling the inquiring lawyer, ‘You…you are the neighbor’.  Instead of answering by saying that a neighbor, and the one we were supposed to ‘love as we love our self’ according to the words of the lawyer, was just someone you knew, or someone who happened to live nearby, or more particularly someone who was unmistakably a part of your own group, Jesus said that the neighbor is the one who acts with compassion and kindness, the one who watches out for another in need and extends themselves in love and service to meet that need.

The ‘neighbor’, according to Jesus is not someone who lives near you, but rather is the one who acts neighborly towards another, regardless of who they are…in other words, the ‘neighbor’ is you!  It is we who are supposed to act like the Samaritan…it is all of us here whose behavior is supposed to be openly merciful, openly and radically compassionate.  We are not supposed to, or even -permitted according to Jesus, to decide who is rightfully our neighbor.  Rather, we are to be neighborly to others around us, regardless of any arbitrary categories or characteristics that may have been assigned to them.

So, who is my neighbor?  Who is it that I have spent time being neighborly to lately?  Our bible is the revelation of God and of God’s loving nature, God’s identity to humankind.  And while it may not have always been perfectly recorded or understood, nonetheless we hold that it is still God’s word through human agency.  And when it was given it was meant to illumine the lives of those for whom it was intended. It was meant to challenge and instruct, to inspire and provoke us to action on behalf of others…others we were asked, in fact commanded, to love just as we love ourselves.

And in this day and in our time, the bible still has the power to speak truth into our lives if we allow it to.  In particular, if we set aside, even if just for a moment what we already think the bible says and listen very closely again.  If we are willing to be quiet enough within to hear whether the Spirit of our God is still using a particular passage to speak new truth, or new understanding into our lives right here and right now.  And in these times, and especially over the recent past, even as recently as this week, we hear so much in our national discourse about strangers in need, about people ‘lying along the roadside…or perhaps riverside.  Is it not possible that the bible is calling us to be ‘neighbors’ to all of those who struggle around us, to marginalized peoples, races, genders…or even to those in containment facilities down near our Southern border with Mexico? 

Is it possible that these strangers and refugees streaming towards our borders, ones we are asked by Jesus to be neighborly to?  Are they not much like the Samaritans in Jesus’ day, those who were so despised and viewed as unworthy or even untouchable…seen and treated as those deemed not worthy of the time to even acknowledge, much less talk to, or do something for?

Are we not, all of us, specifically called by Jesus in Matthew Chapter 6 to trust in God for all our needs, seeking first the kingdom, the righteousness and the justice of our God?  And does not Jesus follow up that command by saying that if in fact we do seek first the Kingdom of God, or as I like to quote Ada Marie Isasi-Diaz, ‘the kindom of God’, then indeed all of our needs will be met by our God?  And if in fact concern for our own provision is therefore not supposed to be our focus, then are we not also supposed to extend those fully sufficient provisions we have received, to those in need around us, perhaps to those lying by the side of the road?

For Jesus, a neighbor was one who drew near, one who had compassion, one who showed mercy to another in need… “Go and do likewise” he said…a neighbor therefore wassomething you were by virtue of what you did.  Being a neighbor, was the result of an act of caring…being a neighbor, was something someone chose to do… being a neighbor called for active engagement in the life and struggle of another.

So Jesus’ question to the lawyer was really, “Which of these three men in the story drew near to the one in need, which one of them cast all caution and convention aside and drew close by, and truly ministered to the one in need…which one was the neighbor who drew near to the one beaten down and dying along the roadside?

By Jesus’ definition then, “neighbors” are not those who are near to usrather neighbors are who we are called to be.  We are called to be the ones, like the Samaritan, who must have compassion…we are the neighbors who must go out of our way to help the one in need, for in choosing to draw near, in choosing to extend the mercy and love of God, we are sharing hope and bringing light into struggle and darkness.  Every opportunity to be a neighbor is a blessing and a gift from God.  Do we even dare to consider crossing over and passing by on the other side of the road?  I think not…

It was not until I went to seminary that I came into a deeper awareness of what I would call the ‘Samaritan’s Plight’ in America today, it was there also that I realized that I had much to learn about showing mercy…much to learn about going, and, doing likewise.  For you see, I had stayed for far too long, on the other side of the road…

For in truth, it is not enough to draw near, it is not enough to see the very real need, and to be too busy, or too distracted to stop at that moment and to offer help…

It is not enough to walk by someone in need but to feel that their particular needs are just not your business… after all, they are not of your kind, not of your church or your circle of friends, not ones you are comfortable with…

I have learned that it is not enough to pass by on the ‘other side’ because those on the roadside may be dirty or sick, or because they behave a bit oddly, or perhaps even believe a bit differently..

I came to know that it is not enough to feel that your time is your own, or that it belongs to you, and that it is yours to share as you see fit 

And it is surely not enough to keep tabs…to keep a close accounting of all that you do for God, in order to ensure that you are justly, and fairly compensated with ‘eternal life’. 

No, along my journey in faith I have been blessed to learn that faith is to be an active and engaged effort at seeing the need…drawing near…and extending the mercy of Godto each and every one in need, each and every time. 

By grace… and within the embrace of loving, caring, and forgiving friends I have learned that faith is about something other than my own personal salvation.

By grace…I have learned that in fact, it is God who is reaching out to me…it is God who is showing mercy constantly unto me…it is my Lord and Christ who seeks my heart, my soul, my strength, and my mind…

By grace…I have learned that a walk with Jesus, is a walk unlike any other.  A walk with Jesus by its very nature, that will run counter to cultural, social, political, and religious norms…

By grace…I have come to know that I am…and that I represent…but one image, one reflection of my Lord and my God among the vast and glorious tapestry of human life that also includes the image borne by every other sister, and every other brother.

By grace…I have learned that living faithfully is always, and only, the participation in and extension of God’s love to others without condition, and regardless of perceived cost.

By grace…in the overwhelming presence of God’s love, I have learned to show mercy… because I have received mercy…

I am sure that the Jesus I know and love, will give each one of us many opportunities in which we are called to reach out and truly be the neighbor…many opportunities to do that which makes us a neighbor in the eyes of God.

… and I am also sure that we will be asked to be that neighbor in places, in ways, and with people far outside of our understanding, far outside of our comfort zone…and far outside of what we were so sure our particular call was…

…the road down to Jericho awaits only our willingness to travel it.  May we never cross over to the other side of the road.

 “Who was a neighbor to the one in need?”, Jesus asked.  “The one who showed mercy…the one who drew near.”

“You…you…you…go, and do likewise.”

amen

Image by falco from Pixabay

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