Who is my neighbor?

Luke 10:25-37

This is a famous story. A story so famous probably everyone in this room has heard of it. A story so famous that some of us could tell it by heart. When we know a story this well, it’s easy to think that we know exactly what it means. But this story has so many different people to consider, so many different perspectives to wonder about.

We can start with Jesus. I wonder:How does he feel, when he is challenged by the lawyer?  Is he worried that he won’t be able to measure up when debating with someone so well-educated? Why does Jesus decide to respond to his question with a story? Does he make this story up, right on the spot?

There is the lawyer.  Why does he challenge Jesus? Is it possible that he’s asking questions just because he really wants to learn? Is he trying to make Jesus look bad? Does he just want to sound smart? What does he think about the story he is given?

There is the traveler. What was it like, to travel in that time and place? Does he know he might be in danger? How does he feel, when he is attacked? How does he feel, when he is ignored? How does he feel, when he is cared for?

There are the robbers. What makes them decide to take advantage of a vulnerable traveler? How do they live with themselves, after they leave him for dead on the road? Is this their first time robbing someone? Is it their last?

There are the women. What women, you ask? I wonder: why aren’t there any women featured as characters in this story? Graciously, the folks who made this set of images included a few women in the background of the crowd scenes, just to make sure that we knew that that there were, in fact, women in biblical times. Since there were women, I wonder: What did the women think of Jesus, and his story? Could they find themselves inside it, even though they weren’t represented in it?

There are so many fascinating characters in and around this story. There are so many characters that we might relate to, or learn from. Still, most of the pieces of art and commentary on this story focus on just three characters: the two supposedly holy men who ignore the traveler who is wounded on the side of the road; and the Samaritan who acts with extraordinary compassion, caring for the traveler.

The holy men, the priest and the Levite, are so fun to despise. How the mighty have fallen!  What hypocrites! These folks claim to be following God, but what do they do when it comes down to it?

Here’s a modern day pastor striding quickly past a traveler in the road. You know he’s a pastor because he’s carrying a bible; it’s just something we do when out for a stroll. There’s snow, so you can imagine the whole storyis happening in New England, although why the traveler is wearing biblical clothes and modern sneakers, I couldn’t tell you.

If the Priest and the Levite are people we love to hate, the Samaritan is someone we love to admire. Our expectations of him are low; as someone who does not worship at the temple in Jerusalem, he’s considered a stranger, an outsider. Still, he shows up for the traveler, tending to his wounds, placing him on his own animal, taking him to shelter. He even pays an innkeeper to keep taking care of him. Talk about going above and beyond. The hospitals and churches and non-profit organizations named “Good Samaritan” are too many to count. We still use the word “Samaritan” to describe someone who offers generous care.

We focus on these three characters, and we wonder: what have I done, what would I do, what will I do, when I am faced with someone who is suffering?  Will I treat that person like a stranger, and walk away? Or will I treat that person as a neighbor, and care for them?

Caring seems to be the right answer, according to Jesus. I don’t know about you, though, but caring for everyone sounds exhausting. We are caught up in so many unjust systems. We read news of suffering around the globe. We can’t possibly treat everyone like a neighbor, even if we decided we wanted to try. Is this story just one big guilt trip, a set-up to make us feel bad about ourselves for not saving the world by ourselves?

Consider how Jesus ends his teaching session. The lawyer asks, “Who is my neighbor?” and Jesus offers this story. Then Jesus offers a question. Jesus is always asking questions. Here is Jesus’ question: “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”The lawyer answers, “the one who showed mercy.” Jesus says, “Go, and do likewise.”

We could spend a lot of energy trying to decide who our neighbors are – who is in, who is out – who is the most worthy of our love, who is most worthy of our limited time and resources. Jesus invites us instead to ask what it means to be a neighbor. Be a neighbor! Jesus suggests. Ponder the art of neighborliness, and practice it. Each day, as you encounter others along your way, show mercy.  Take it one day at a time. If you don’t get it right, you can try again tomorrow.

It is fascinating to use this story as way of observing the world around us today. We can find people to fit every role. Who are the teachers of wisdom, and who comes to test their wisdom? Who are the vulnerable travelers, and who are the robbers who harm them? Who passes suffering by, without seeming to notice, and who is extraordinarily generous? Who is not even acknowledged as part of the story?

At the end of the day, however, this story is not (or not only) social analysis. It is guidance for faithful living. Jesus’ story, and his question, are offered and recorded as a gift to help us. Do you seek a meaningful life? Do you wish to grow closer to the great love at the heart of the universe? Let’s try being loving towards God, and towards those around us, and towards ourselves.Let’s try being neighborly, and see what comes of it. May it be so.