Rev. Matthias Peterson-Brandt
July 14, 2019
When Valerie and I first moved into our home in Los Angeles, we moved from an apartment we shared with friends, to our own house. In some ways that was, predictably, a big change with many surprises and adjustments. All of a sudden we had so much more space to fill—one of the bedrooms literally sat empty for months because we nothing to put in it and with no kids, no need to try to fill it.
That first night in our new house, after all the stuff had been moved in, we had a conundrum: a lot of trash and recycling as result of the move. It was far more than could fit in our bins. I packed the trash can full to where the lid barely stayed on top; the recycling was piled high too, with some boxes next to the can; they’d just have to go out next week. As I did all this in the dark along the side of the house, getting ready to pull the trash cans down to the street for pick up in the morning, i heard a voice say: “Hey, let me help you with that.” It was our next door neighbor, Percy, whom I had never before met. Percy was 80, at that point, a black man in a historically black neighborhood where he had lived for close to 50 years. “Let’s put some of that in my cans; I got space.” Percy helped me transfer trash and cardboard and wheel them down to the curb. I thanked him, and went inside, feeling like I had won the lottery. A good neighbor who will help you with something like that, unprompted, just out of kindness, is a rare and amazing gift. It really impacted me and inspired me to go the extra mile to do something nice, extend a small courtesy, share things with those who live around me.
I hope that you have had an experience like that: being blown away by the kindness of your next door neighbor. Have any of you had that? (hands?)
This is good! And yet, Jesus doesn’t seem to be talking about neighbors in the narrow scope of who lives directly adjacent to you. Heck, he doesn’t even seem to be talking about who lives in your block, neighborhood, city, state, or country.
The expert in Jewish law who brings this question to Jesus: “Who is my neighbor?” gets a parable in response. Whoever this expert in Jewish law was, he was not conniving to try to fool Jesus (as the Pharisees often did), and his response to interpreting the whole sense of the law of Moses was summed up succinctly and in a way that Jesus affirms: love God with all your heart and soul and strength and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself. This man is quoting Deuteronomy and Leviticus. Jesus says: “Yes. Do this and you will live.” Yet he pushes on “wanting to justify himself.” Who is my neighbor?
The parable is familiar to most of us—the wounded and robbed man is passed by, first by a priest, then by a Levite (who was a lay leader, assistant to the priest), and at last helped by a Samaritan.
The term “good Samaritan” has become for us a short hand of a total stranger who happens to do something kind or friendly for another person. “Some good Samaritan put a quarter in my parking meter.” A good Samaritan rescued a dog that had fallen through an icy lake and couldn’t get out. If you google news stories that contain the phrase “good Samaritan” you will get thousands of hits like these.
In this parlance, we seem to reduce good Samaritan to total strangers who happen to do something nice, or even life saving, for another person.
Yet to Jesus’ listeners, this parable would have been much more scandalous. See there was a common trope in stories at that time, Priest, then Levite, then Israelite. This was as common a sequence to them as for us it would be to say “Larry, Moe, and ?” or “Snap, Crackle, and ?” or “The Good, the Bad, and the __?” Just like we can fill in the last spot, those hearing Jesus would be familiar with this pattern: Priest, Levite, Israelite. But instead, the final
spot is a Samaritan.
Samaritans and Israelites did not get along; they were enemies. In the Hebrew Scriptures, after the rule of King David, then his son King Solomon, the kingdom dissolved into chaos and broke into two separate kingdoms. Samaria in the North and Judea or Israel in the south. The enmity from that continued in Jesus’ time. So for Jesus to conclude the parable with not a fellow Israelite, but an enemy as the one who rescued the wounded man, that is shocking. And some have interpreted the utter lack of compassion of the Priest and the Levite as them adhering to ritual purity over compassion. Fearing touching a dead body or wounded man and blood, lest they become ritually unclean. So some read this as them avoiding contamination, elevating rules over basic human need. However, there are stipulations in the Torah and in subsequent rabbinical teachings that command helping someone in need. Jesus too questions the Pharisees on this same underlying principle of helping those in need despite laws it might violate. When they question him on healing on the sabbath, he replies: “which is lawful to do on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil?”
In reality, the priest and the levite were skirting their responsibility to help this wounded victim. Perhaps they feared for their own safety, but they couldn’t hide behind Jewish law to excuse their lack of compassion. Besides which, Jesus’ listeners would expect that a priest or levite— paragons of morality and ethical behavior—would be precisely the ones to stop and help because of their in depth understanding of the jewish law and moral standing.
But no, it was a grubby Samaritan.
I don’t spend a lot of time trying to think about who my enemy is, but that is close to the equivalent of what is happening here. Imagine being in desperate need on the side of a blizzarding freeway and being passed by a car—maybe a Prius or some other hybrid car—with an Obama ’08 bumper sticker. Then perhaps you are passed over by a car with all manner of justice-themed bumper stickers, and even one with the emblem of Presbyterian or UCC congregation. Then at last, you are picked up by the pick up truck driver with the MAGA. This is how the parable could be interpreted for our day and age.
Interestingly, though, Jesus never really answers the scholar’s question: Who exactly is his neighbor? At the end of his parable, Jesus asks the man who acted like a neighbor to the robbed and wounded man?
The question of who our neighbor is is connected to the question of what it means to be a good neighbor, what it means to love a neighbor. Notice that in Jesus’ parable of the good samaritan, neighborliness has nothing to do with proximity, who lives next to whom. Neighbor, as Jesus describes it, is perhaps more rightly a verb, something we do, not something we are. To love our neighbor as ourself means we must actually put into action neighborliness.
Just as we are called to seek rest and peace for ourselves, so too we are called to do the same for our neighbors. Just as we love ourselves by caring for our bodies, so too we are called to care for and about the bodies of our neighbors. Do they have enough to eat, are they safe and can they live free from threat, are they able to heal and get care they need, do they know that they are loved and affirmed and appreciated? Just as we treat ourselves with tenderness when we are sad or discouraged, and gentleness when we feel knocked about by life or the world’s news, so too are we called to act with gentleness towards our neighbors, extend them as much grace as we can muster.
Yes, we get Jesus’ point that everyone is our neighbor. We have signs outside this church to that very effect. Culture, gender, race, age, income, political or religious beliefs, or even geographic proximity—none of these determines who our neighbor it. Yet the further grace for us in Jesus’ famous parable is that neighboring is something we are called to do.
The scholar tells Jesus that the whole of the Torah is Love God and love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus says: “do this, and you shall live.” Being a good neighbor is a pathway into life. We cannot live without one another—whether Samaritan or Israelite, Democrat or Republican or any other party or affiliation. We will not survive without others to help us through, sometimes total strangers. May we too not just rest on the belief that we are neighbors with those around us, but may we neighbor them, and in so doing, put the whole of the Gospel into action. Amen.