First Reading Amos 7:7-17
Second Reading Colossians 1:1-14
Gospel Reading Luke 10:25-37
Sermon “Who is my Neighbor?”
It is sad but true: Education and training do not guarantee full understanding and wisdom. Today’s gospel lesson is just such a case. You may recall Jesus’ exclamation from last week’s gospel reading about the triumphal return of the 70 disciples he had sent out. Jesus had sent them to preach that the kingdom of God was at hand and to heal and cast out demons. Jesus commented at the time: “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children.”
Out story begins with just such a learned expert in the Jewish law coming to question Jesus. The Lawyer asks a question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” In reply, Jesus asks him what he had read in his study of the law. Interestingly, he gives the same answer as Jesus did when asked what was the greatest commandment in Matthew 22. The answer quotes Deuteronomy 6:5 “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” And the last half of Leviticus 19:18 “ ‘Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.” Jesus agrees with the lawyers answer – assuring him “Do this and you WILL live”. As we read however, the man was not willing to let things go at that, so he asks what he assumes will be the critical question: “And who is my neighbor”. Perhaps he was looking to see just what boundaries Jesus would set for this term. Fellow Jews? Folks that also serve God?People who lived nearby? Imagine the lawyer’s surprise when the story reveals that it is the other person’s need within your ability to act that defines who is your neighbor. Let’s run that by again in different words so you don’t miss it: who is my neighbor according to Jesus? Anyone who I am aware of, who I can help. That’s a pretty big neighborhood, isn’t it? Having jumped to the heart of the matter, now let’s go back and work through the details to see how we got there.
This is a very familiar story to us, so I am asking you this morning to set aside what you have always thought and heard about the story and try to hear it afresh. Now when Jesus told first told the story, it was particularly shocking because of the characters used: For it sets up a Samaritan as the sterling example to be followed, but the other two, a Priest and a Levite – fellow Jewish religious experts, as those who had failed to understand what it really meant to be a neighbor. As you may remember, the Samaritans were despised by the Jews and vice versa. Let me briefly review why this was so.
The Samaritans were descendants of the mixed population that followed the conquest of the Northern kingdom of Israel by the Assyrians in 722 BC. Our Old Testament lesson this morning took place in that northern kingdom, a few years before its fall. Amos, a Judean shepherd was sent to the North with his dire prophecies, a few of which we read this morning. The prophesies warned of the coming destruction because of the unjust way the rulers treated poor and because of the rampant idolatry of that land. After the conquest, Many of the wealthy, educated and skilled were exiled never to return and other peoples brought in from other countries the Assyrians had conquered.
Later when the Babylonians had in turn conquered the southern kingdom of Judah, they too were exiled but many were allowed to return 70 years later under Zerubbabal, Nehemiah and Ezra. When they did, the Samaritans opposed the rebuilding of the temple and the wall of Jerusalem. They constructed their own place of worship on Mt Gerazim. The Judean Jews considered the Samaritans ceremonially unclean, to be of suspect bloodlines, socially outcast and religiously heretical. The feelings were extremely mutual. Let’s put it bluntly – they each considered the other a likely waste of skin! And yet, with all this history, the Samaritan of Jesus’ story put himself at risk, seeing the injured man’s predicament, he stops and delays his journey, gives the first aid of the day, transports the man to an inn where he provides for his care at his own expense. All of this, he, a foreigner, did for a hated enemy.
Why did the priest and the Levite behave as they did? Well, they had very good and practical reasons. That road descending from Jerusalem down through barren rocky land was notoriously dangerous and staging such an incident to get people to stop would be the perfect way to set up more ambushes. Or – perhaps that man looked like he had already died. Touching a dead body would have made them both ritually unclean and they would not have been able to serve in the temple for a time.
Now, if the lawyer who questioned Jesus had only remembered just a few more verses down in Leviticus, he might not have been quite so surprised at Jesus’ story. There we read- Leviticus 19:33-34  “ ‘When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them.  The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.
It is important for us to understand the background and impact of this story. It is so familiar, that it has been adopted out into popular culture and often times divorced from its original setting. We see Good Sam club stickers on RV’s, we have Good Samaritan laws to protect against lawsuits for those rendering aid; why we even use it to sell insurance -🎵 “like a good neighbor, State Farm is there”. It’s gotten pretty far away from Jesus trying to get that legal expert to understand to limitless grace of God and its call on his life. Our common understanding is miles away from understanding that even enemies are entitled to Godly love and care. Love for God also means coming to understand and value what God values, and God says that we are to love our neighbors as ourselves.
Paul picks up the theme of the centrality of loving others in his letter to the church at Rome: He writes in Romans 13:8-10  Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law.  The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,” and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.
Here we pick up a critical shift in emphasis typical of Christian teaching. We begin to see that “Thou Shalt Not” is insufficient. Just as the lawyer that was questioning Jesus, was confident that he had not killed or committed adultery or stolen, he was still challenged to “go and do” as the Samaritan had done. Prohibitions against sin and error are good, but exhibition of love is better, more complete, more Godly.
In Luke’s telling of Jesus’ sermon to his disciples (what we normally refer to as the sermon on the mount – though it is a plain in Luke) Jesus had these challenging words for his disciples: Luke 6:27-36 NIV  “But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you,  bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.  If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them.  Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back.  Do to others as you would have them do to you.  “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them.  And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that.  And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full.  But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked.  Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
Isn’t that just what the Samaritan did for the man left half dead by the bandits. He helped one who would have naturally despised him. He gave of his time and money expecting nothing in return. He treated him as he himself would have hoped to be treated. He was a Samaritan by birth, but a child of God in action.
Now you have seen the horrific news of the recents weeks just as I have. Stories of hate and murder; of seething mistrust and blind revenge. Violence by and upon the police of our cities. Realignment of nations prompted by the fear of refugees and foreigners of different understandings of how and where to worship God. The violence and hatred in our land seems unending. It is exploited for political points by those running for office in both parties. This world seems a million miles away from that road down from Jerusalem to Jericho. But surely the words of the prophet and the gospel belong squarely in the center of such a time as this. They are not for the sweet by and by. They are the attributes of the Kingdom of God. Seeking to understand them in the full Godly sense what neighbor and love are supposed to mean – is to claim citizenship in that kingdom, and to reject the kingdom of the prince of this dark world.
How can we begin to get past the vicious cycle of anger and vengeance; of hate and suspicion any other way? Do we acknowledge a neighbor or do we categorize and stereotype “Those people”, the ones who are different from us in the color of their skin, or where they were born, or how they talk, or how and where they worship? Do you begin to feel the bite of this familiar story? Do you understand It’s about us after all? The priests and the Levites – the good decent folks, they’re us! It’s so easy to simply pass by on the other side. It’s so easy to compartmentalize our faith from our civic and social affairs. We must not. Nor must we allow our faith to led us to extremism to seek to dominate and control the lives of those around us. Our kingdom values are to be lived out — remember Jesus’ words to that questioning lawyer with all the right answers was simply “Go and do likewise”. The man knew what the scripture said, but he did not truly understand what it meant. He was looking for limits, for exceptions, but was shown absolutely none. Jesus showed him the grace and mercy of God was far broader way than he imagined and that he was to do likewise. Do we really imagine that Jesus would say anything different to us?
To whom might Jesus tell this story to today? That’s right – It’s for us, the children of God. They are the only ones who can really understand. To the rest of the world these are just fanciful, impractical stories. So – Who is your neighbor? No, that’s not the right question. Here is a better one: To whom will you be a neighbor today? We have heard a sterling example from an unexpected place. Do you understand enough to dare to go and do likewise? In so doing, the world will be changed.
In closing let me invite you to rededicate yourselves to the twin life long challenges set before us: understanding the will of God and living it out. Paul puts it this way:
“I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”