Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.” – Luke 10:25-37
The last week of June, 43 children ages 3 through 12 from Ebenezer, Unity, and Immanuel Lutheran Churches – as well as several children from the neighborhood – gathered with many of our youth and adults for Vacation Bible School. The curriculum was developed by ELCA World Hunger, and the theme for the week was: Who is My Neighbor?
Throughout the week, we sang songs in different languages and we prayed together. We learned the parable of the Good Samaritan and we heard a few other parables about how God calls us to care for others. We made crafts and we definitely had a lot of fun getting each other wet with water balloons.
Each day, we heard stories about many of our neighbors here in Chicago and in several countries across the world who are experiencing homelessness or hunger for a variety of reasons. We learned how ELCA World Hunger is currently partnering with some of our global neighbors to work to end hunger, we ate snacks that are often eaten in these countries, and we talked about some ways we can personally share God’s love with our local neighbors.
And then the children put all of this into practice. Three of the four days, they participated in service-learning projects to learn about and offer their love and support to some of our neighbors in need. And every day, this group of children – who were a wide range of ages, who have different abilities and needs, who attend multiple churches and schools, and whose families come from different countries of origin: welcomed one another, built community together, and offered care for each other.
Who is My Neighbor?
We hear this question in our Gospel this morning.
Jesus is traveling toward Jerusalem when – on his way – he is approached by a lawyer. This lawyer – who probably did not like all the messages he was hearing from Jesus – tries to test him. “Teacher,” the lawyer says. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
“Well,” Jesus says, “You’re the lawyer. What is written in the law? “
The lawyer – who knows his stuff – answers from Leviticus and Deuteronomy: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”
“You have given the right answer,” Jesus says. “Do this, and you will have life.”
But – wanting to justify himself, the lawyer pushes a little farther: “And who exactly is my neighbor?” he asks.
It’s easy for us to point our fingers at the lawyer and look down on him for being the testy and exclusive character in the story. And yet, if we are honest with ourselves, I think we can often get testy with Jesus, asking him this very same question, as well. Who exactly is my neighbor? Who do I really need to love and care for?
Because behind this question is another stronger question: “Who isn’t my neighbor?” Who are the people I can ignore when I see their suffering? Who are the people I can exclude? Who are the ones who don’t belong in our community, but rather belong behind walls… Who are the ones we can justify deporting, separating from their families, or putting into cages? There certainly has to be some kind of boundary somewhere. So where can we draw the line?”
Jesus – of course – answers the lawyer’s question by telling a story – what we know to be the parable of the Good Samaritan.
Many of us have probably heard this story numerous times. It is one of the most well-known stories of the bible. And for most of us – it can seem like a pretty reasonable story. There is a man who is attacked by robbers while traveling on the road toward Jericho. He is beaten and left on the side of the road half-dead. Two men walk by and ignore him. But the third one stops and helps him. Jesus tells us to be like that third man. End of story. Go and do likewise.
But for Jesus’ audience, this was quite a shocking story – which, of course, was Jesus’ intention. He had a way of shocking folks through his parables that constantly flipped their social order upside down.
You see, it would have been one thing for Jesus to tell a story where the priest, the Levite, or even a devout man of the Jewish faith was the helper and hero. The Jewish faith was full of commands to help the wounded and save those who were dying. Of all people, the religious leaders would have been expected to do something to help a dying man on the side of the road, especially one who is a fellow Jewish man.
So for Jesus’ audience, it would have been a bit unsettling to hear these two just walked on by.
Although, it would have also been understandable.
You see, Jesus’ audience also knew quite well what the road from Jerusalem to Jericho was like. It was an incredibly dangerous road, full of windy turns that made it easy for robbers to hide from a traveler’s view. And it was actually known as the “Way of Blood” because of the amount of blood shed by robbers. It would have been incredibly risky for anyone – Levite, priest, or layperson alike – to stop and help a person on the side of the road. The robbers could be hiding somewhere on the windy path, waiting for another person to attack. And who knows the reasons this person was lying on the side of the road in the first place. This guy could be faking it, and setting someone up for an ambush. Most people would be terrified in this situation. So it could be understandable for anyone to want to immediately run to the other side of the road and move as quickly as they could to get to their final destination.
And in addition to all of this, whoever chose to help this dying man would have to stop whatever they were doing and use their own resources – if they had any – and go out of their way to get this person to a safe place where they could get the care they needed. And this would NOT have been easy. It’s not like they could quickly run down to Clark St. to get to the closest ATM or use their cell phone to call an ambulance or an uber.
So you see, it would have been quite a lot to ask – for a devout man of the faith or even a religious leader to help another Jewish man in this circumstance.
However, at this point in Jesus’ ministry it would not have been too surprising to hear him call on the faithful to take these kinds of risks anyway in order to help out their dying brother in the faith.
But this is not how the story goes. We all know that Jesus is too radical for telling a parable that ends this simply.
Now, let’s just pretend that Jesus told a story about a Samaritan man who was beaten up and left on the side of the road, and it was a devout person of the Jewish faith who helped him out… This would have definitely been more surprising because while Samaritans and Jews shared historical roots, they split centuries before over political, religious, and ethnic differences. And this centuries-old hostility toward one another was deeply engrained. They despised each other. They considered each other enemies.
And so it would have been quite a big deal for a devout Jewish man to help his enemy, who was considered ceremonially unclean, religiously heretical, ethnically inferior, and a social outcast!
But it would still not be completely over-the-top. This version of the story would just make the religious leader or the devout person of faith a very compassionate hero. But he would still get to remain the superior one, who only now has just saved someone who is his inferior: the less-human Samaritan. And this hero – and everyone who follows his example and goes and does likewise – can still continue to pat themselves on their backs for their good works and hold onto what is often referred to as savior-complexes.
But Jesus does not even tell this version of the story.
Because Jesus – our only savior – has no room for savior-complexes.
And so instead of making the Levite, or the priest, or another devout person of the faith the hero, Jesus makes the most shocking person of all – the hero: the Samaritan man.
And this Samaritan man does not only stop to help the dying Jewish man on the side of the road. He sees him and all of his humanity. He notices his wounds – which in Greek is the word traumata, or trauma. And so he recognizes that this man not only has physical wounds, but he has also been traumatized.
And in seeing all of this, the Samaritan man has deep compassion for the Jewish man on the side of the road. So he takes a dangerous risk, walks over to this man, and gives him first aid treatment.
But he does not stop there. He puts the injured man on his animal, and travels however long it takes to get to the closest inn. And then the Samaritan man stays with him at the inn for the entire night so he does not have to be alone after such a traumatic event. And the Samaritan makes sure this man is not only physically ok, but he also makes sure that he is emotionally and psychologically ok. And then the next morning he pays the innkeeper whatever is needed to ensure this man is cared for.
So who is my neighbor?
Or, as the lawyer in our Gospel this morning was really asking:
Who isn’t my neighbor?
Well, Jesus’ answer is plain and simple. EVERYONE is our neighbor. Even that person we consider to be our enemy. And especially those whom our society deems as less-than.
You see according to Jesus, we can draw no lines. There are no borders in the kingdom of God. The doors to this kingdom are wide open FOR ALL – no matter if one has documentation or not.
In this kingdom, Jesus calls us to clothe the naked, feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, and tear down all walls that divide.
For, to love God is to love our neighbor, as we love ourselves. And thus, we can no longer justify any actions that are contrary to God’s love.
And by making the Samaritan the hero in his story, Jesus flips the social order upside down.
You see, to call someone our neighbor is to place them on equal footing. To see their full humanity. In Jesus’ perspective: to be neighbors is to look at one another and make the statement that neither of us is better than the other and that we both deserve to be treated as human beings… It is to recognize that each of us is a beloved child of God, created in God’s image, beautifully and wonderfully just the way we are.
On the last day of Vacation Bible School, I asked a few of the kids to share with their parents and guardians what they learned throughout the week. Some explained that God loves all of us and wants each of us to love and care for our neighbors. Others talked about how God wants us to see how our neighbors are already sharing God’s love with us and with others. One child explained that our neighbors are not just people we know and live next to. Our neighbors are people who even live across the world. Another child explained that our neighbors are people who may speak, look, dress, worship, and act differently than we do, and that is something that makes our neighborhoods and our world beautiful.
One of the things we talked about during the week was that we build up our neighborhood together by loving our neighbors. And throughout the week – in addition to welcoming and loving one another – the kids literally built a neighborhood out of cardboard. On the last day, we brought the final product up to the sanctuary and the children presented it to the adult volunteers and their parents and guardians. And if you looked closely at this large cardboard neighborhood, you could see tall skyscrapers and apartment buildings, the Thorndale redline, a fountain, a haunted house, trees, homes, shelters, animals and people.
But there was one element in the neighborhood that I will never forget that was created by a 6 year old boy. It was a man who is falling off a bridge and another person who is below him ready to help him in his time of need. When asked to explain why he included this, the boy said that he wanted to create a helper, just like the Good Samaritan. Because this is what we are all supposed to do. We are supposed to be the helpers.
Just this morning, when I opened my email, I saw that I had received a message from this boy’s mom. Included in it was a picture of him with a big smile on his face as he held a large sign over his head that read: “Luke 10:25-37: We should be the helpers.” He was holding this sign as he marched downtown with 10,000 other Chicagoans yesterday to call for an end to the criminalization, detention, and deportation of our immigrant neighbors.
“Who is My neighbor?” Maybe the better question to ask is: Who is being my neighbor?
I think the children and youth in our neighborhood have set a good example for us. So may we go, and do likewise.