The Good Neighbor

A homily on the parable of the Good Samaritan of Luke 10:25-37, more recently called the parable of the Good Neighbor.

Ahh the story of the Good Samaritan, what a classic parable. The story is probably Jesus’ most familiar story in all of scripture. Kids, if this is the first time you’ve heard this one then get ready to hear it a lot more of it as you age. The story is told in Sunday school classes, is part of most children’s bibles, and widely preached on by pastors.

If you would, take a second and estimate how many times you’ve heard this story. Get that number in your head. Who thinks they’ve heard the story in one form or another: 5 times? 10? 25? 50? Even more?

Whatever your number it’s likely a lot, right?

Even the phrase Good Samaritan is so common that many a hospital goes by that name. And the phrase so common that laws are named after it here in the US. Those good laws protect people from being sued when they help another person.

The parable, and the phrase, are so common that I wonder if we recognize how shocking this story truly is. At a basic level the takeaway is fairly clear, the entire New Testament can essentially be summarized into the two commands found in Luke 10:27

  • Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind, and
  • Love your neighbor as yourself

The lawyer in the text then asks Jesus who is my neighbor?  Jesus responds by telling the parable. You know the rest, someone is robbed and injured, left for dead. Three people pass the man on the road, and the least expected person of the lot is the one that helps out. And the helper, the one who showed kindness, at his own personal expense, *that* is the neighbor. That neighbor, that helper, that is who we are to emulate, even, or perhaps especially, when it costs us.

But it’s the nature of the three people walking down the road, and what they represent, it is the meaning contained *there* that may get lost on our modern ears. Sure we know what a priest is, but what’s a Levite? A Levite is a member of the tribe of Levi, one of the twelve tribes of Israel, that part I knew off hand. But beyond that I found myself looking for more information, trying to figure out why this particular person is included in the story.

And the term Samaritan? Heck, who knows, it must one of those ancient groups of people we don’t know much about anymore.  John 4:9, says, rather bluntly, that Jews and Samaritans don’t associate with each other. Theologian Karoline Lewis suggests this is perhaps the greatest understatement in the entire Bible. Jews and Samaritans, both culturally and religiously did not share much of anything in common at the time. The two groups generally got along so poorly that, if a Jew came in contact with a Samaritan, the Jew would be required to return to Jerusalem. And once arrived they’d need to undergo a ritual cleansing at the temple.

Yet here the Samaritan is, helping another, in the midst of what appears to be extreme religious tensions. That kind of seems like a big deal.

The Retelling
What I’d like to do is to retell this parable by swapping out the names of the three characters that walk down the road. The name used instead of priest likely won’t surprise you too much. But listen for what is used instead of the terms Levites and Samaritans. A Samaritan from this era was considered a religious outsider in an extreme way. If you would, consider for yourself what person or group you see often considered as a religious outsider, culturally, in the U.S., in 2017. I’ll use the term that comes to my mind in the retelling, tho keep your word in mind as you listen as well. Here we go.

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 you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” And Jesus said to the lawyer, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”

The lawyer then 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. The robbers stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead.

Now by chance a pastor – not unlike myself or Pastor Bryan – was going down that road. And when the pastor saw the man, the pastor passed by on the other side.

So likewise a church musician – perhaps not too unlike those you see gathered here today – also came to the place and saw the injured man. And the church musician, too, passed by on the other side.

But then a Muslim, while traveling, came near the injured man; and when the Muslim saw him, he was moved with pity. The Muslim went to the injured man, bandaged his wounds, and poured oil and wine on them. Then the Muslim put the injured man on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day the Muslim took out two days of wages, right from out of his own pocket, 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?” The lawyer replied, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

The Good Neighbor
With those more modern terms does the story hit you a little differently?

To be honest, my wife Kathi is a better helper when it comes to urgent medical care situations like this. She’s a trained nurse, and naturally dives right in. But this particular pastor? He’s a little slower at times, occasionally needing to be coaxed to action.

And how about the inclusion of church musicians in the tale? One of the roles of Levites, I learned earlier today, is to be temple musicians, who knew? But really, this new narrative shouldn’t be too much of a surprise – you may be church musicians, but you’re musicians all the same, and that’s a rather rough lot, sorry 🙂

And then there is the hero of the story, the religious outsider. The one we, as a society, treat as unclean. The one we, at times, fear. I used the term Muslim for this unexpected hero, as that’s the group that comes to mind, at least for me. Another group may have come to mind for you, and that’s just fine. Regardless of what group is used here the takeaway is the same: Christ asks us to emulate this person, that we love our neighbor as ourselves is at the very core of our faith.

The parable here, surprisingly, asks us to emulate someone not of our own religious tradition, to be a good neighbor as they are. To love them as we love ourselves. To care for them as we care for ourselves. And to even receive care from them, just the same as anyone else. We are to do all this regardless of their religion, be they Muslim, Jew, or Buddhist, Hindu, agnostic or atheist. And that, my friends, coming from the words of our savior, is downright shocking. Now go, Christ implores, and do likewise.  Amen.

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