a sermon on Luke 10:25-37
preached on July 14, 2013, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone
Over the past two months, on doctor’s orders to get in better shape, I’ve begun walking a couple miles four or five days a week. I’ve developed quite a lovely route, starting down some of the beautiful streets of Beechhurst, moving along the East River waterfront under the Throgs Neck Bridge, and then back to my apartment via one of several routes depending on my time and energy. I pass by a lot of interesting things along the way—first past Olga’s home, where I wave and sometimes even stop and say hello, then past some other beautiful and not-so-beautiful homes, and eventually along the simple beauty of the waterfront, with the majesty of the bridge soaring above. I pass plenty of people along the way, too—women, men, and children of every age, some walking dogs, some biking or rollerblading, many running, many walking, all with their own stories to tell, lives to live, and exercise to complete. Usually, though, we just pass by each other, often engrossed in the music blaring in our ears or the words flashing on a screen before us, sometimes acknowledging one another with a smile or knowing glance, rarely if ever speaking to each other.
I can’t help but think of these moments of passing by when I hear this very familiar parable from Luke this morning. Jesus told it to answer a lawyer who wanted him to define exactly who was his neighbor. A man was attacked by robbers as he was journeying from Jerusalem to Jericho. They took everything he had, stripped him of his clothes, beat him, and left him for dead. Three men passed by who could help him. The first was a priest, and he moved over to the other side of the road and hurried on his way. The second was a Levite, one charged with caring for the temple and doing holy things, and he too passed by on the other side. But a third man, a Samaritan, came along and stopped to care for the man who had been robbed and left for dead.
Now Samaritans were a religious and cultural minority despised by many in that day and age, but he was the only one who didn’t just pass by. The Samaritan not only stopped, he cleaned and bandaged the man’s wounds. He put him on his own animal, took him to an inn, and cared for him there. Then when the Samaritan needed to leave the next day, he left money with the innkeeper to continue the injured man’s care and promised that he would return to pay any remaining bills. After telling this parable, Jesus turned back to the lawyer who had asked him about the definition of neighbor and asked, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” The lawyer, who had been looking for an easy way to limit his definition of neighbor, was forced to recognize that he could not, and Jesus challenged him even further: “Go and do likewise.”
Jesus’ words on how we treat our neighbors reach across two millennia and speak directly even to us. In many places, for many people, the act of passing by our neighbors that inspired Jesus’ story carries deep consequences. In these days, we tend to define our neighbors with the most limited definition possible, preferring to interact only with those we know, those who look like us or act like us, or those who seem to put us at lowest risk. The emphasis for many in looking for neighbors is less to identify those who stand in need and more to find those who look different, those who stand out, those who seem not to belong, and to take action to protect ourselves and others.
Trayvon Martin, a young black man in Florida, was killed last year in exactly these circumstances because someone was keeping watch for those who didn’t look like they belonged in his neighborhood and who felt threatened by his presence and actions. When his killer was acquitted of all charges in his death last night, the tragedy deepened, in large part because suddenly this kind of neighborly behavior seems to be fully sanctioned by the state. But here in this parable Jesus demands that we keep watch for our neighbors and those who look a bit strange, too—not to protect ourselves but to show them grace, not to keep them away from us but to draw us all closer together. In telling this parable, Jesus insists that we not just pass by those who seem to be in need—he demands that we stop and care for them, not turn them in to the police or pursue them with our own deadly force, but to offer them the kindness and compassion we would show to the most honored guest among us.
These kinds of people in need of our neighborly action are all around us. They look like us, and they look very different from us. They are lonely and in need of a listening ear. They are are hungry and wondering where their next meal will come from. They are hurting because of a world that has shunned them. They are forced to live on the streets or in shelters because they can’t afford a place to live. Some are visible or close to us, and others are far away or hard to see even when we are close. Our neighbors are victims of war and natural disaster in nations around the world. Our neighbors are women and men and children who are abused by those who say that they love them. Our neighbors are young people who are forced to live on the streets because their parents or guardians kicked them out when they acknowledged that they are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. Our neighbors are young black men who go out in a hoodie to buy Skittles and a can of iced tea, and our neighbors are even those who are so afraid of others that they carry around a gun and use it to kill those who don’t look like they belong. As commentator Justo González puts it,
It is not just a matter of loving and serving those who are near us (which is what “neighbor” means) but also of drawing near to those who for whatever reason—racial, ethnic, theological, political—may seem alien to us. (Luke, p. 140)
In this parable, Jesus insists that all of these women and men are our neighbors, that they are loved by God and deserve the kind of care and love that we would share with those we love more dearly, for we are as responsible for their well-being as anyone. We are called to reach out to all of them with the kind of neighborly action exhibited by the Samaritan in the parable, even when we are overwhelmed with the challenges of incessant appeals for help, the confusion of deep pain and hurt, and the raw emotion that pours out so easily in these days. It may be easier to say that we are overwhelmed by the help that is needed around us, that there is so much pain and hurt that there is nothing that we can do, but Jesus demands that we embrace his expansive definition of our neighbor.
We may not be able to soothe every hurt and pain or stop and assist everyone in need, but I think there are still ways that we can direct our focus to to those in greatest need of our neighborly love. First, we must set aside our tendency to define our neighbors as only those who look like us, act like us, speak like us, worship like us, or love like us. The neighbor here was not who anyone expected him to be—he was an outsider, one who was naturally despised, one who didn’t belong, and yet he showed mercy. That is what true neighbors do.
Once we take this step, we can start focusing our neighborly efforts on a particular area of need. Maybe we build upon our gifts and talents and skills to make a concentrated effort where we can make the biggest difference. Maybe we use our abundance in a particular place where there is great need rather than spreading it wide and thin. Then we should keep our eyes open for those whose needs are most easily missed by others, those who are most easily overlooked by the rest of the world, those who are too often dismissed as not looking like us, those who do not have anyone to speak up for them in these challenging days. Neighbors offer them not just the support that they need but our own voice so that others might hear their deep and great need and so offer also them the deep neighborly love that the Samaritan showed. And finally we can place our emphasis on being neighbors in times and places and ways that offer the opportunity to change multiple lives, to advocate for changes to unjust laws and stand up against systems that keep people in a cycle of need, to insist that all people have the dignity of life that comes from God alone. While we might still pass some people by if we focus our efforts in these ways, I think Jesus would welcome our concentration on these people who are so easily missed by others and who yet need so much that we can offer them, for how else are we to start reaching out to those in greatest need?
Even this sort of focus in our world is difficult. It’s easier to trust others to be neighbors to those who are in need. Our internal sense of safety pushes us away from those who do not look or act like us. It is simpler to allow structures and systems that perpetuate pain and hurt and harm to keep working as they have always done. And it is ultimately less work if we just let compassion fatigue set in and step back from offering the kind of neighborly care and presence that the Samaritan showed here because there is so much need around us. But Jesus never calls us to stay where we are—he insists that we constantly broaden our definition of neighbor so that we might get a glimpse of the kind of world that God intends for all creation.
So may God grant us the grace and mercy to do all that we can do never to pass anyone by but to offer the kind of love and grace and care and compassion that the Samaritan showed so that all might know that kind of mercy and go and do likewise. May it be so, now and always. Amen.