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Will You Be My Neighbor?
"And behold, a certain lawyer stood up and put Him to the test, saying,
'Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?'  And He said to
him, 'What is written in the Law? How does it read to you?'  And he
answered and said, '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 answered
correctly; do this, and you will live.'  But wishing to justify himself,
he said to Jesus, 'And who is my neighbor?'
Jesus replied and said, 'A certain man was going down from Jerusalem
to Jericho; and he fell among robbers, and they stripped him and beat him,
and went off leaving him half dead.  And by chance a certain priest
was going down on that road, and when he saw him, he passed by on the other
side.  And likewise a Levite also, when he came to the place and saw
him, passed by on the other side.  But a certain Samaritan, who was
on a journey, came upon him; and when he saw him, he felt compassion, 
and came to him, and bandaged up his wounds, pouring oil and wine on them;
and he put him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn, and took care
of him.  And on the next day he took out two denarii and gave them
to the innkeeper and said, 'Take care of him; and whatever more you spend,
when I return, I will repay you.'  Which of these three do you think
proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell into the robbers' hands?' 
And he said, 'The one who showed mercy toward him.' And Jesus said to him,
'Go and do the same.'"
Perhaps only John 3:16 or the 23rd Psalm is better known
by the public at large than this parable. Familiar passages, like this
one, offer unique challenges and opportunities when they become the focal
point of a worship experience. The challenges are obvious-somehow we need
to find a way to set aside our previous conclusions about this text, because
if we don't, we will block any new insights that we can glean from a careful,
prayerful study of it. This text in particular is challenging because the
"Good Samaritan" has become a cultural icon. The term has come to mean
any stranger that performs an act of kindness. The Oxford American dictionary
defines a Good Samaritan as "someone who readily gives help to a person
in distress who has no claim on him." (P. 538) News writers often use the
term to denote someone who helps a stranger without regard to reward. In
sum, Good Samaritans act without asking, "What's in it for me?" They do
what is right, just because it is right.
At face value, that's a decent definition. Unfortunately, I don't believe
it goes far enough. There is more to this parable than just that. And that's
where our opportunity comes in today. As we open this text together today,
we have the opportunity to allow Jesus to speak to us, just as he did the
people who first heard his words.
Let's begin by working on our definition. The problem with the working
definition of a Good Samaritan as someone who performs an act of kindness,
beyond the fact that the teaching here is greater than that, is that it
can also be skewed to be something negative. I recently read an article
entitled "E-posses patrol for auction fraud" on CNN.com. According to the
article, people who've been duped using online auctions like "e-bay" or
"Yahoo! Auction's Community" are patrolling these services to help protect
others from the same types of scams that they fell prey to. Tom Mainelli,
the author of the article used the term "Good Samaritans" to describe these
people who are helping others on the auctions sites, but he also used terms
like "overzealous do-gooders" and "kamikaze vigilantes" to describe them.
I don't know which of those terms best describe what the e-posses are doing
on the Internet, but I do know they are not synonyms. And that is the problem-the
term has lost its real meaning as it has made its way into our mainstream
vocabulary. When Jesus told this story, the listeners would not have had
our working definition of the term when they heard it. In fact, this was
probably the first time a Jew ever used the two words together. In their
view, "Good" would never be used with the word "Samaritan."
And that is the point of this parable. A man that Jesus' Jewish listeners
despised was the one with real virtue. Not the priest. Not the Levite.
It was a despised despicable Samaritan that was neighborly. It would surprise
no one if the priest or the Levite had rendered aid, without regard for
reward-that is what religious people are supposed to do. But it was a huge
surprise that the Samaritan did. As a whole, the Jews despised Samaritans.
Extra-biblical material calls them "the foolish people who dwell in Shechem"
Shechem is referred to elsewhere as a "city of fools." (ZPEB, V. 5, p.
245) There was a clear divide between Jews and Samaritans. Remember the
words of the "Woman at the well" in John 4:9 "'How is it that You, being
a Jew, ask me for a drink since I am a Samaritan woman?' (For Jews have
no dealings with Samaritans.)"
What makes this parable a great one, isn't that a stranger rendered
aid to a crime victim and provided long term care for him, it is that the
stranger who did it was a Samaritan. In answering the lawyer's question
about being a neighbor, Jesus didn't define neighbor as "someone who shares
your morals, interest, economic status and religious beliefs." He didn't
say that neighbors are people you feel comfortable being around-they are
not "birds of a feather." A neighbor, in this parable is someone who you
despise, yet acts neighborly.
And here's where the teaching gets personal. Our prejudices can keep
us from spotting a real neighbor when we see one. Whether the prejudice
arises because of race, beliefs, economic status, personal appearance,
or hobbies, it can force us into an "us-them" clique.
It happened in the early church. As I read Acts 6:1, listen for the
reason for the first major conflict in the early church. "Now at this time
while the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint arose on the
part of the Hellenistic Jews against the native Hebrews, because their
widows were being overlooked in the daily serving of food." The congregation
was divided in cliques-there were those who embraced the Greek language
and culture and there were those who were native Hebrews who rejected the
Greek culture. They were divided by their differences and their differences
stopped one group from viewing the other as neighbors-people they needed
to act neighborly toward. Their prejudices got in the way.
Where are your prejudices? Come on, be honest. What are your prejudices?
We all have prejudices. That's a given. Where the parable of the "Good
Samaritian comes in is that it teaches us to confront our prejudices, move
them aside and look at the person in front of us. We cannot focus on their
race, beliefs, age, economic status or their differences with us, we must
look past those things and see their soul. The man in this parable wasn't
a lowly, foolish Samaritan-he was a neighbor. Conversely, the priest and
the Levite weren't religious, good people-they were unneighborly.
You see, the crime in acting on our prejudices isn't that we are in
danger of acting violently toward someone, like the robber who beat the
man. It is that we will passively dismiss them and fail to see them as
someone we can act neighborly toward, like the priest and the Levite did.
Instead, we should be like the lawyer who asked Jesus the question. He
came to grips with his own prejudice and admitted to Jesus that it was
the one that showed mercy-the Samaritan that was the neighbor.
The gospel strips away barriers that divide us. Paul wrote, "There is
neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither
male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus." (Galatians 3:28
NASB) The gospel has the power to break down barriers. So why do we let
our prejudices stand in our way from seeing the "neighbor" in those around
us? Why would race be a barrier? Shouldn't a church that takes this parable
seriously be filled with people of all races and cultures? Why would we
let preferences be a barrier? Shouldn't a church that takes this parable
seriously be filled with people that like all types of music? Why would
we let economic standing be a barrier? Shouldn't a church that takes this
parable seriously be filled with people from all walks of life?
The only way that will happen, is if we lay aside our prejudices and
take time to see the soul that is in front of us. A soul for whom Christ
died. A soul who is our neighbor.