To whom am I a neighbour?
A certain woman went down from London to Cardiff and ran over a lump of wood on the road. A nail was protruding from the wood. It punctured her tyre and left her stranded by the side of the road. After opening the boot of her car, she got back into her car, locked the doors, and sat in the car, praying for the Lord to send help! By chance, there came a limousine that way with a bumper sticker that read, "Smile, God loves you!" When the occupants saw the stranded woman, they moved over to the far lane and passed by quickly without smiling.
And likewise, there came a sports car with a mobile phone and a bumper sticker saying, "Honk if you love Jesus!" The man who was driving passed by, in fact put his foot down, moved over to the far lane and drove on. He didn’t honk or use his mobile to call the RAC/ AA about the woman's dilemma.
But a certain working man, as he travelled to his job, came to the spot where the woman was and, when he saw her open boot, and flat tyre, he had compassion on her. He stopped his old beat-up car - which had no bumper sticker - and crossed the road and offered to change the tyre. The man took out the spare tyre, jacked up the car, removed the flat tyre, and replaced it with the spare.
When he had finished, the woman tried to pay him. He refused the money, saying, "If my wife were stranded on the highway with a flat tyre, I'd want some Good Samaritan to stop and help her out."
He returned to his bumper-sticker less car, smiled, honked at her, and went his way.
Which of these three was a neighbour to the woman who had a flat tyre?
Of course, you recognised in this story the parable that Jesus told about the Good Samaritan. The reason why Jesus told this story in the first place is important.
A man who is well versed in Old Testament law asked Jesus a question, not because he didn’t know the answer (or rather, he thought he knew the answer) but he wanted to trick Jesus into saying something that would point out that he was a false teacher. "What must I do to inherit eternal life?" is the first question that the lawyer asks Jesus. The answer is simple. It comes straight from the Old Testament. "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind"; and "Love your neighbour as you love yourself." Jesus congratulates the lawyer for this answer, saying: "Do this and you will live."
But the lawyer isn’t going to let Jesus get away with simply quoting the "love God and love your neighbour" rule, so he asks, "Tell me, who is my neighbour? Is it that unruly child who lives up my street, or that annoying person living next door? Is it that homeless person who annoys passers-by asking for money for a sandwich? Is my neighbour the hungry mother and her child halfway around the world or the victim of war in Iraq?"
The lawyer continues, "I am confused by the immense range of possibilities which this commandment places before me, Jesus of Nazareth! Shouldn’t we set up priorities of need? Must there not be detailed guidelines for such a broadly worded commandment? Shouldn’t we stipulate certain types of "neighbours" who deserve to be helped over and above those who seem to abuse this "love God, love others" rule simply to get themselves out of trouble? All this must be cleared up first, Jesus of Nazareth, before I can begin to love my neighbour in a concrete way. Tell me now, who is my neighbour?"
I would guess that the lawyer didn’t really want to know what the answer was. He wanted a precise definition about the meaning of the word "neighbour", and so long as everyone kept discussing, there was no need to get serious about doing anything. Maybe he was hoping that Jesus would draw a line between those who were "neighbours" and those who were to be ignored. In this way he could feel quite justified in ignoring certain types of people like lepers, or tax collectors, or those hopelessly enmeshed in sin.
Whatever the lawyer’s motives were, Jesus took the opportunity to make this a teaching moment.
Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan and ends with a disconcerting reversal of the question of who my neighbour is. The reversal runs as follows: Who among these - the priest, Levite and Samaritan - had behaved as a neighbour?
Who was a neighbour to the man who had fallen into the hands of the robbers? Was it the priest – a man dedicated to serving God in the temple, who most likely had just come from the temple since he was going down that road? Was it the Levite – a teacher of the Law – someone who surely knew what was right and wrong? Was it the Samaritan – an outsider, not considered part of God's family, ignored and snubbed by people like the priest and the Levite? In fact, this stranger would have had every cause to just walk on by for this very reason. "Who acted like a neighbour to the man attacked by robbers", Jesus asked?
Imagine you were there when Jesus first told this story. I’m sure that there would have been whispers of concern among the listeners. I dare say loud whispers of concern. "No, not the Samaritan. He can’t be the hero! This half-breed heathen can’t be the one who goes out of his way to care for his enemy! I can’t believe that Jesus is saying that if you want to be right with God, then be like the Samaritan".
The teacher of the Law must have found it terribly hard to say out loud, "The person who had been a true neighbour to the dying man in the ditch was the one who had been kind to him – the Samaritan.
As you know, this story inspires Christians to help and show concern for those in desperate need - those "out there", those in other countries, the poor, the starving, the homeless, the refugee and so on. Generally we are very good at supporting "the neighbour" through the various charities and so on. In many cases all that’s required is some of our money. Don’t get me wrong, this is a good thing.
But I want to also point out that our neighbour is also the person right here in our community, whom we often see, whom we often ignore, whom we often don’t want to associate with, whom we try to avoid because we know that it will cost us money and time. Perhaps the neighbour who needs you at this time is the person sitting in front of you, behind you, next to you. Too often we look to faraway places to find people whom we can be a neighbour to and overlook those who are right under our noses.
On her way to work a woman passed what appeared to be a street kid, not very old, clothes all wrinkled, hair unbrushed, carrying a McDonalds cup of steaming coffee. "Obviously bought with money he had scammed from someone on the street", the woman thought to herself.
"Hey, lady, you want some coffee", he said to the woman as she walked past.
The woman expecting there to be some catch said, "You’re very generous this morning. Why are you giving away your coffee? Is there something I can give you in return?" She wished she hadn’t said that because she left herself wide open for the inevitable request for money.
The young lad said, "Yeah, just give me a hug."
The boy wrapped his arms around her every so tightly. The woman was embarrassed and felt uneasy. People were starring. Her embarrassment soon gave way to compassion, and she wrapped her arms around the boy.
We don’t have to look too far to find people who are longing for some kind of human warmth – people in our family, among our friends and relatives, those in our neighbourhood, and there will always be those strangers looking for compassion and kindness.
This story about the Good Samaritan is one that I have preached, taught, and told many times, but it is a story that I always stumble over because in it I see just how many times I have crossed to the other side of the road and walked on pretending that I didn’t see the pain, the need, the hurt, because I knew that stopping would cost me something – maybe energy, money, time (a priceless item these days).
This parable hits us hard as it defines what kind of neighbours we ought to be. Neighbours who ignore boundaries and labels that separate people. Neighbours who let nothing stand in the way of compassion and love. Neighbours who are willing to be gracious – giving their love freely even though we might think the other person doesn’t deserve it. Neighbours who are willing to reach out to family members, friends, in fact anyone and like the woman in the story give a hug – a hug of understanding, of compassion, of forgiveness, of comfort.
This kind of neighbourliness isn’t just a once in a while thing when it suits us, it is the full-time work of the Christian. Jesus says to us, "You go, then, and do the same." "Don’t just talk about it, do it!"
That’s hard, really hard. We all know how hard it is to be the kind of good Samaritan that Jesus is describing in this story. Rather than identifying with one of the three main characters, maybe it’s better first of all to see ourselves lying there in the ditch half dead, bleeding, crying desperately for help. Jesus doesn’t pass us by but is filled with compassion, heals our wounds, and assures us that his care is ongoing – just like that of the Samaritan who booked the wounded man into a hotel until he recovered.
The truth is, if our eternal life depended on the way we carry out Jesus’ command to "love God and to love others", then without a doubt we would be doomed. This command of Jesus to "go and do" reminds us just how much we need Jesus to be our Good Samaritan. He is the one who took the risk for us and gave himself over into the hands of his enemies and died on a cross. He is a true neighbour to us and soothes our wounds of sin and failure, especially our failure to really love others. He has paid the price for us to enter the bliss of eternal life. He is neighbour to us and in an undeserved and unearned way gives us his love and forgives us, even though we are his enemies. He is truly our Good Samaritan.
Having experienced this overwhelming love that knows no boundaries, the Holy Spirit stirs within us the will to be like Christ to others. We are stirred to take action right now as we hear again these words of Jesus, "Go, then, and do the same".
People get caught up in all kinds of things that turn their lives upside down. Will that person have a neighbour; will any person stop, soothe their wounds, and help them with an extravagant and lavish show of gracious love? Will the trouble in their lives be reversed by some caring person? Will that caring person be you or me?
There are people all around us who are half dead and lying in a ditch. Some are half-dead physically, others emotionally, others spiritually. They are powerless to do anything about rescuing themselves. God grant us the will and the love to truly be their neighbours.
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