Thoughts Between Sundays

Some of what crosses my mind between Sundays

Sermon: “Who are the People in Your Neighborhood?”

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A Sermon from Luke 10:25-37, AKA The story of the Good Samaritan

“Who are the People in Your Neighborhood?”

Did you have the flannel graph boards in your Sunday School classes when you were growing up?  Or did you ever use them to teach Sunday School?  For many of us, these were the way we learned Bible stories when we were little – -the boards covered with sky blue flannel that allowed the felt cut-out people and trees and animals to stick to them as the stories were told.  For the story of Adam and Eve, there was a big tree and a man and a woman who had fig leaves sewn on them and a snake.  For Noah and the Ark there was a man with a beard, a woman, an ark, 2 lions, 2 giraffes, maybe a zebra, and a rainbow.  The set included a Jesus figure, several non-descript figures that were interchangeable as Pharisees and disciples, Mary, a donkey or 2, some square houses, maybe an urn or a clay jar, and everything you needed to tell the Christmas and Easter stories.  As each story unfolded, more characters were added to the board.  Today’s reading is one of those stories I first heard in the preschool classroom at church with the flannel board.  There was a felt figure lying on the road, other felt figures walking by, and the star of the show, the good Samaritan.  At 3, what we learned from the flannel figures on the board is that we are supposed to be kind to people who need our help, no matter who they are.

This is perhaps the most often told parable in the Bible, followed or tied with that of the Prodigal Son, also from Luke’s Gospel.  How do you tell the one about the Samaritan?   “Um, yeah… that’s the one about the guys who saw someone hurt on the road and just kept going – -they wouldn’t help him.  Wasn’t one of them a minister?   And then another guy came by – -was he the Samaritan?  Yeah, he was the Samaritan.  And he helped the person in the road.  I think he took him to an inn, and paid the innkeeper to take care of him.  And Jesus told us that we are supposed to be like the Samaritan.”  Ok – you may have a better grasp of the story, but that’s the basic outline many of us carry in our heads.  We have heard it all many times before.  Have you heard this one?   “A man was once on a train going through the Alps for the first time. He sat staring out the window, transfixed by the glorious, white- peaked mountain view. He noticed a man sitting near him reading a detective novel. ‘How can you read with this view out the window?”  “I’ve taken this trip so often I have seen it all many times before.’ [1]”   And we have been on this trip before, we have also read the book and know the story.  What we often forget is that this is one of those classic stories within a story that we find in the Gospel – -The story does not start with “there was a man on the road who was robbed and stripped of his clothing and beaten.”  Rather it begins with Jesus and a lawyer.

Before there were Jesus and the lawyer, there were Jesus and the disciples on the journey to Jerusalem  This is important to remember as we move through Luke’s account of the Gospel.  Jesus has “set his face to Jerusalem” as we read earlier this summer – -he knows where he is going and what his end will be.  He is on a mission, and is teaching his way to the fateful city.  The stories we hear after this turn of events the parables he tells, are all acts of discipleship – -Jesus is teaching his disciples, and us how we are to follow him after he is gone.  The road is his classroom.  He knows that every encounter has the potential to be incriminating and add to the charges that will later be levied against him, and also to be teaching moments for those who follow him.  He is prepared for questions from all sorts of people that will seem innocent yet really be traps designed to get him in trouble; he probably was not surprised when the lawyer interrupts his teaching and asks, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?

This is a confrontation.  It is set up this way, and is not the first time in the Gospel of Luke that lawyers have confronted Jesus.  This is not an innocent question by someone seeking a deeper relationship with God, or someone worried about the state of his or her eternal soul.  It is a confrontation designed to trip up Jesus and get him in trouble.  I imagine most of those gathered to hear Jesus teach that day knew it as well.  The crowd listened eagerly for Jesus’ answer – -what would he say?

Well, he didn’t answer the question, that’s for sure.  Instead, he did asks the lawyer, “don’t you read your Bible?  What does it say in there?”  In other words, “if you are as devout as you want me to believe you are, then you tell me”.  Jesus has turned the question back to the one who asked with another question.  The lawyer answers with a quotation from scripture – one that most of us know – “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and you must love your neighbor as yourself.”  He probably was feeling pretty smug as he answered – -“I was able to answer the question of Jesus…” and as quickly as he was answering, Jesus said “OK, then go do it.”

For me, this is where I know the lawyer is trying to set Jesus up, rather than embrace the path to eternal life and live the way Jesus is teaching.  He does not say to Jesus “how?” or “what does that look like?” or “can I follow you?”  He does not leave the crowd and try to change his life.  Instead he asks another question – “well, who exactly is my neighbor?”  He wants a definition of who exactly he is called to love as himself – – what are the expectations of who is has to love, or like or get along with if he is to gain eternal life?  What are the expectations, and where are the loopholes?  He wants a way out, not a way in.

Jesus does not give him the way out, he tells him a parable – -the one we know.  The one about the man who was on the road from Jericho and was beaten by robbers, had all of his clothes and belongings stolen and was left for dead on the dies of the road.  He lay there for who knows how long, until a priest happened to come by.  When the priest happened to see the man, he crossed to the other side of the road and hurried by.  Likewise, a second man, a Levite, came by and saw the injured man lying on the side of the road.  He too hurried to the other side and did not help.  The third traveler to come across the injured man was a Samaritan traveler.  He came near the man, and was moved with compassion when he saw him.  The Samaritan anointed his wounds with oil to assist in the healing and with wine to dull the pain.  He put the man on his own animal and took him to the nearest inn and cared for him.  The next day he took two day’s wages and gave it to the innkeeper and asked the innkeeper to care for the man, saying that he would return and pay for whatever else was spent.

It is a good story, and one that makes for easy allegory – -be like this and not like that.  Do this and not that.  Be the neighbor and not the priest or the Levite.  I’ve heard that sermon.  I might have preached that sermon.  I saw it acted out on the flannel boards when I was little.  But there is so much more here.  When we dig a little deeper, we see that Jesus was getting at something deeper than “be like the Samaritan.”  For after he tells the story, Jesus asks the lawyer, “who do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”  The lawyer answers “the one who showed mercy” and Jesus tells him to go and do likewise.

There are many of characters involved for such a short story, beginning with the priest and the Levite.  Authors and scholars seem to be divided on whether or not their actions can be excused.  There is one side that says it was all right for them to keep going down the road – that if they had touched the man who was robbed and he was dead, the Priest and the Levite would have automatically become unclean and unable to worship at the temple.  However, the opposite argument is that there is no indication in Jesus’ parable that the two thought he was dead, and that even if he was, it was better, according to the law to bury him than to leave the corpse by the side of the road.  We don’t know who this injured man is, where he lives or where he comes from. The greater context tells us that he was probably Jewish.  When the priest and the Levite ignore him, when they cross to the other side of the road, it is to be seen as a shocking event.  These are two esteemed temple leaders, and they have ignored one of their own for no apparent reason.[2] For those listening, they probably thought this was the shocking part of the story.

And then he said it.  Jesus said the name of their enemy, the name of the one who they see as “other.”  The one who represents a way of life that is not their own, from a place that is not theirs.  What would that name be to you?  You see we have reached the part of the story where close listeners knew the next person to come down the road would be the third person, and the third person, according to storytelling formulas would be the one to rescue the traveler.  If the priest and the Levite would not do it, if they would not stop along the dangerous road and help, then who would?

In the Greek, the next word heard by the listeners, the next word Jesus says, because of the way the sentence structure works is the name of their enemy.  Samaritan.  There was probably a gasp from the crowd when he said the word – -enough to drown out the rest of the sentence.  Enemy.  Other.  The one we fear.  The one we make fun of.  The one we don’t like.  Samaritan.

The relations between Jews and Samaritans was not good, to put it mildly.  We read in 2 Kings that one possible root was the Samaritans forcing foreigners to migrate into the northern kingdom after the Assyrian’s conquest.  These two groups both claim to worship the same God, yet have different cultures, different temples, different ways of life.  They have been at odds and enemies for a very long time.  Jesus is rejected by a Samaritan  on the road to Jerusalem, and Luke hinted at the antagonism between the two groups then.  So how offensive was it for those listening to Jesus tell his parable that the hero of the story was in fact the enemy?

And yet, in this parable, it was.  The Samaritan does stop on the road and help the stranger.  He goes to great lengths to help the stranger – -pouring out oil and wine, putting him on his own animal, and then taking him to the inn for a few days.  He gives up 2 days of wages and asks the innkeeper to continue to care for him, promising to come back and pay whatever else is needed.  The enemy is indeed the hero of the day.

Jesus finishes his story pretty abruptly, it seems.  There is no description of if the traveler survived or how well the innkeeper took of him.  We don’t know if the Samaritan even came back.  But the end is not the point.  The point is made clear when he looks at the lawyer and asks the question, “which of the three was his neighbor?”  The lawyer realizes now that he has lost the argument.  There will be no outsmarting Jesus this time.  Yet he can barely choke out the words, “the one who showed him compassion.” And refuses to name his enemy by saying “the Samaritan.”   And Jesus brings the conversation full circle by telling him, once again, to go do likewise.  The definition of neighbor is not coming, because there is not one.  There is not a limitation, a box in which to put people – -show compassion here and not there.

Did you ever watch Sesame Street?  If ever there was a street that exemplified the concept of not limiting who you played with, who you learned with, who you sang with, this was it.  I have not watched Sesame Street in a long time, but count myself lucky enough to be part of the generation that grew up with the original cast of characters – both people and Muppets.  I still remember being sad when Mr. Hooper the store owner died, and occasionally will see faces I remember if I happen to catch a video online.  But where else can a Big Bird, a grouch, a snuppheleogous, blue monsters, a frog, and all sorts of indescribable creatures live together as neighbors?  It was on Sesame Street that I saw the musical piece “who are the people in your neighborhood” that I posted on my blog this week.  It was a segment that they did with several variations.  I think the lesson we were supposed to learn was about the different jobs people could have – -doctor, teacher, grocer, firefighter, trash collector, bus driver – -those sorts of things.  But since the Muppets played the people in the neighborhood, none of them looked like the people in my neighborhood.  It was through that lens I looked at it again this week, and wondered how we answer the question today – -who are the people in our neighborhoods?  Who are our neighbors?

It can be easy enough after hearing the parable again, after learning that the enemy is the one who stops to help, to say, well of course, everyone is our neighbor.  But this is one of those, “do we practice it?” sermons?  Remember the question I asked earlier – – when you think about someone who is your enemy, or “other,” who comes to mind?  Now, if you were passing by the road and saw them half dead in a ditch, what would you do?  If you saw them by the side of the road holding a sign that said “need food?”  Or if they just asked you to listen to their story?  What was the last favor you did for a neighbor?  Is there anyone you would not do that for?

There is another angle to this story – -we so often want to plant ourselves in the role of the Samaritan – -the one who gave help.  But what if we were half dead by the side of the road and the person who came to help us was from another place or another culture – -how would we receive their help?   Do we care at that point who they voted for or what church they attend?  I’m not sure that is what matters.  What does it look like when we don’t get to pick our doctors or police officers or others who help us when we need it most – have we ever asked for someone else for reasons that have nothing to do with professional ability?  How do we receive hospitality from our neighbors, when we think they are our enemies?  This is not just about the color of someone’s skin or where they are from – -it can be political beliefs, religious beliefs, educational levels – -anything that draws that line between “us and them,” allowing us to forget that we are all neighbors.  It has been said that “whenever you draw a line between who is in and who is out, God will be on the other side.”  If you are in the ditch, all concerns about identity disappear – it is about being neighbor to neighbor and human to human.  Who is your neighbor?  Anyone in need, and anyone who provides when you are in need.

Maybe “who are the people in your neighborhood?” isn’t the best sermon title for this text.  That seems to suggest a geographic boundary that Jesus emphatically defied.  But if the neighborhood is the globe, and it includes purple carpenters, orange teachers, green lifeguards and blue grocers like Sesame Street, maybe Jesus would think that’s OK.  The lawyer told Jesus, when Jesus asked him how his Bible answered the question about eternal life, that “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with your mind and with all your strength, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” To which Jesus replied “go and do likewise.”  After he told the parable, Jesus asked the lawyer which one was the neighbor, and the answer was “the one who showed mercy,” to which Jesus again responded “go and do the same.”  The issue is not the who – -the answer to that is clear – -we are neighbors to all – -all who need mercy and compassion. The call here is to love and action.  We are called to go and do – -go and love our neighbors.  Go and serve our neighbors.  They may be our neighbors who are sitting next to us here today.  They may be the ones who live next door, or the folks we see at the grocery store.  We may not actually like our neighbors – -we may consider them to be our enemies, yet the gospel message to us this day is clear – -we are to love them was we love ourselves, and we are to show them mercy and compassion.

That’s a lot to put up on the flannel board, and can be a lot to live out some days.  Maybe that’s why so often we want to take the easy way out when we hear and teach this story – – go and be like the Good Samaritan and help people who need help.  Yet he is never called good in this story – -Jesus never gives him that title, we did.  What should be on the flannel board is this: go and show mercy and compassion to all your neighbors, even the ones you count as your enemies.  Even when it is hard, even when you can’t say their names.  In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.


[1] Alyce McKenzie:  “How not to Inherit Eternal Life”   Posted July 6, 2010 at http://www.patheos.com/community/mainlineportal/2010/07/06/july-11-2010-how-not-to-inherit-eternal-life-luke-1025-37/

[2] Matthew Skinner, Feasting on the Word, Theological Perspective, Year C, Volume 3, p 241

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