Who is My Neighbor?

Last year was–a bit rough.   2018 seemed liked a bit of a hot mess in many ways.  Shootings. National unrest. Election insanity.  There’s so much anger. So much fear. Watch the news for five minutes and you’ll hear stories about race, religion, politics—most of them showing humanity at its worst.

 If you’re a parent, you probably feel it in different ways. If your children are grown, you hope your kids will make wise choices that will keep them safe. If you have teenagers, you may try to talk about these things with them—but how do you do it without making things worse? Parents of small kids—you’re just doing your best to shield them from the worst in the world and hoping—hoping that somehow, someday, maybe, this will all work out.

I get it. Our children are watching to see what we will do next, and God knows they need to see us make the right choices here.  I believe the answer to what we should do is found in the Bible, in a story that Jesus once told.

One of my favorite authors, C. S. Lewis, also loved stories. In fact, he once said, ”Sometimes stories say best what needs to be said.”  Stories can help us understand a truth in a different way. Stories break down walls because they are “made up.”  Stories engage in ways that facts and information do not.  I think this story says exactly what our nation and world needs to hear

This story starts with a question.

One day an expert in religious law stood up to test Jesus by asking him this question: “Teacher, what should I do to inherit eternal life?”  Jesus replied, “What does the law of Moses say? How do you read it?”  The man answered, “You must love the LORD your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your strength, and all you your mind.’ And, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.”  “Right!” Jesus told him. “Do this and you will live!”  The man wanted to justify his actions, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

To us today, the word neighbor conjures up images of people who live next door, our neighborhoods, our HOA’s.  If you’re old enough it may bring to mind Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood or Sesame Street‘s “Who are the People In Your Neighborhood?”

But the idea of neighbor was much more to the Jewish people.  In the Old Testament it meant fellow Israelites, or people who had chosen to live as members of their closed community.  By Jesus’ time, religious leaders had narrowed the definition even further to mean people who thought, acted, behaved, and believed, just like them.

In response to the question, Jesus simply tells a story.  You’ve heard the story, probably, or at least the title attached to one of the characters.  The Good Samaritan is used to describe anyone who stops and helps someone in need. Just Google it and you’ll find 500,000 news stories about people helping others who need help.

The story is usually taught that way, too: the moral of this story is be nice to people who are hurting or in need of help.

But Jesus knows that being nice won’t change anything.  Nobody is that nice.  Being nice will not change the world.  In this simple story, He’s completely changes the definition of neighbor—and thereby changes the meaning of what it means to “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

To Jesus’ audience the word had come to mean people who were racially like them, who were part of their closed society, who believed and acted and thought like them.

Jesus’ story begins this way.

A Jewish man was traveling from Jerusalem down to Jericho, and he was attacked by bandits. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him up, and left him half dead beside the road.  By chance a priest came along. But when he saw the man lying there, he crossed to the other side of the road and passed him by.

The man is half-dead, which, if you remember your Princess Bride, is close to “mostly dead.” And according to Jewish law, the priest would be unclean if he came into contact with a dead body, which would keep him from doing priestly duties. So here is a Jew, a man just like the injured man, who refuses to help. For all the right reasons, the priest makes the wrong choice—and walks on by.

A temple assistant walked over and looked at him lying there, but he also passed by on the other side.

The next person to pass by also shares the man’s faith. He actually works in the temple—perhaps he’s on the host team, or helps park the camels, or gets the coffee ready. If he is really great, he works over with the kids.  He, too, is Jewish and he does one thing better than the priest: he actually walks over and looks at the half-dead man. But once he gets a good look he remembers that “half dead is mostly dead,” so he walks to the other side of the road, going out of his way to avoid him.

 Imagine the crowd listening—imagine the expert in Jewish law. Jesus is telling a story about a Jewish man who was left helpless and dying by his fellow Jews—which is completely the opposite of everything they have been taught about loving your neighbor. If you are supposed to help anyone, it’s the people who are like you. Jewish people are supposed to help other Jewish people. Those were the rules.  They were probably thinking: “If the people who look and think and act like me aren’t my neighbor, then who is? Where’s he going with this?”

The next words of the story show exactly where Jesus was going with this:

Then a despised Samaritan came along.

Samaritans were despised by Jewish people. Way back, long ago, they had been part of the same family line—they, too were descendants of Jacob. But because of intermarriage and conquest, the people of Samaria became “half-Jews.” So, for hundreds of years, the Jews had come to view the Samaritans as subpar, almost animals. They referred to the Samaritans as a “herd,” not as a nation or people. An old Jewish saying even said “a piece of bread given by a Samaritan is more unclean than swine’s flesh.”

Naturally, all of this led the Samaritans to hate the Jews, too. They so frequently attacked Jews travelling to Jerusalem that the Jews would go out of their way to avoid the entire region. Samaritans would even serve under the Romans because it gave them a chance to legally harass the Jews.  Here we have two people, living in the same country, who could not have been further apart. They were divided—like our world today—by race, religion, and politics. And they did not see any reason to change that.

Going over to him, the Samaritan soothed his wounds with olive oil and wine and bandaged them. Then he put the man on his own donkey and took him to an inn, where he took care of him. The next day he handed the innkeeper two silver coins, telling him, ‘Take care of this man. If his bill runs higher than this, I’ll pay you the next time I’m here.’

The despised Samaritan is the one who stops. He not only looks at the man, he soothes his wounds. He does everything he can to stop the bleeding and heal the damage done. He makes his own journey more difficult by giving his ride up to the broken man. He takes him to the local motel and spends the night taking care of him. The next day, he hands the owner the value of two days’ wages to ensure his ongoing care—and promises to pay for whatever else the man might need.

Then Jesus just looks at his audience and asks, “Now which of these three would you say was a neighbor to the man who was attacked by bandits?”

Who showed mercy? Who showed compassion? Who crossed every conceivable line to stop and help?  The teacher of the law can’t even bring himself to say the word “Samaritan.” He says, “The one who showed him mercy.”

Loving your neighbor as you love yourself sounds easy until we realize what Jesus is saying here. In a revolutionary little story that shakes up the notion of who our neighbor is, Jesus makes clear that our neighbor may not be the person who thinks and looks and acts like us.  According to Jesus, our neighbor is just the opposite, and is someone you may not expect. You may not share the same skin color. You may not share the same religious beliefs. You may disagree politically.

In this story, Jesus is challenging us. He’s saying if we want to truly inherit eternal life—if we want to truly live the life He has called us to and created us for, we have to see everybody, even the people with whom we disagree and have nothing in common, differently.

Because when we come into the kingdom of God, these boundaries are set aside. What divides us is removed. He’s telling us we need to get close, get personal, give up our own comfort, and care about the people who are “not like us,” or not on “our” side.  We don’t get to say that there is anyone who is “not like us.” There isn’t a “side.” 

The world is built on boundaries and divisions. The kingdom of God is built on loving your neighbor as yourself. The world will tell us that the way to solve the problem is to vote for Hilary or Donald.  To support this particular cause or stand for this one thing.

It’s been telling us that forever. It doesn’t seem to be working.

 What will work, what will make the difference is when we—the people who love Jesus, who call him Lord—start living as if we are one. One church. One body. One family.

This story reminds me so wonderfully about why I love working with kids. Because kids aren’t naturally “for” or “against” anything. Except things like vegetables. That’s the hotbed topic on the playground—“What’s your stand on Brussels sprouts?”  Kids will play and interact and love each other regardless of their differences. If a kid is hurt or crying, they don’t wait to find out the societal issues that might have caused it—they don’t ask who’s to blame, whose childhood caused the problem or what color skin the other kid has:  they go get a bandaid. They see what’s wrong and they do everything they can to make it right.

 At the beginning of the passage, a man asks, “Who is my neighbor?”  You’ll notice Jesus doesn’t answer it. He leaves that to us, his audience. He simply tells the story and asks another question:

“Which of these would you say was a neighbor?”

How do you answer this question? Because if you answer it the way the man in the story did, your response isn’t optional.

The last thing Jesus says in the story is “Now go and do the same.”

That’s not “if you feel like it” or “if they don’t irritate you.” That’s a command, and our Savior is telling us to do it. To go, and do the same. To go into the world and be the Samaritan.   To see beyond where we disagree, to see past what may divide us.   Let us be a good neighbor to the world. To see our neighbors as Jesus sees them, because that’s what the kingdom of God is built on!

The world is broken. Jesus fixes it. Our job is to share Him with the world. We don’t need to chant a slogan or share a post on Facebook, we don’t need to stand up and sing “Ebony and Ivory.”

 We need to LIVE this out. To truly love our neighbor as we love ourselves. Because when we do, the world will stop seeing us—and they will see only Him: our wonderful, amazing Savior—in whom there is no division, no sides, no “us” or “them.” Just Jesus. Or, as Paul said it,

“For you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

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