There was a show that was on a few years ago starring Tim Allen called Home Improvement. If you haven’t seen it, Tim Allen played as Tim Taylor, who had a DIY show and gave tips and tricks to people doing home improvement projects. And, of course, it was a sitcom so the show included his family life and all their hijinks. There was this one particular part of his home life that I remember, and that was his neighbor, Wilson. They would often have chats peppered with the one-liners you expect from a 90s sitcom, but the thing that stuck out was that you only ever saw the neighbor from his eyes up—the rest of him was hidden behind a privacy fence. Whatever the extent of their conversations, Tim never interacted with Wilson except at eye level behind a fence.
Sometimes, neighborliness is exactly like that. We may be cordial and friendly, looking out for each other and sharing news, but a lot of the time—not always, but a lot of the time—our interactions with our neighbors end there. It’s like Robert Frost’s poem Mending Wall when the neighbor tells him that “good fences make good neighbors”—essentially that it’s the separation that makes us get along with those who live next to us. So it’s with this idea of neighborliness in our cultural minds that we hear this story of the Good Samaritan and its focus on loving your “neighbor” as yourself.
It all started with this lawyer standing up to test Jesus. He wanted to know what the fullness of life that God promised—eternal life—looks like? I think it’s important that we remember that it says the lawyer was testing Jesus, because his question wasn’t a genuine wonder with an open mind. He already had his answer in his head; he just wanted to see if Jesus would say the words he wanted to hear. But Jesus instead turned the question back on the lawyer: “What does it say in the Law that you study? What is your interpretation of what you read?”
And the lawyer gives the correct answer: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind; and love your neighbor as yourself.”
There’s that word again: neighbor! I know we’ve heard that word a thousand times in church, and we’ll hear it a thousand more times again, but what does it mean? Have we, maybe, been caught up in the pious nodding of the word “neighbor” so that it’s become another churchy word like Alleluia or Christ is Risen—good words that we never stop to wonder what they mean or how they change things? Well, it turns out the vagueness of the word “neighbor” wasn’t something limited to just our time. The lawyer, surprise surprise, decided to split hairs on that word. “And who is my neighbor?” he asked Jesus. Again, not a genuine question. He wanted Jesus to say the words he wanted to hear. He wanted Jesus to tell him where the line was, who he was safe not to care about, who he could comfortably ignore. Instead, Jesus told a story (like he always did).
And we know this story. We know this story so well that I probably didn’t need to read it to you this morning for y’all to know what was going to be said. You know about the man, beaten and robbed and left for dead on the road to Jericho. You know about the priest and the Levite going to the other side of the road. And you know about the Samaritan, who had mercy on the man, put him up at an inn, and made sure that he was healed. When Jesus finished the story he turned the question of “who is my neighbor” on its head when he asked the lawyer, “Who was a neighbor to the man?”
When Jesus reminds us that the fullness of the life God promises us is one that’s filled with grace and mercy and healing and wholeness, it’s good that we have stark reminders like the one Jesus gave in the parable of the good Samaritan. There isn’t any room for hemming and hawing over who we’re allowed to comfortably ignore, because the person who should have been the villain is the one who was a neighbor to the victim in the story. The lawyer tried to split hairs and was confronted with all-encompassing grace that doesn’t bother with distinctions. It turns the question to us, as well, when we want to draw lines on who we can comfortably ignore.
Who do we desperately want to not have to care about, like the person whose loose morals have landed them in danger to their body or soul, who we’d much rather blame than help? Who do we feel we should be allowed to leave out of our circle of care, like the person whose personal convictions are so abhorrent to us that we secretly believe the world would be better off without them around? Who do we hope is okay to ignore when they need mercy, or grace, or healing, like the person who has harmed us or our family in some deep and painful way? Or, as Debi Thomas put it, “Who is the last person on earth you'd ever want to deem "a good guy?" The last person you'd ask to save your life? Whom do you secretly hope to convert, fix, impress, control, or save — but never, ever need?”
The parable of the good Samaritan is intended to widen our idea of who our neighbor is, and how we are called to care for them. It’s so much more than the neighborliness of good fences. Instead, we’re challenged by this parable to reimagine our obligation to love our neighbor, getting our hands dirty in the work of bringing healing and wholeness, confronting biases and hidden prejudices that make us not want to help certain people. The Samaritan gave up his seat on his own animal to get the beaten man to a place of safety, and he put up the man with his own money at the inn, not asking questions of worthiness even though he didn’t know the man from Adam. Loving our neighbor as ourselves is challenging and it doesn’t leave room for splitting hairs, as much as the lawyer who tested Jesus (and perhaps us too) so desperately wanted. It doesn’t leave anyone out of our circle of care.
And what’s more, Jesus doesn’t let this radical concept of neighbor stay theoretical. The lawyer wanted a good, spirited argument in the ivory tower. Jesus finished the conversation with a command to take this widened understanding of justice, mercy, and love out into the world with the simple phrase, “God and do likewise.”
So, people of God, go and do likewise. Show mercy to the one who you don’t know. Give grace to the one you don’t like. Welcome the one on the edges. Use your own resources to ensure your neighbor is cared for. Change the world with the mercy, grace, justice, and love that Jesus has already given to you. You already have eternal life. This is what it looks like when you live it.
Thanks be to God. Amen.