Who Is My Neighbor?
Down at the softball field, we have this really incredible scoreboard. It’s a great way to keep track of the game for the people who are watching, and even for the teams on the field. Since we got the scoreboard, I’ve normally been the one who scores the games when Our Savior’s plays. Well, last Sunday, while I was at the scoring machine, a little boy—maybe five or six years old—took a break from playing with his friends to check out what I was doing.
He asked me what the buttons were for. He asked me what an “out” was and what button to push when the team got a run. He asked about how it connected to the scoreboard. And before long, he started wanting to push the buttons himself, making sure I was there to help guide him along. What started as a little bit of curiosity turned into a brand-new skill he learned over the course of the evening.
Curiosity isn’t something that just little kids have, either. My dad’s mom, my Maw Maw Bertha, was a lifelong learner—always curious. She started learning French in her 80s, about the same time I started learning it in high school. And I really believe she got better at it than I ever did. But one of the important things about her curiosity was her willingness to ask questions. And sometimes we might be a little hesitant to ask questions out of fear of what ignorance that might show about us.
I had that thought about curiosity in my head this week while reading this parable we all know so well. It all starts with a question—or a couple questions—by an eager lawyer who came to check out if Jesus really was as wise as they said. Now, I know the traditional view of the lawyer is that he was this antagonistic person trying to trip Jesus up, or a self-righteous man thinking he could justify himself by getting Jesus to admit the man was doing enough. But let’s set aside those readings for a moment and imagine the lawyer differently.
Dr. Karoline Lewis, a professor at Luther Seminary, suggested that we could think of the lawyer, far from trying to trick Jesus, was instead an earnest seeker of knowledge. He was probably a bright student of the Jewish Law, and he knew it front to back. He gave the right answer to Jesus’ question, after all. But he was also a curious person. His correct answer told him to love his neighbor. He’d read it a million times.
Love your neighbor as yourself. Don’t neglect to help your neighbor. What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor.
And maybe it occurred to him that no one had taken the time to actually mention who this “neighbor” was supposed to be. It was the pious phrase that everyone knew but no one actually defined. And Jesus, so clearly the wise rabbi he’d heard about, might just be the guy to answer his question.
“So who is this ‘neighbor’ we’re commanded to love?”
The way Jesus answers his question makes me think Jesus was secretly a Southerner. It drove Annie nuts when we first got married, but I don’t usually give straightforward answers either. Down south, we tend to answer with a full-blown story. And that’s what Jesus did. “There was this man,” he goes, “who was travelling down from Jerusalem to Jericho.”
And we know the rest by heart.
Yet, a lot like how the lawyer wanted to know who this “neighbor” was that everyone kept talking about, is the story of the Samaritan so well known that maybe, just maybe, it’s become one of those pious phrases we all know but no one bothers to define? It usually seems to boil down to “be like the Samaritan, not the Levite or the priest.” A morality tale. A neighbor shows compassion. And that’s true, but is that all this parable is about?
When Jesus finished his story, he turned the question around on the lawyer. Rather than “who is my neighbor?” Jesus instead asked him “who was a neighbor to the man?” That’s quite a different question, isn’t it? Maybe the definition of a “neighbor” is wider than just asking what my obligation is to others. Most of us remember Mr. Rogers, who would always use the term “neighbor” not just to describe how he was called to treat others, but who had been put with him to live in community with. Jesus is pointing out to the lawyer that being a neighbor is a two-way street.
I think, the more I read and wondered about this lawyer and his questions, the more I realized that he, as much as any other character in this story, is us. Aren’t we all in a place of wanting to be better people? Don’t we all want to serve God more fully, to have our lives shaped in such a way that the call of God to be merciful and loving, to love our neighbor as ourselves? We’re all like that lawyer because, on some level, we keep coming back to scripture and back to prayer and back to worship and back to our siblings in Christ so that we can learn better what it means to be a neighbor. We want to know what it means not so we can find the exceptions but because we need to know how wide God’s mercy really is.
And Jesus knows that. It’s why he picked a Samaritan in his parable. Just about all of us have already heard about how Samaritans and Jews didn’t get along. But there’s another layer: just a chapter ago, Jesus was rejected from the Samaritan village. He had every personal reason not to put the Samaritans in a good light. But he did. He did, and in doing so he reminds us that our neighbor, the one who shows us mercy, the one we’re called to imitate and show mercy to in return—well, they might just look like someone we do not like.
And I think that’s a message we need to hear more. That our neighbor is very often going to look like someone who is on the other side of a line we’ve drawn. Our neighbor is the person we don’t think about being our neighbor. Our neighbor is the one who lives in our neighborhood, and also the one who shares nothing more with us than being human. Our neighbor is the person we’ve put into a box full of assumptions because it’s hard to imagine people complexly. Our neighbor is the person on the other side of politics, on the other side of a border, on the other side of a debate, on the other side of familiarity. And we’re called to go and show mercy by seeing our neighbor, by going to our neighbor, and by caring for our neighbor, because we’ve been put in community with our neighbor by God.
Like the lawyer, we come asking Jesus questions. But also, like the lawyer, we might be surprised by the answers Jesus gives us. Let’s be challenged by that. Let’s see how the stories Jesus tells us expand our idea of what it means to be a neighbor, what it means to show mercy, what it means to be a follower of Christ. Because this faith is about growing in the kingdom God calls us to embody, and that involves deep questions—and sometimes very basic questions with very unexpected answers. As much as we may identify with the other characters in this parable—whether the priest or Levite, the man on the roadside or the Samaritan—let’s not forget to imagine that we just may be the lawyer too. And may we always stay curious enough to ask the obvious questions.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
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