Sermon: Who Is Our Neighbor?
But he, willing to justify himself, said unto Jesus, “And who is my neighbour?” [Luke 10:29]
Is anyone surprised that this question is asked by an attorney? It sort of reminds me of Bill Clinton’s defense in his perjury case when he said that it depends on how you define the word “is.” But, with all do respect to attorneys and former President Clinton, for Jewish people, this question was not so clear. After all, God had told the Israelites that they had to drive away all the pagans living in the Promised Land lest the Israelites be corrupted by their pagan ways.
And equally, this is precisely why Jesus had the hero of this story be a Samaritan. The Samaritans were corrupted Jews. They were shunned. To talk to or have dealings with a Samaritan was to risk being corrupted or, at the least, made unclean. Yet Christ was trying to tell this lawyer something – something that Moses had told the Israelites ages ago:
“For this commandment which I command thee this day, it is not hidden from thee, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that thou shouldest say, ‘Who shall go up for us to heaven, and bring it unto us, that we may hear it, and do it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that thou shouldest say, ‘Who shall go over the sea for us, and bring it unto us, that we may hear it, and do it?’ But the word is very nigh unto thee, in thy mouth, and in thy heart, that thou mayest do it.”
So, after the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus let the lawyer answer his own question:
“Which now of these three, thinkest thou, was neighbour unto him that fell among the thieves?” And he said, “He that shewed mercy on him.” Then said Jesus unto him, “Go, and do thou likewise.”
So who is OUR neighbor? Let me tell you three true stories involving when I lived in Boston.
During one of my times when I left the practice of law, I worked as a waiter. One of the busboys was a photographer. For his school project, he spent a summer living with the homeless, photographing their lives. He turned to me and said, “They all became my friends. I always look for them when I am on the streets, but, after only two years, very few are left. The winters here are pretty hard, and many don’t survive.” My friend knew who is neighbor is. He would talk to them, feed them, and give them clothing. And, in a very real way, he tried to give a face to these mostly invisible people through his photography.
The following winter I discovered how true my friend’s statement was. During a fairly bad snowstorm, I was leaving the gym with a friend of mine. Why we were working out during this bad storm escapes me now, but it probably had a lot to do with the fact that we were in our twenties. Well, as we left this gym which was in a fairly bad section of town, we saw no one on the street. We both were walking to the “T” (the subway), laughing as we went when we heard someone call to us. It was a young man holding up an older man. He called to us, “Hey can you help?” It turned out that the young man worked at a homeless shelter and was rescuing the older man, who was dead drunk and homeless. If this young man hadn’t rescued the older man even though he wasn’t working that night, the homeless man would have certainly died from hypothermia. My friend and I helped this young man take this homeless person to the shelter. This young man knew who his neighbor was; he may have been dead drunk, but he was still the young man’s neighbor.
The last story I need to tell you is when I lived in a rather rough section of Boston known as Summerville. Just before moving there, I had just bought a new car. A friend told me to be careful because “All the car thieves live in Summerville.” Well, there is an unwritten law: you never steal from your neighbors. As a result, my car has never been safer.
Anyway, there was a homeless person who lived in an alcove of a deserted store front. I passed this guy every morning and every evening as I walked to the Orange Line of the Metro. The fascinating thing was that, even though the neighborhood was fairly poor, everyone adopted this guy.
I saw people dropping off blankets when it was cold and clothing all the time. When it was especially cold, the police would “arrest” the man just to get him off the street so he wouldn’t freeze to death.
Every so often, someone would complain, and the police would have to haul away all this guy’s prized possessions. But, by the next day, the neighbors would be dropping off pillows, food, blankets, and clothing. Soon, he was well-stocked again, and again eventually it would be hauled away to start the process all over again. These people knew who their neighbor was. He was unclean, probably slightly crazy in a non-dangerous kind of way, and had very little to call his own. Yet, everyone took care of him and looked out for him.
So, who is OUR neighbor? Is it the homeless? Is it the destitute? Is it the troubled or the sick? The answer again comes from Moses:
“But the word is very nigh unto thee, in thy mouth, and in thy heart, that thou mayest do it.”
We all know the answer. Yes, it IS the homeless. Yes, it IS the destitute. Yes, it IS the troubled and the sick. But, it is also the lonely, the depressed, and the tired. It is everyone with whom we come in contact in the course of our day. It is the salesclerk that has no help because her employer has cut back on employees and all her customers are upset because there is no one to help them. It is the boy who wants to play ball but has no one to play with. And it is the old woman who walks the neighborhood every morning alone, but who really would like someone to talk to, yet there is no one available.
As Christians, we are to treat everyone with respect. We do NOT have the luxury NOT to understand. We need to be pleasant, empathetic, and helpful. And, this is really not as tall of an order as we may think.
Like the priest and the Levite in the parable of the Good Samaritan, we sometimes create fears for which there is no basis. They probably did not stop in fear that the bandits may still be around, but that fear is not well founded. If the thieves were still around, they would have attacked when the priest or Levite came into view. No, we create problems, fears, and limitations in our own mind that prevent us from acting. We need to give up those unreasonable fears that paralyze us. We need to act.
So let us act. Let us look at each person as our neighbor, and let us help them when in time of need. It doesn’t necessarily mean reaching into our pockets. Actually, in most cases, that is the WRONG thing to do. No, in most cases, it means doing something more than assuaging our conscience. It means truly trying to help. It means listening; it means figuring out a solution. And it means taking to heart what Christ told us: “Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”