Sermon 7/14/19: "Who Is My Neighbor?"

Pr. Michelle Sevig

Lectionary 15

July 14, 2019


Who Is My Neighbor?


The. GOOD. Samaritan.


Most of us are quite familiar with this story. And if not, at least the title Good Samaritan is familiar.  There are Good Samaritan hospitals and nursing homes, Good Samaritan relief agencies and philanthropic organizations. And there are plenty of feel good news stories about Good Samaritans. Just do a google search for Good Samaritan stories and you’ll find too many to name in one sermon. 


And here’s the thing, we all want to be the Good Samaritan, right? I mean really, he’s the hero of the story, the one who does the right thing and helps the person in desperate need. 


But the Samaritan is never named “good” in the scriptures. Not by Jesus, not by the people who first heard the story, not the lawyer, not the guy in the ditch. No one. The story is so familiar that it’s lost its sting. The first hearers of Jesus’ story would have been shocked, even angered to hear that anything good could come out of Samaria. 


Let’s start at the beginning. A lawyer asks Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” It’s a legit question. He’s not a lawyer like we think of lawyers today. He’s a keeper of the Jewish law. And he asks, “What’s important for living a faithful life?” but he already knew the answer, because he had studied the law. You should love the lord your God with everything you have--with all your heart, strength, soul and mind. And you should love your neighbor as yourself.


But the next question is where it gets tricky. “And who is my neighbor?”  Or to put it more bluntly, who’s not my neighbor? Who is it OK not to love? Asking “Who IS my neighbor?” implies that there are some who are not my neighbor, people it's okay NOT to love. 


After telling the story, Jesus asks,

“Who was neighbor to the one in need?”

“The one who showed mercy.”

“Go and do likewise and you will live.” 


And that’s it. Simple, right?  Show mercy. Draw close to those in need. Extend kindness. Don’t just think love, do it


But what if Jesus’ parable is not an example story but a reversal story? A story that upsets our categories of good and bad, sacred and profane, giver and receiver.  Maybe the whole point of the Samaritan story is that he is NOT us. 


Try on this retelling of the story... A seminary professor who knew the Bible, and church history and church doctrine inside and out asked, “What is required for someone to inherit eternal life? How do you know if someone is a “Good Christian?” And she answered her own question correctly. “Love God with everything you have.” Then she asked another question,  “Well, who is my neighbor?” In other words, she was asking ‘who do I have to love? Who can I hate, ignore, or be justified in rejecting? 

So, someone told her a story, 

  • There was a person who was going about living their life, but they were beaten down, exhausted, worried that they weren’t good enough for anyone to love, wondering if life is worth living, if what they did and who they are mattered. Some had left them for dead, or at least didn’t pay attention to them anymore.

  • One time a bishop was with them at a worship service but he was so busy mingling with people and making plans for the future that he didn’t notice the one who was hurting and kept on going about his business of preparing to transform the church and make it intentionally mission focused.

  • And then there was this pastor; she was bright, engaging and fun. People knew that she was a compassionate, loving person. But she also has her own family to worry about, her own insecurities’, and besides that she was getting ready to go on sabbatical--a much needed time of rest and rejuvenation. But in her haste, she did not notice the one in her midst that was hurting and in need of compassion.

  • But there was a third person (and this is where any good ancient story comes to its full conclusion. We expect someone to do the right thing. But we’ve become so used to hearing the story as “Good Samaritan” that the shock value has worn off, so much so that we don’t even notice how repulsive the phrase “Good Samaritan” is to those who first heard Jesus tell the story.)

  • There is a third person (and imagine putting “good” in front of their name/title)

    • A leader of Westboro Baptist Church

    • An illegal immigrant

    • A sex worker

    • A person who is homeless

    • A white supremist

·        This one, who would likely never be labeled “good” is the one who took notice of the suffering one’s woundedness, who drew near to their suffering and had compassion. With mercy, love and tenderness that is unimaginable, they helped the one who was forgotten, weary, and nearly dead; and brought them back to life. Now, I ask you? Which of these three was a neighbor to the one in need?


Though we are inclined to love the Good Samaritan and want to be more like him, Jesus’ choice to make him the hero of the story was nothing less than shocking to the first hearers. The Samaritans were the other. The enemy. It's not one of their  own who saves the day, but the hated Samaritan. Think about it this way, who is the last person on earth you would ever want to deem the good guy? The one you’d be most surprised, or even offended, if they touched you and supported you in your healing? 


The great thing about parables is that there's never just one entry point. Never just one way to see yourself in the story. On any given day we could be the lawyer asking the question, the one who shows mercy, the one who passes by on the other side of the road. And sometimes we are the one in the ditch who desperately needs the compassionate presence and help from a stranger, the enemy, or the one you’d least expect.  


Debbie Thomas writes, “‘Who is my neighbor?’” Your neighbor is the one who scandalizes you with compassion. Your neighbor is the one who upends all the entrenched categories and shocks you with a fresh face of God. Your neighbor is the one who mercifully steps over the ancient bloodied line separating “us” from “them” and teaches you the real meaning of ‘good.’”


Mother Teresa was once asked, “What is the most difficult thing you’ve ever had to do?” and she responded, “See Jesus in his most disgusting disguises!” 


And maybe that’s exactly what Jesus was trying to do with this parable--show that God comes in and through the most unexpected people. God’s compassion and love is so extraordinary, so out of the box, so surprising and even offensive to some, yet God comes to us in our brokenness, and restores us to life. 


We’ve become used to hearing this Good News that it’s lost its scandal. But for those who are beaten up and left for dead because of racism, homophobia or oppression of any kind, who've been told in one way or another “You don’t belong, you’re not one of us, you’re not worthy,” God calls us to meet them in the ditch, shower them with love in action. God calls us to be a good neighbor to those who might see us as the enemy and bring a compassionate presence and restorative justice that leads to healing. 


Maybe we’re the ones in the ditch ourselves, paralyzed by anxiety about the future, or broken by abuse and unhealthy relationships, or beaten up by disease and illness. God comes to us in our ditches of despair, stoops to our side to tend to our wounds and wash us with the baptismal waters of grace. God feeds us with a meal that brings healing; and entrusts us to each other’s care. 

“Who is my neighbor?” the lawyer asks. Anyone. Everyone. For all bear the fresh face of God who is Good.