Like a Good Neighbor

HOPE Point @Wesley Memorial UMC
July 24, 2016

I’m going to do our Scripture reading a little differently this morning. Usually, I read it as you listen and/or follow along with the words on the screen or in the pew Bibles. But this parable of the Good Samaritan that we are going to read this morning, I want us to experience it in the same way Jesus’ first listeners would have. So we are not going to have the words on the screen today, and I don’t want you to open a pew Bible. I just want you to listen closely. And I’m going to read this parable with a modern twist so that we can really hear it today in such a way that we experience the same emotions Jesus’ listeners would have. So here is the Parable of the Good Radical Islamic Extremist. Listen closely.

Luke 10: 25-37 (CEB, paraphrased)
25A [professor of Christian theology] stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to gain eternal life?”
26Jesus replied, “What is written in [the Scriptures]? How do you interpret it?”
27He responded, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.”
28Jesus said to him, “You have answered correctly. Do this and you will live.”
29But the theologian wanted to prove that he was right, so he said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
30 Jesus replied, “A man went down from [downtown Chattanooga to Highland Park]. He encountered thieves, who [hijacked his car], stripped him naked, beat him up, and left him near death. 31Now it just so happened that a [community chaplain] was also going down the same road. When he saw the injured man, he crossed over to the other side of the road and went on his way. 32Likewise, a [Methodist minister] came by that spot, saw the injured man, and crossed over to the other side of the road and went on his way. 33A [radical Islamic extremist], who was on [the same road], came to where the man was. But when he saw him, he was moved with compassion. 34The [radical Islamic extremist] went to him and bandaged his wounds, tending them with [antibacterial spray and gauze]. Then he placed the wounded man [in his own car], took him to [the hospital], and took care of him. 35The next day, he took two full days’ worth of wages and gave them to the [hospital administrator]. He said, ‘Take care of him, and when I return, I will pay you back for any additional costs.’ 36What do you think? Which one of these three was a neighbor to the man who encountered thieves?”
37Then the [Christian theologian] said, “The one who demonstrated mercy toward him.
Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”

The parable of the Good Samaritan that Jesus told to a crowd some 2,000 years ago was radical. Just like the modern paraphrase you just heard. It would have evoked strong and strange emotions among Christ’s hearers. The Jews and the Samaritans were not just different cultural groups. They were sworn enemies. The hatred between Jews and Samaritans had gone on for hundreds of years – and it is still reflected, even today, in the smoldering tension between Israel and Palestine. Not unlike Christians and Muslims, both Jews and Samaritans claimed to be the true inheritors of the promises to Abraham and Moses. And consequently, both sides also regarded themselves as the rightful possessors of the land. They did not get along. The idea of Samaritans and Jews helping one another is basically unthinkable. So Jesus telling this story of a Samaritan showing compassion to a Jew (rather than the expected hatred), it would have really stretched the reality of his listeners. But that’s what makes this parable so important.

I told a story of Christians and Radical Islamic Extremists as sworn enemies, but there are many groups in our modern world that live in tension not unlike the Jews and Samaritans of Jesus day; blacks and whites, Republicans and Democrats, Crips and Bloods, American citizens and illegal immigrants, North Koreans and South Koreans. I could go on and on and on. We live in a world full of conflict, full of dichotomy and tension. And we’ve been watching that conflict and tension fully explode in our country in recent days and weeks.

Unfortunately, we have reached this reality in our world where, though we are more connected than ever through the internet and social media, we are also more segregated than ever. For whatever reason, we instinctively gravitate towards people that are like us; people that look like us, people that think like us, people that do the things we do, and so on. So, when it comes to answering the question, “Who is our neighbor?” The natural answer is those people who look like us, who think like us, who do the things we do. My fellow Christians are my neighbors, other middle-class white people are my neighbors, the people I work with are my neighbors. Then we live accordingly. We oversee the homeless man on the street. We pretend not to notice the black person walking next to us in the mall. When we hear of attacks on “our own,” the result is that we dig in and solidify our stance in our comfort zone—blaming “the other” for such horrible atrocities committed against our neighbor.

Our problem is not unlike that problem of the legal expert in the parable of the Good Samaritan. We have made the law the gospel. We set for ourselves certain standards that we think are the most important principles by which we should live our lives, but they’re all so worldly. There’s this terrible disconnect between these principles and the gospel. We live these legalistic lives where we tell ourselves that we have to keep ourselves segregated so that we can enjoy our privilege, so that our faith is not challenged, so that our kids can go to the best schools, so that we can feel like we live in the safest neighborhood, so that we don’t have to be bothered by someone else. But here’s the thing; the law is not the gospel. Rather, the gospel should be our law, our rule of life. And at the core of the parable of the Good Samaritan is this simple message: the gospel is love, love for all.

The thing is love is hard. It’s messy. It’s complicated. Love doesn’t follow any certain set of rules or standards. It is fluid. It is blind. It is forgiving. Think about the way you love your parents, or your spouse, or your children. You know all the mistakes they have made; all the ways they have hurt you time and time again. You have watched the calculated rebellion of your children as they defied your expectations of them, maybe even your hopes and dreams for what their lives would be. We have been betrayed and let down over and over again. And yet…yet…the love we feel in our hearts for our children, or parents, or spouse, or close friends, it never even seems to fade, does it? We might go through times when we are very angry with those we love, or we don’t like them very much, or maybe we have a falling out, but even still that love is always tugging at our hearts. And we know somewhere, deep down inside, that we would still do anything for those we love; to help them, to do whatever we can to give them the best life possible.

This is the kind of love and compassion that Christ urges upon us as he tells this parable of the Good Samaritan. Jesus is not just telling us to dial up a tow truck as we speed by someone is stalled on the side of the road. Jesus is not telling us that we need to be sure and look after our fellow disciples, those who are simply “like us.” Christ is pointing us to this incredible, radical love and compassion; a love that bridges every boundary we build and ignores every legalistic standard. Christ calls us to a love that is blind to economic situation, skin color, age, gender, creed, and every other “difference.” Christ tells us that we should love ALL people, even our sworn enemies in the EXACT same way that we love the very members of our family. Our neighbor is both our closest friend and our greatest enemy, and when it comes to how we treat those two different groups, there should be absolutely no difference, no distinction. As John writes in his first letter, part of which we heard earlier, “If anyone says, I love God, and hates a brother or sister, he is a liar, because the person who doesn’t love a brother or sister…can’t love God….”

Brothers and sisters in Christ, this is a huge challenge that Christ lays before us in this parable. Being a good neighbor is way, way, way more complicated than carrying the newspaper to the person living next door to us. Being a good neighbor involves a lot more than simply affirming one another in our present way of life, even as we continue to live in a world where racism and discrimination still exists, and where the rich are getting richer while the poor are getting poorer. Christ is calling us to a complete behavioral change. No longer can we look at the Radical Islamic Extremist as the enemy, these people are worthy of our love and compassion too; they are our neighbors. No longer can we live comfortably in our legalistic bubbles; we have to expand our thinking about who we are in Christ and how we relate to all people we encounter.

Think of yourself for a minute as the person in the “ditch.” Now, as you imagine that, ask yourself this question: “Is there anyone about whom I’d rather die than acknowledge, ‘She offered help’ or ‘He showed compassion’?” Even more; is there any group whose members might rather die than help us? That person, the one you’re thinking of right now, the one who evokes feelings of rage and disdain; that’s your neighbor. And it’s not just that we should live with the expectation that “those people” will take care of us in our time of need; that’s exactly the kind of self-centered thinking that Jesus is trying “root out” of his followers. Rather, what Jesus wants to teach us is that we should be always ready and willing not only to receive the help of someone we’d rather die than acknowledge, but also to show compassion to that person in their time of need, too.

Remember, the parable began with the question, “Who is my neighbor?” The theological expert was trying to trap Jesus into saying something heretical, something that would defy the law. But Jesus didn’t do that. Instead, Jesus expanded the reach of God’s law of love to the people that legal expert could least imagine as deserving of God’s love. And here’s the thing, Jesus is still doing that today. Christ constantly pushes the boundaries that we build up. Christ calls us to a greater love not only for God, for our family, and for our friends, but for the people that are hardest to love, and even for our enemy. Jesus challenges us to think of the person we least want to be associated with, and then Christ tells us to go take care of that person, even to love them.

Christ has given us quite a challenge. This is really tough stuff. But the love that our Lord calls out of us is nothing short of the very sacrificial, forgiving, and grace-filled love which Christ has already shown to us. It is certainly difficult to summon such love for some people, especially our sworn enemy, but imagine what this world would look like if we did truly love our neighbor as we love ourselves. Just imagine…

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