Seventeenth Sunday After Pentecost: Beyond The Picket Fence
This morning, I’d like for us to consider this question — what would happen in our communities it we would love our actual neighbors?
But before we get started, I have a confession to make. I need to confess to you that I’m not a very good neighbor. Now, I like the neighborhood I live in. I have been there going on 7 years, and almost everyone else on our street, as far as I know, has been there longer. I'm still the new guy on the block. At times I wave at my neighbors as they walk their dogs or drive by. But I’m not a very good neighbor.
Now, I don’t think I’m a bad neighbor. I don’t throw trash in my neighbors’ yards, I don’t have bass speakers in my car that shake everyone’s windows as I drive by, and I don’t party until 4 in the morning. I try to most of the time be in bed by eight. And, so, I’m not a bad neighbor, but I don’t think that I’m a particularly good neighbor. I can’t tell you what’s going on in the lives of any of my neighbors. I can’t tell you anything positive that I’ve done for any of my neighbors lately. And the truth is, I need to do a better job of being a neighbor to the people who live around me.
In the Gospel for today, we read Jesus saying “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.”
So let me ask you this morning — are you a good neighbor? How would you define what an ideal neighbor is? More importantly, how would Jesus define what an ideal neighbor is? And maybe the most important question of all is this — what if Jesus actually intended for us to love our neighbors? What if he meant for us to love the actual neighbors that live 30 to 40 feet from us?
Well, to answer some of those questions, I want us to look at a story that Jesus told in Luke chapter 10. It’s a very familiar story. In fact, even people who have never opened a Bible or ever stepped in a church have at least heard the phrase “good Samaritan”. But, this is a story about being a neighbor. And so, as we read this story, I want us to ask ourselves the question — what does it means to be a neighbor?
In Luke chapter 10 we’re told that a lawyer came to Jesus. Now this isn’t a lawyer in the sense that we usually think of. This is not a courtroom lawyer. This is what you might call a “Law of Moses” lawyer. His responsibility was to carefully study the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament, and then interpret them for the Jewish people. The lawyers would help the people to apply God’s law to their everyday lives.
And so, this lawyer came to Jesus with a question. In verse 25, “Behold, a lawyer stood up and tempting Jesus”, or maybe a better way of saying it is, the lawyer put Jesus to the test…”
That phrase “stood up and tempting Jesus” or “put Jesus to the test” makes it sound like this lawyer had some bad intentions. And maybe he did. Maybe he wanted to show off how much more he knew than Jesus did (whatever answer Jesus gave, he would try to come up with a better one). But, that phrase “stood up and tempting Jesus” doesn’t necessarily mean something bad. It just means that he wanted to know what Jesus thought the right answer was.
And his question was this — “What must I do to possess eternal life?”
Jesus's answer was not, “Repent and be baptized.” He doesn’t even say, “Believe in me.” Jesus’s answer is all about how to live out a loving life.
We pick up in verse 26, “Jesus said unto him, What is written in the law? how readest thou? ’ ‘And he answering said, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbour as thyself.’ And [Jesus] said to him, ‘Thou hast answered right: this do, and thou shalt live.’”
Jesus turned it around. He asked the lawyer, “What do you think? What do you think is appropriate behavior to have eternal life?”
And the lawyer gave Jesus a good answer. He said, “Well, if I love God with everything I’ve got and I love my neighbor as myself, I think that’s it.” And Jesus said, “You’re absolutely right.” In Mark chapter 12, Jesus called that the greatest commandment. Just two things – love God, love your neighbor. When you boil it all down to what’s really important, that’s it — love God with everything you’ve got and love your neighbor as yourself.
So far, so good. This lawyer seems to have a good grasp on what’s most important. But, in verse 29, things take a turn for the worse. “But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’”
Now, the question he asked is not a bad question. In fact, I think it’s a very good question. It’s the motive that’s the problem. This lawyer wanted to justify himself. He wanted to make himself look good. And here’s the key – this lawyer wanted to define “neighbor” in a way that would make him feel better about himself.
I would imagine that he was hoping that Jesus would define neighbor in the same way that most of the other Jews defined it. Because, to a Jew, the idea of loving your neighbor meant that you show hospitality to those people who live next door to you and all around you. You share with them, you give to them. If they have a need, you take care of them. You invite them over for dinner, you share meals together.
And so, maybe this teacher of the law was trying to justify himself and say to Jesus, “If that’s your definition of a neighbor, then I think I’m doing pretty good, because I go way beyond that. I don’t just love the guy who lives right next door to me. I even love those people who live three or four houses down.” And so, he was trying to justify himself to make himself look better.
“Who is my neighbor?” He may have been hoping for a legalistic definition – “your neighbor is anyone who lives with in 52.3 feet from your front door.” But instead, Jesus told a story. Beginning in verse 30,
“Jesus replied, ‘A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among robbers, who also stripped him, and having wounded him went away, leaving him half dead. And it chanced, that a certain priest went down the same way: and seeing him, passed by. In like manner also a Levite, when he was near the place and saw him, passed by.’”
The road from Jerusalem to Jericho was about 17 miles long and over that 17 miles, you would wind down about 3000 feet in elevation. The road went through rock gorges and valleys. It was the perfect place for robbers to hang out and ambush people. And apparently this Jewish man who was traveling on this road was ambushed by robbers. He was beaten, robbed, and left half dead.
Two men come along, both religious men – a priest and a Levite – and they see the man, but they don’t stop. I think they didn’t stop because of fear – afraid that they might be robbed, or afraid that they might be late to their responsibility of serving in the temple, or afraid the man might die while they were taking care of him and they would be defiled for a week. Whatever the reason, they didn’t stop.
But then, there’s a third man who comes along. And you know how the story goes. Verse 33. “But a certain Samaritan being on his journey, came near him; and seeing him, was moved with compassion. And going up to him, bound up his wounds, pouring in oil and wine: and setting him upon his own beast, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. And the next day he took out two pence, and gave to the host, and said: 'Take care of him; and whatsoever thou shalt spend over and above, I, at my return, will repay thee.’”
Now, for us, when we hear this story, we’re not surprised because we’ve turned the word “Samaritan” into a beautiful word. But in their culture, this was a shocker. This would have been the last guy you would have expected to stop and help a Jew. The Samaritans used to be Jews, but they intermarried with people who worshiped other gods and became impure. And then they begin to mix the religions of other people into their Jewish religion. By the time of Christ, the Samaritans only accepted the first five books of the Bible. They quit worshiping at the temple in Jerusalem and set up their own temple on a mountain in their region.
And so, the Jewish people would look at the Samaritans and say, “We don’t want anything to do with you.” It wasn’t just that they didn’t like them; there was an intense hatred. It seems that they hated them worse than they hated all the other Gentiles. Jewish people would even avoid walking through Samaria, even though it took a lot longer to go around, because they didn’t want to get their shoes dirty with the soil of the Samaritans. And the feeling was mutual; the Samaritans hated the Jews in return.
And yet, in Jesus’s story, this is the guy who becomes this man’s neighbor. He saw him by the side of the road, but he didn’t pass by like the other two. He looked at him and had compassion on him. And it was a compassion that led him to actually do something. And so, he bandaged his wounds. He poured oil and wine on him to help relieve some of his pain.
He put him on his donkey, took him to a hotel, and gave the innkeeper two denarii, two days’ salary for a working man. We know from manuscripts and old receipts that we have, that two denarii paid for at least two or three weeks stay in a hotel at that time.
So this guy was really willing to sacrifice. This wasn’t just a pat on the back, “I hope you get to feeling better.” It wasn’t the same as helping somebody to change a flat tire. I mean, he exposed himself to danger and went to a lot of trouble, taking up his time and his money in the process. Can you imagine taking somebody you’ve never met before down to the Holiday Inn Express and saying to the manager, “Here’s enough money to cover two weeks. And if he has any other charges, go ahead and put them on my tab. I’ll take care of it when I come back.” That’s huge!
So the lawyer wanted to know, “Who’s my neighbor?”, but when Jesus gets to the end of his story, he turns it around. He says, “Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” And the lawyer says, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said, “That’s exactly right.”
And, in the process, Jesus made a great point in this parable. You need to love everyone. You need to love people that are strangers. You even need to love those people you would call your enemies. And the way that you show that you’re a neighbor is by loving everyone. You sacrifice for them. You give up your time and sometimes your money and you serve them.”
But, I think if Jesus were telling the story to us today, he would probably change it. Because, remember, the Jewish people did a great job of loving those people who were right around them. They had great community. They took care of one another. They loved to spend time with each other and look after one another. They sacrificed for one another. But their definition of neighbor was pretty confined.
Their definition of neighbor didn’t go very far from their house and so Jesus had to expand the boundaries and say, “Loving your neighbor is not just loving the guy next door. It’s loving every person you come in contact with who is in need. And for the Samaritan, the guy right in front of him was a half-dead beaten up guy who just happened to be of a different race that was his enemy.
But, as I said, I think Jesus would tell the story a little differently today. I think maybe Jesus would tell the story today of church goers and Christians who justify themselves and feel good about loving their neighbors by delivering meals to the homeless in a shelter, or going on a two-week mission trip to another country, or gathering water and clothes to send to people who got hit by a tornado. And while we feel good about loving our neighbors around the world, many of us neglect our actual neighbors who live right next door, 40 feet away.
You see, the people Jesus was talking to loved their actual neighbors. But they had trouble loving anybody else, and so their vision of what a neighbor is needed to be expanded. But I think maybe our vision of what a neighbor is needs to be tightened up a bit. And it’s possible that at times we’re like this lawyer who was trying to justify himself. Remember, I said that he wanted to define “neighbor” in a way that would make him feel better about himself.
Could it be that we’ve done the same thing? We feel like we’re good Samaritans, fulfilling the command to love our neighbor because we do outreaches across town or in another country, or we stopped to help that elderly stranger on the side of the road, which is awesome. All of those are great things to do. But it’s possible to do all of them without actually loving the people who live 40 feet away from us.
The problem is that we have turned the story of the Good Samaritan into a metaphor to love everyone. And we want to define “neighbor” in the broadest of terms. We have neighbors on the other side of the world. We have neighbors who live across town. We give our time and our money to help all of those neighbors and we feel pretty good about ourselves because we’ve helped all of these people all over the place. We want to say that we love everybody. But when we try to love everyone…we often end up loving no one. And if we’re not careful, we can end up having a metaphoric love for metaphoric neighbors and not really show much love.
We don’t often come across any wounded strangers by the side of the road as we’re driving along. But, when we do see somebody pulled off to the side, there’s a part of us that wants to go help them because we think that’s what the story of the Good Samaritan was about. No. The point of Jesus’s parable is that whoever God puts in front of you, that’s your neighbor. What if Jesus meant for us to love our actual neighbors? Because I’m not convinced we can actually love all the strangers in this world and love our enemies, if we really haven’t learned to love the people who live right next door to us.
Let’s be honest, that person broken down on the side of the street is a whole lot easier for you to love, because you can jump in, do your thing, change the flat tire and be on your way. There’s no commitment, took you maybe 15 minutes. But learning to love your neighbor, the one whose dog annoys you, the one who leaves their trash cans out for three days after the trash has been collected. The one whose tree hangs over your side of the fence, the one who plays his music loud at all hours of the night, the one who doesn’t have the same religious beliefs you do, that’s a lot harder.
And I’m not convinced we can really love our neighbors if we don’t even know their names.
The greatest commandment Jesus ever gave, according to our lesson today, was to love God with everything you have and to love your neighbors as yourself. But I’ve come to realize that that we can’t actually love our neighbors if we don’t even know their names.
I’m pretty sure when Jesus said love your neighbor as yourself, he didn’t mean to build privacy fences in our backyards and man caves in our basement so that when we get home, we can pull our minivans into the garage, shut the door and close ourselves off from the rest of society. I think he actually meant to love our real neighbors.
How many of will say today, I’m a follower of Jesus Christ and the greatest commandment is to love God and to love my neighbor and I have been put by God in a place in my neighborhood, or in the apartment I live in and I need to have compassion on the people around me and actually get to know them and find out what their needs are. Can you imagine what would happen if we would all do that?
Some of you may want to know, “Does this mean I have to have a deep close friendship with all eight of my neighbors?” Not necessarily. I just think it means that we need to become aware of who they are. So that they’re not nameless, faceless people, but people who actually have faces and names who live right next to us.
And learning your neighbor’s names is a great first step. It moves you from “Hey man” to “Hey Mike”. And, in time, it can go from, “Hey, Mike” to “Hey Mike, how are you doing?” to “Hey Mike, can you help me with something in my garage for a second?” to “Hey Mike, I saw that your son moved back in how’s that going?” And most important of all, “Hey Mike, is there anything I can do for you?”
What if Jesus meant for us to love our actual neighbors? Because I think he did.