Sunday, July 14, 2013

Who is my neighbor?

In today's Gospel, we are confronted with two questions. What must I do to inherit eternal life? Who is my neighbor? These two questions form the crux of one of the most beloved parables in all of the Gospels. These questions reverberate down to our present day because they continue to be important to us. I want to look at how Jesus dealt with these questions, then i want to look at how these questions apply to us. They're timeless questions, but in the gospel they're set in a specific time, and so we have to understand the basics of that period, and the three groups of people that we meet in this story. We encounter a priest, a Levite, and a Samaritan. We need to understand these groups as Jesus's listeners did in order to grasp the full meaning of this story.

The priests and the Levites were almost the same group. The Levites were one of the 12 tribes of Israel, and they were the ones who took care of the temple. Priests were chosen from among the Levites, so all priests were Levites, but not all Levites were priests. They represent the "in crowd" of Judaism, because they were crucial for temple worship and sacrifice.

And then there's the Samaritans: As Israel tried to identify itself as a people, a religion, and a nation, marrying within the religion became an important way to identify who belonged to our group and who didn't. It was a way to identify "us" as followers of God and "them," who were not. But not everybody followed this as closely as they would have liked. The Jews in Samaria had started to marry outside the religion, to mix the bloodlines, and they had done this for so long that they formed a distinct people that was excluded from the rest of Judaism, and they ended up being called the Samaritans. Samaritan was a bad word to Jesus's audience, so in our parable they represent the "outsiders," not the "in crowd of the priests and Levites.

From the get go, this story is tense, The gospel tells us that the scholar wanted to test him. The whole purpose of this encounter was not a friendly exchange of ideas, it was to test Jesus. But the conversation wasn't initially about neighbors. The scholar tested him by asking him about eternal life. The scholar said, "What must I do to inherit eternal life?" and Jesus quickly turns the conversation to be about neighbors. What is Jesus doing here? Is he changing the topic? No, whether or not I inherit eternal life is directly connected to how I treat my neighbor, so Jesus is getting right to the heart of the matter.

So the scholar correctly quotes the first and greatest commandment: to love God above all else and to love your neighbor as yourself. This is child's play for this scholar. So he decided he wants to show off and he asks "Well, who is my neighbor?" And then we get the story. The scholar clearly wanted to prove that he was loving his neighbor as himself, just as the commandment says, because to him, his "neighbor" was those who were a part of his group, those who were easy to love.

But the correct answer to the question "Who is my neighbor" is "everyone," I am supposed to love everyone as myself. Jesus uses his story to say that Israel was not doing this. Now, it's not immediately obvious in the story that the priest and the Levite did a bad thing by passing the man on the opposite side of the road. In order to do their ministry, the priest and the Levite had to observe ritual purity, and part of that involved not touching human blood. So Jesus audience might have understood why the priest and Levite didn't help. But then Jesus does something completely unexpected. He brings this outsider, this Samaritan, in and makes him look like the good guy.

So who is my neighbor? In the context of the commandment we hear in the gospel, to love my neighbor as myself, who is my neighbor? Clearly, it's not just the person who lives on either side of me. My neighbor in this context is specifically the person I don't want to love. Now, if the person you don't want to love actually does live right next to you, then great! You don't have to go looking for someone to love, they're right there! The neighbor of the man on the roadside was the Samaritan, the person who should have been his enemy.

Jesus is teaching us two big things about how to obey this greatest commandment. He is teaching us that we can't just love those who are easy to love, we have to love those who are difficult, and he is teaching us that this love has to cost us something, it can't just be nice feelings.

We have to love those who are difficult to love. The Samaritan and the man who got robbed had nothing to do with each other, and as far as their cultures were concerned, they had every right to hate each other. We have to love those who aren't a part of our group. Who would you rather not associate with? Who is it easier to just avoid? That's a personal question. Is it those who are richer than you? Poorer than you? Those who vote for the other political party? Those who talk differently than you? Or maybe someone with a different value system? Or maybe it's even more personal than that. Maybe someone has hurt you, and that's the neighbor you don't want to love, maybe it was someone close to you. Take a moment and examine your life and figure out who it is who you don't want to love, and then figure out how to love that person.

And that second lesson: this love has to cost us something. When we love the difficult person, that love requires action, not just nice sentiment. The Samaritan in the parable lifted the man onto his own animal, so now the Samaritan was walking and thus exposed to the robbers who were around. And, he spent his own money to take care of the man. He didn't just wish the half-dead man a pleasant day, he went out of his way and drew from his own resources to be a neighbor to him.

Finally, it's interesting to examine how the parable ends. When Jesus puts the question back to the scholar of the law and asks him "Which of these three was neighbor to the robber's victim?", the scholar can't even bring himself to say "the Samaritan," because the divide between the Jews and the Samaritans runs too deep. All he can say is "The one who treated him with mercy." He sees the point of the story, but he doesn't like it.

So what must I do to inherit eternal life? Who is my neighbor? These are the questions to deal with today. We know we want eternal life, and Jesus tells us that to inherit eternal life, we must consider everyone our neighbor, and treat them as the Samaritan treated the robber's victim. So find that difficult neighbor, show him mercy, and that's how you will inherit eternal life.

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