Seventh Sunday after Pentecost (July 15, 2007)
“Who Is My Neighbor?” (Luke 10:25-37)
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Who Is My Neighbor?
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus quoted a well-known saying, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’” (Matt. 5:43) Next comes this bold statement: “But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (Matt. 5:44) With these words, Jesus made it clear that everyone is our neighbor. Our neighbor is our fellow man, even those with whom we are at odds. Anyone who is near to us...at any time...at any place...whoever needs our care and concern...that’s our neighbor.
An altogether different question prompted this discussion in today’s Gospel reading from Luke chapter 10. A lawyer asked Jesus, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus responded with another question: “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” As an expert in the Law of God, the lawyer gave the correct answer. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.”
But like with any theological question, it’s easy to give the right answers, but not have the faith that responds properly to those right answers. The lawyer knew the words of Leviticus from our Old Testament lesson today better than you and I. “I am the Lord your God,” Yahweh said to the Israelites. He rescued them from their slavery in Egypt and called them into a covenant relationship by faith and trust in his promises. The proper response of faith is loving God and loving your neighbor. That’s why Jesus could echo the words from Leviticus 19 by saying, “Do this, and you will live.” Not that obedience to the Law gives life, but loving God and neighbor shows that you have faith which has received the life that God gives.
That’s why the lawyer felt the need to justify himself by asking the question, “And who is my neighbor?” He wanted to narrowly define who his neighbor is. It’s as if he was saying, “What are the limits of that love which I am to show? Certainly there are some people who should not receive my love. That unclean Gentile. That pagan Roman. That tax collector. That prostitute.”
You and I also have a tendency to narrowly define who our neighbor is. The people who live on either side of me. The family across the street. But how well do we even know these people? What do we know about them? Do we even know their names? We are so insulated from each other in today’s world. People get in their car in the morning and push a button to open the garage door. They drive to work. They do their job. They go home, pull into the garage, push another button, and the door closes behind them. But there is often not much of a connection to those living around us. Or if there is a connection, it’s superficial...a wave from across the street, a “Hi, how ya’ doin’?”, and back to my own business.
It’s easy to complain about the way people are so insulated from each other. But you and I contribute to the problem. We try to justify ourselves when we refuse to love certain people for various reasons. “I’m too busy...they wouldn’t appreciate my help...it’s not polite to stick your nose into someone else’s business.” There’s a part of us that likes it this way. Life is messy enough dealing with our own problems. Why do we need to be concerned about our neighbor, too, including those we may not be all that crazy about?
In the parable that Jesus told, it’s church people like us who are indicted. Both the priest and the Levite may have just finished their duties in the temple in Jerusalem. Now, on their way to Jericho, they pass by the half-dead man on the road. The priest probably thought the man was already dead and didn’t want to touch him for fear of becoming ceremonially unclean. The Levite wouldn’t exactly have been held to the same rule. But perhaps he saw that the priest up ahead of him had already passed by the robbery victim. He certainly would not want to show the priest up by stopping to help, so he passed by, too.
There are times when you and I have passed by those who have needed our help. Moreover, sometimes it seems that it’s people from outside the church who do a better job taking care of others than we take care of each other, much less anyone who need our acts of mercy. We haven’t done the “Do this” from the lips of Jesus. Therefore, we will not live. We will suffer the consequences of disobedience to God’s Law. Alienation from our neighbors in this life is the least of our problems if we will be eternally alienated from God.
You Are Christ’s Neighbor
After telling about the priest and the Levite, Jesus gives a surprise. Those listening to Jesus would have expected him to introduce a new character here. Perhaps a faithful Jew would finally stop to help this poor man. Instead, Jesus shocks them by introducing a Samaritan into the story. Remember how the Jews felt about the Samaritans. They hated them. They were viewed as half-breeds. In some ways, they were worse than Gentiles. There was a saying about them that went like this: “He who eats the bread of a Samaritan is like one that eats the flesh of swine.” (Just, Luke, 448) No one would have expected a Samaritan to be the hero of the story. Yet he is the one who “proved to be a neighbor” to the injured man. He is the one who “had compassion.” He is the one who “went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine.” He is the one who “set him on his own animal,” brought him to an inn, and paid the innkeeper more than enough for his room and board. Two denarii was an extravagant payment. It would have paid for almost a month’s stay. (Jeremias, Parables of Jesus, 205)
Likewise, no one would have expected God to become a man. But that’s exactly how he “proved to be a neighbor” to you and me. God drew near to us in the flesh of Jesus of Nazareth. Humanity became his neighbor as he lived among us, reached out to us, and cared for us. Jesus saw us more than half-dead...he saw us completely dead in our sinful condition and was filled with compassion and did not pass by on the other side. As we sang in the Introit today, “It is he who remembered us in our low estate, for his steadfast love endures forever.”
Even today he proves to be our neighbor in Word and Sacrament. He binds up our wounds through the forgiveness of sins and releases us from our guilt. He pours oil and wine upon us...the anointing of the Holy Spirit in Baptism and his very own blood in the Lord’s Supper. And he bore our burden of sin on that beastly cross so that you and I might be received into eternal habitations, paying the price for our lodging with his own blood...an extravagant payment...a great price spent to pay for our great need.
Loved and forgiven by the One who became a neighbor for us, we recognize that there is absolutely nothing that we can do to inherit eternal life. Our Savior Jesus has already done that for us at the cross and the empty tomb. Baptized in Christ’s holy name, the Holy Spirit begins to open our eyes to see those around us who need mercy shown to them. We find ourselves taking to the road, looking for neighbors to love. We are no longer inclined to pass by on the other side, as the priest and the Levite did. Instead, we cross over to serve our neighbor with a Samaritan-like commitment...with a Christ-like commitment.
Jesus takes us out of the realm of theory and into the realm of practice. “Who is my neighbor?” was a theoretical question. It was meant to find a loophole in the law to love your neighbor. But Jesus asks a practical question: “Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” The important thing is not finding a neighbor worthy of love, but rather being a neighbor who loves. (thoughts in this and the previous paragraph borrowed from Stephen K. Turnbull at www.crossings.org)
“You go, and do likewise.” Show mercy to your neighbor...not to inherit eternal life. Show mercy to your neighbor...because you have received such great mercy...because Jesus acted as a neighbor for you.