July 14, 2019

Luke 10: 25-37  “Who is my Neighbour” 

Rev. Nancy Talbot at Mount Seymour United Church

Earlier this week our Anglican brothers and sisters voted at their General Synod meeting in favour of maintaining their traditional definition of marriage as being between a man and a woman instead of amending the marriage canon to allow for same-sex marriages. In response, one of my gay colleagues posted this comment on his Facebook page: “I am so tired of queer folks having to rely on votes and committees and focus groups and two-third majorities to explain and justify our existence. This isn’t an “issue.” This is our life and our family.”

In this morning’s scripture reading, we meet a lawyer who is trying to make an “issue” out of being a neighbor. In an attempt to trip Jesus upon his knowledge of religious law he asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. In response, Jesus asks him another question “what is written in the law?” The lawyer, being a good student of the Jewish law responds “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 you must love your neighbor as yourself.” To which Jesus replies “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live. But then the lawyer pushes Jesus by asking another question “and who would you say is my neighbor?” Jesus begins to tell one of the best-known parables in the bible, the parable of the good Samaritan.

We all know that the moral of this story is that we are supposed to be like the Samaritan. To be a good person, to “inherit eternal life” we are supposed to be the kind of people that risk our lives to help others. We often think the moral of the story is that we are simply to help people in need, but the road from Jericho to Jerusalem was a notoriously dangerous one. It should come as no surprise that a man would fall into the hands of robbers while traveling there. It was a common occurrence. We might even say it was his own fault he ended up in the ditch beaten and stripped of his clothes. He should have known better than to go traveling on that road alone. The Samaritan was taking a risk just traveling that road himself let alone stopping to help someone.

Being a good Samaritan definitely includes an element of risk-taking. Which turns out to be somewhat problematic if that’s who we are supposed to be modeling our lives after because apparently, it is not actually in our human nature to put ourselves in positions of danger for the sake of helping others. Studies have shown this. It’s more in our nature to protect ourselves from harm.

Just the other night I was driving down Hastings street between Cambie and Main late in the evening, all by myself after dropping my brother off at the Skytrain station. Stopping at a red light I could see lots of people lying in sidewalk ditches on either side of me as I shook my head in disbelief at the young women, I could see out my window putting themselves at risk as they wandered the streets. Did I stop to see if they were safe if they needed a ride or any other kind of assistance? No. I double pressed the lock button on my door to make sure all four car doors were locked and held my breath until the light turned green and I could get myself out of there.

We know we are supposed to be the Samaritan in this story but it’s not in our nature to do so.

And there’s another barrier to us being the Samaritan in the story that is also often overlooked. The original hearers of the story would have caught it more easily than us because they knew who Samaritans were. They knew that Jews and Samaritans had a history of hating one another that went back more than 1,000 years. Jews and Samaritans avoided talking with one another, they wouldn’t eat with each other. They traveled out of their way to avoid walking the same streets as one another. The fact that the hero of Jesus story is a Samaritan instead of a Jew would have been a tremendous shock to the lawyer who asked the question about how to inherit eternal life. In fact, in the previous chapter of Luke’s gospel, it’s the people of a Samarian village who have just rejected Jesus and his teachings.

This would have been like me preaching a sermon extolling the virtues of world-famous atheist Richard Dawkins and holding him up as an example for Christians to follow.

So now we have two aspects of this story that make it hard for us to “go and do likewise,” to be a good neighbour like the Samaritan. First of all, it’s not in our human nature to put our lives at risk to help others and secondly it is in our human nature to think and act along tribal lines. Did you notice that everyone in this story except the man beaten and robbed lying at the side of the road is described as being part of an identifiable subculture? The priest and the Levite move within the confines of their social and religious class. The Samaritan is identified through his cultural and ethnic background. Some would say even the innkeeper would be in a subgroup of those willing to change linens and empty chamber pots for those whose own families wouldn’t take them in.

In the telling of this story Jesus is laying down boundary after boundary between the needs of the man lying wounded on the road and our inclination to help him. As I read this story earlier this week, I found myself laying down another boundary, the boundary of time. The decision the priest and the Levite make to pass by on the other side seems almost instantaneous, as quick as it took me to click the locks in my doors the other night. Notice all the things the Samaritan took the time to do. He sees the man at the side of the road, has compassion for him, goes to him, pours oil and wine on his wounds and bandages him up. He puts the man on his animal, brings him to an inn, takes care of him, takes money out of his pocket and gives it to the innkeeper and ask the innkeeper to take further care of him until he returns later to repay whatever costs the innkeeper incurs on his behalf.

Earlier this week, when I started adding up all the time the Samaritan took to care for his neighbor in the ditch, I had a visceral reaction. I could feel the anxiety rising within me as I thought about one more person to take care of and the responsibility to care for them in more than a half-hour appointment in my office kind of way. How are any of us to reach this standard of care for our neighbor?

What are we to do with a story of unboundaried care when we know well the benefits of maintaining our boundaries and the limits of our human inclination to risk our very lives for the sake of helping one another? What are we to do when the story tells us this is what we have to do to inherit eternal life or to simply live life in the here and now in a way that brings us the fullness of life as it was intended to be lived?

As human beings, we have been created in such a way that we do long to belong to one another. We instinctively turn towards those who act and look and think as we do, we instinctively protect our own, we instinctively protect our time. There is lots of good that can come from this kind of banding together in common thought and protective action. But in the story of the good Samaritan, Jesus paints a picture of the harm that such thinking can cause, the kind of harm that causes neglect and self-interest, the kind of harm that literally causes some to die and others to survive. He paints instead a picture where our belonging to one another comes not from the colour of our skin or the creed by which we live but by virtue of our need for one another, our need for love and our need for mercy and compassion. He paints a picture in which the common denominator is the man on the road.

At some point or other, we all come to a time in our lives when we are at the mercy of someone else, if not because we have literally been beaten and left in the ditch to die, because an illness or injury has debilitated us, because some disaster has destroyed our business or our home, because grief has overcome us or because we have simply grown too old to manage our finances on our own or to make for ourselves our own meals. We know we are supposed to be the Samaritan in the story but in fact we are more likely to show up in life as the one who is not identified in the story by his tribe but simply with the generic title “the man” or “the one” because at some point or other we all find ourselves in need.

And some would say that it’s the moments when we find ourselves in need, when we find ourselves lying in the ditch so to speak, and we experience mercy, care and compassion from others, from those who have been neighbours to us, that shape and form us for the work of being merciful towards others.

We all want to be the Samaritan in this story, the one who saves the day. And lots of us run ourselves ragged trying to be that person in the story helping everyone and anyone. But it’s being able to identify ourselves as the ones at the side of the road, the ones who are broken and in need of healing that teaches us weakness, vulnerability, and compassion. It’s our neediness that teaches us that it’s not we who are called to save one another and the world around us, it’s God, it’s the power of love in us that saves us and others.

It’s our neediness that creates a different kind of belonging to another that comes not from the colour of our skin or the creed by which we live. It’s belonging that comes from our need for one another, our need for love and our need for mercy and compassion.

The Hebrew word for neighbor comes from the root word for near. The Samaritan became a neighbor when he was willing to come close enough to see his brother’s need. He came close enough to cross all cultural and religious boundaries and the boundaries of fear and time. That’s the first step to be a neighbour, coming close enough to recognize in the eyes of another’s need, our own need for one another. Which makes me wonder if maybe I need to get out of my car and walk around the downtown eastside a bit more, so I won’t have such a high need to pass by on the other side of the road the next time I am in the neighbourhood.

I started this morning by speaking about the “issue” our Anglican brothers and sisters made this week about same-sex marriage. I want to close by celebrating that the majority of clergy and the majority of laypeople did vote in favour of changing the church laws about marriage presumably because they have come to know that the way to being good neighbours with our LGBTQ brothers and sisters is not through legislation it’s through relationship. Which is not to say that legislation doesn’t matter. It’s just to say that the relationship matters more. I pray that the 3 bishops whose votes determined the final outcome might someday soon come close enough to their LGBTQ brothers and sisters to see their own need for the fullness of life mirrored back to them.