The parable of the Good Samaritan is one of Jesus’ best-known stories. It’s only found in the Gospel of Luke, here in chapter 10. If you pull out one of our Gospel of Luke booklets and turn to chapter 10, you’ll see that kind of seems dropped in – it doesn’t fit the flow of the narrative very well. Scholars think that this probably really is a story Jesus told – it sure sounds like him! – and that it may have been circulating independently among the early churches, so that only Luke happened to have it to include in his account of Jesus’ life and teachings. But even if it reads like a slightly sloppy cut and paste job, stuck here between Jesus doing some disciple-training and visiting some friends, I’m very glad that Luke preserved this parable for us.
Let me take you through the story itself, briefly, because baby S, whom we are baptizing today, has never heard it before, and maybe he’s not the only one. The word “lawyer” here means a scholar of Jewish law, someone who interprets the Scriptures of the Old Testament to determine how the Jews are called to live out righteousness as God’s people. Different rabbis, teachers, like Jesus, had different interpretations, so this man is asking Jesus about his interpretation, what Jesus sees as the heart of righteousness and holiness. They discuss the standard summary of the Law: love of God, love of neighbor. Clear enough… and yet not so clear. This man has a question: Who is my neighbor? Who do I have to love, to be right with God? So Jesus does what he does when people ask questions. He tells a story.
A man was on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho – a notoriously dangerous road, where robbers and bandits often lurked. And robbers attack him, take everything he has, even his clothes, beat him, and leave him for dead at the side of the road. Now, two people come down the road, one after another, and both of them pass by on the other side of the road. One is a priest, someone who serves in the great Temple; another is a Levite, a member of the Jewish tribe who were set aside to tend to the holy things and places of the God of Israel while they were still in the wilderness with Moses, so long ago. As religious functionaries, men of God, both of these men have reason to be particularly attentive to the purity laws of Judaism. There are lots of things you can do or touch that render you ritually unclean, impure, and you can’t enter the Temple or serve God in that state. You’d have to do various things, or wait a certain time, to be cleansed and able to resume your religious duties. Touching a dead body is pretty high on the list of things that can make you impure.
There are other reasons these men might have stayed away from the man who had been robbed and beaten. Maybe they were afraid the robbers were still around. Maybe they had somewhere urgent to be. Maybe they just didn’t want to get involved. But those are reasons anyone might have, and Jesus tells us that these men weren’t just anyone: they were a priest and a Levite. Men of God. Men of holiness and righteousness. And they walk by on the other side.
And then a third man comes along. He is a Samaritan. Now, the phrase “good Samaritan” has entered our language to mean, somebody who helps a stranger. So we really have to remind ourselves, every time we return to this story, that for the original audience, “Samaritan” didn’t mean a kind and generous person. “Samaritan” meant lowlife scum who think they worship the same God as us, but do it all wrong, and in the wrong places, which is of course much more offensive than worshipping some entirely different God, like the Greeks and Romans. The Jews hated and looked down upon the Samaritans, and the Samaritans resented the Jews. To really get the challenge of this story, you almost have to swap out “Samaritan” for the kind of people that you like and trust least, in the privacy of your own heart. I can’t do that for you; that’s between you and God. But try it, sometime, and think about it.
So the Samaritan, this heathen creep, finally responds to the man with mercy. He goes to him. Cleans and tends his wounds. I know the oil and wine sounds a little odd, but it was what passed for medicine back then – wine to disinfect, oil as a balm. He puts the man on his horse and takes him to an inn, continues to care for him there, and pays from his own pocket for the man to be tended there while he continues on his journey.
And Jesus asks, Which of these three men – the priest, the Levite, the Samaritan – was a neighbor to the man who was robbed? And the lawyer says, “The one who showed him mercy.” It’s possible to read that answer a couple of ways. One commentator says, the lawyer maybe just didn’t want to say, “The Samaritan.” Because, ugh. Samaritans. But the answer also names, accurately, the simple gracious thing that makes the Samaritan a neighbor: He showed mercy.
What makes a neighbor is the movement of mercy.
We all understand this story. We all, even the kids, maybe especially the kids, understand that the people who walked past without helping were wrong, and that the person who stopped and helped, without counting the risks or the costs, was right. We get it. The challenge is, the challenge has always been, living it. Applying it. Going thou and doing likewise.
We know better and yet we STILL ask, “Who is my neighbor?” Who do I have to love, to be right with God? Don’t you ask that, way deep down? I know I do, when I’m honest with myself. I keep hoping maybe there’s a line. That maybe there’s some group of people who are so wrongheaded and offensive and unlikeable that it’s OK for me not to love them.
But there’s this detail in the story Jesus tells – or rather, a lack of detail. Each of the characters gets a label that lets us imagine them: priest, Levite, Samaritan, even the innkeeper. Except the main character, the victim – the man on the road. Jesus doesn’t give us any description at all. He might have been a Jew, a Greek, a Roman, an Ethiopian or Egyptian. He might have been wealthy and well-dressed, a great haul for the bandits, or he might have been so poor that they beat him out of spite. We aren’t told if he was a good man or a bad one. A righteous follower of God or a disgusting idol-worshipper. An upstanding citizen or a thoroughgoing scoundrel. Maybe he had a criminal record as long as your arm. Maybe he was on the road because he was a bandit himself, who got crossways of another group of violent criminals. Maybe he really had this coming. There’s not a single hint, one way or the other. He’s just a man. (I’m indebted here to Alfred Nevin Sayers’ sermon “The Good Samaritan and Social Redemption.”)
Jesus doesn’t tell us who the man is, because it doesn’t matter. What makes a neighbor isn’t somebody’s identity or deeds or deserving. What makes a neighbor is the movement of mercy.
I write my sermons on Tuesday, usually. So I was working on this sermon the day after the Fourth of July. Our neighborhood, the Greentree neighborhood on Madison’s southwest side, has a little celebration every year, coordinated by some committed volunteers. And it’s lovely. It’s totally Norman Rockwell. The kids of the neighborhood all gather in front of the school with their bikes and scooters, decorated for the holiday. A fire truck comes by and leads them in two-block parade over to a nearby city park. Folks come out of their houses to watch and wave. Then at the park there are brats and ice cream sandwiches and kids’ games and conversation with neighbors. Everyone’s wearing red and white and blue. It’s wholesome and adorable and community-building.
We’ve participated, I think, every year we’ve lived here. Somehow this year for the first time something struck me. Falk School, our neighborhood school, the school my kids attend, and St. Dunstan’s Adopt-a-School partner school, is about 75% non-white. It’s a big multicolored and multicultural mix of white, African-American, Latino, and Asian immigrant kids.
But that crowd of kids and parents in front of Falk for the parade was overwhelmingly white. Because while the school district’s boundaries mix us up, the neighborhoods we name for ourselves tend to sort us back out, by income and by race. Those brown kids may live a block away. but that is a different neighborhood, and they and their families were not invited to our party.
There are a lot of layers to the formation of neighborhoods; residential segregation is a big messy challenge; there’s no tackling that issue two-thirds of the way into a summer sermon. All I know is that on Monday, with the cheerful neighborly chaos of the party in the park swirling around me, I just couldn’t shake the shadow on my heart. A sense of sadness and of cynicism at the way this happy good-spirited celebration nevertheless revealed the profound brokenness of our city.
I’m not angling for a gold star for noticing this. I don’t deserve one; it took me six years. And I still don’t know what to do about it now that I’ve noticed it. It’s nice and easy to spend time with people who are basically a lot like you. And it can be hard and demanding to spend time with people who are not a lot like you. That’s why we have those words from Jesus in the Gospel from Matthew that we received last Sunday – when he tells his followers, Listen, it’s fine if you’re nice to the people who are nice to you, and if your love the people who love you back, and if you act brotherly and sisterly towards the people who are so much like you that they might as well be your as brothers and sisters. But let’s be clear: everybody does that. Kindness towards your own kind is not a manifestation of your call to holy love.
If the contrast between the kids who are actually in the classrooms at Falk School during the school year, and the kids on their bikes out front on the Fourth of July, tells us anything, it tells us this: Living a block apart does not make a neighbor. That’s not enough. If it were, we would all been at that party. Together.
Who is my neighbor? Who do I have to love to be right with God? Maybe the gist of the story, of Jesus’s powerful answer to our perpetual question, is that we’ve got to stop thinking of neighbor as a noun. As the name of a person, place, or thing. What if we try using ‘neighbor’ as a verb? Neighboring. Making the movement of mercy. Or receiving it – both directions matter. Neighboring as a verb has to do with curiosity, with connection, with care. Neighboring as a verb has to do with Abiding, one of our core discipleship practices we name here at St Dunstans, the one that has to do with being where you are, looking around, paying attention, belonging and becoming. Neighboring as a verb has to do with Reconciling, another of the core spiritual practices we name here at St Dunstans, the one that has to do with intentionally unmaking all the categories in our world and our heads that tell us we are different from each other. The categories that make some neighbors undesirable, and others simply invisible.
In a moment here were going to turn to the baptismal covenant, as we receive baby S into the household of God. Our Baptismal Covenant quotes the summary of the law that’s found in this passage from Luke 10: Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?
This little story is Jesus’s commentary on those words. And we really need it to play in our minds and our hearts, every time we see or say those words: love your neighbor. At least, I know I need it. Because however intentionally inclusive I am, in my ministry, in my citizenship, in my personal life, there are still neighbors who are invisible to me. There are still neighbors whom I don’t want to know better. As familiar and well-worn as the message of this parable may be, I still need to hold myself accountable to it.
A neighbor isn’t made by living next door. That’s not what Jesus means, or the Baptismal Covenant either. A neighbor is something to discover, something to become. A neighbor is made by abiding, and by reconciling. A neighbor is made by curiosity, connection, and care. A neighbor is made by love, which makes the big world little and the little world big. A neighbor is made by the movement of mercy. Go thou and do likewise.