Thursday, July 14, 2016

Who is my Neighbor?


Luke 10:25-37

“Shema yisrael, Adonai eloheinu, Adonai echad”

“Hear O Israel, the Lord your God, the Lord is one.” This is the prayer recited by devote Jews at least twice a day, in the morning and evening, or "when you lie down and when you rise up." It comes attached with a commandment,
 “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. This the summation of the law described in Deuteronomy 6:4-5. It has come to be referred to simply as “the Shema.” When Jesus was asked by an expert in the law, “Teacher what is the greatest commandment,” he responded by citing this verse as any good Jew would, but he amended it with a quote from Leviticus 19:8, “you should love your neighbor as your self.” Love God and love your neighbor, according to Jesus, these two commandments taken together are the core of God’s law. They are the touch stone for what it means to live a Christian life.

In our gospel lesson today, Jesus is similarly questioned, but this time the questioner asks, “Teacher what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Instead of answering the question directly, Jesus turns the questioning back on his interrogator. He says “You tell me. What does the law say?” Like a student eager to impress, the lawyer gives him the answer he knows he is looking for, the Shema, complete with Jesus’ own amendment to it.  He had clearly been listening closely to Jesus’ teaching, and believed he had found an inconsistency or weakness.
If these two statements represent the height of righteousness, the summation of the law, wasn’t Jesus setting up an unreasonable standard when he taught that one should love even enemies? After all, who is my neighbor? “Neighbor” in Leviticus 19 is clearly limited to one’s own countrymen.

Let’s pause here, because even if the lawyer’s limitation of neighbor to the people of one’s own nation is correct, the command to love one’s neighbor as one’s self remains an extremely challenging one. The passage being referred to from Leviticus reads, “‘Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.” Think of the state of our own nation. We are a deeply divided people. We are divided over issues of race, gender, sexuality, religion, and the role government…the list can go on and on. There seems like a never ending stream outrage coming through the media. Our national discourse is increasing polarized and rancorous. What would it mean to say that there were no grudges between us as a people? It’s hard to even imagine such a state of affairs. What would it mean to say that we love our neighbor as ourself? At the very least it would mean being able to see ourselves in the other, to consider things from their perspective, and to ‘walk a mile in their shoes’ as the expression goes.

This is not an easy task. There is, for instance, a deep and wide chasm separating the experiences of white people in our culture from people of color. Yet again, this week, we have heard reports of black men shot by police officers. The way these events are experienced by blacks and whites contrasts sharply. The African American community is increasingly outraged, by what they believe to be a system where black men are murdered with impunity, where their lives just don’t seem to matter. Many white people find it hard to identify with their rage and are offended by the accusations of racism. The state of race relations in America is deteriorating. There are bitter grudges and deep anger between us.

These divisions were horrifying manifested not only in the deaths of these two black men, but in the terroristic actions on Thursday in which several police officers were wounded and killed in retaliation.

Episcopal Bishop of Dallas, George Sumner, has said this, “I have no easy answer to the crisis in which we find ourselves as Americans. But this much is clear: Dallas Christians, black and white, of all denominations, are called to stand together. As one we pray for those harmed. We who do so are already one body in Jesus Christ, in spite of all the fault lines in our society.”

As Christians we are called to model the unity God desires for our nation. Part of what this means is to listen to one another’s concerns with charity and compassion.

The parable that Jesus tells in response to the question, the parable of the Good Samaritan, challenges us to see those who are radically different from us as our neighbor. Who is my neighbor? My neighbor is the #BlackLivesMatter activist and the police officer. My neighbor is Muslim and Christian. My neighbor is gay and straight. My neighbor is conservative and liberal. In Jesus’ day one might say, “My neighbor is Jewish and Samaritan.”

The Samaritans were the product of those Jews who remained in Israel during the days of the Assyrian conquest and exile. Those Jews intermarried with the foreigners who were occupying the land. They developed their own ethic and religious traditions which mixed Jewish and Pagan ideas. They were despised and hated by the Jews who returned after the exile

Jesus’ questioner was trying to narrow the field, to precisely define who it was that qualified as his neighbor. Jesus refuses to even answer the question, but instead tells a story, and asks an alternative question, “Who was a neighbor to the man who fell among robbers? Was it the lawyer or the Levite who passed by and left him for dead or was it the Samaritan?”

The man is forced to affirm the very thing that he was trying to deny, that a gentile, in this case a Samaritan, can be a neighbor to a Jew.  The question isn’t “who is my neighbor”, but “what does it mean to be a neighbor to others?” Jesus shifts the responsibility to the questioner. Have you been a neighbor to those in need or have you avoided your responsibility to God by passing them by? Have you been so preoccupied with your own purity that you neglected the higher duty of the law?

If we hear this story and pat ourselves on the back because we’re not jingoistic or racist like the lawyer who questioned Jesus, we are missing the point. If that is what we take away from the story, we are more like him than we care to admit, because we are, “seeking to justify ourselves.”

 Who among us can honestly say that we have faithfully fulfilled all our duty to God and man? If we say that we have not sinned, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. Instead we confess that we have not loved God with our whole heart or our neighbor as ourselves.

We confess that we have failed to be a neighbor to our fellow man. What we have failed to do to the least we have failed to do towards God. Jesus identifies with those in need, For I was hungry and you gave Me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave Me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not take Me in, I was naked and you did not clothe Me, I was sick and in prison and you did not visit Me.’” Jesus is the one who was descended upon by robbers, pretenders to his throne, stripped and beaten, and left to die, but he is also the Good Samaritan, the one despised and rejected, the one who took compassion on us when we were in need, the one who took us in and healed us at great expense to himself. Jesus was a neighbor to us even when we failed to be a neighbor to him.