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When a Neighbor Is a Neighbor

7/10/2016 Eighth Sunday after Pentecost The text is  Luke 10:25-37.

Grace and peace to you from God, our Father, and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  Amen.

“Good fences make good neighbors,” according to Robert Frost’s well-known poem, “Mending Wall.” But not according to Jesus and his parable of the Good Samaritan. For fences made of wood or steel or wire, divide people. They are barriers which inhibit involvement in another person’s life. They define personal space and prevent others from getting too close. They prohibit personal touch. And yet the worst kind of fences are not those which can be seen easily and cut down or scaled back or removed all together. The worst fence of all is an invisible wall, the kind of thing we build around ourselves to preserve self-image or to protect ourselves from being hurt. These invisible walls create barriers so that others cannot reach us in our need and so that we can ignore others in their need.

It is this type of fence, the invisible kind, worn deep within the heart and soul and mind, that prevents the involvement of the priest and the Levite in today’s parable. The very people whom we would expect to be compassionate are not at all. They see pain and suffering before them, but because of their roles in society, their belief system, their prejudice and pride, they pass by a wounded man on the way to Jericho and leave him to suffer and die. They see him and they move to the other side of the road, refusing to help.

Yet, that is not true for the Samaritan. He is not able to walk by the wounded man and do nothing. For, he is a person acquainted with the pain. He knows what it is like to be ignored and pushed aside, and he will not allow his status as an outcast to prevent him from helping.

And so it is a Samaritan, the one who is despised and hated, who shows compassion, who cares, who helps, who ministers to a stranger in need. It is a Samaritan who demonstrates what it is to be a good neighbor as he extends God’s help and love to another.

Are we good Samaritans? This is the question we often ask ourselves when we hear this story. Yet, the parable of the Good Samaritan as recorded in Luke is not so much a lesson, instructing us in how to love our neighbors, as it is a lesson, showing us how to receive the help and aid and mercy of another. For, the lesson is aimed at the lawyer who asks Jesus the question, “Who is my neighbor?” And the lawyer, to whom Jesus is telling the story, would not identify himself with the outcast Samaritan, or the priestly class, but with victim…the one beaten and robbed and laying in the dirt, the one in need of help, who finds mercy from an unlikely source.

Jesus asks, “Whom should this wounded man consider to be his neighbor, whom has God commended him to love? Who proves to be a neighbor to this wounded man?” The answer is obvious: the Samaritan. It is the rejected one who goes the extra mile to meet the real needs of this person, who reaches out to help, not because of sentiment or merit or performance of duty, following a list of “musts” and “shoulds.” It is he who reaches down for the sake of the other, expecting nothing in return.

The Good Samaritan in Luke mirrors none other than Jesus. For Jesus, the Son of the living God, the one who is crucified for our sake, is the one who reaches out to us in our need. Jesus never ignores us, pushes us aside and walks away from us in our need. Jesus reaches out beyond our self-made walls, and stays with us during all times of life to deliver us into God’s mercy and love. It is Jesus, the Christ, who gives unselfishly, knowing that he will give all to save us, not for gain but out of the real needs of real people who he has come to serve.

And I can tell you – there have been times when I have needed his mercy. There have been times when my self-made walls have been penetrated and I have found myself beaten by the pressures of this world and thrown face down into the ditch. I have needed his strong arm to lift me up and his compassion to care for me and to bring me to where I needed to be to heal on the inside or the out. I have needed his word of life and of hope to guide me beyond the trouble of the day. And I am sure that there have been times when each of you have needed the same. There have been times when you have felt beaten and robbed, and had your energy zapped from you by the circumstances and crises of life. There have been times of pain when you have bled on the outside or deep within the reaches of your soul. There have been times when you have needed a good Samaritan, just as I have, to reach down into the pit, amidst the dirt, where you have been laying. There have been times when we have needed the TLC of a good neighbor.

Who has been that good neighbor to us? Who is the one acquainted with grief who serves us? Who has reached out to us tenderly in our need, expecting nothing back in return? And have we been willing to accept the gift which has been offered? These are the real questions that Jesus is asking in today’s gospel. What outcast, what unexpected person, brings the word of hope and deliverance which we so desperately need? And can we accept it graciously for what it is – a gift from God? Can our walls of pride and independence be lowered so that we can receive? Can we acknowledge our dependency upon God and neighbor?

For those of us who take pride in independence, there is nothing worse than to have that independence stripped away because of circumstance. Sometimes it’s illness or an accident that puts us in a needful state. Sometimes it’s the effects of aging and the lack of family. Sometimes, it’s the economics of living.

One day, a young woman and her three children came into a local food pantry at a downtown church, seeking help. She hung by the door for quite some time, watching, waiting for the few who were being served to leave. Finally, when no one was left, she and her three little girls came forward. It was easy to see that the mother was embarrassed to be in such a situation. She held her head down and with her hands resting on her daughters’ shoulders, she asked for food.

There were a few basic bits of information that needed to be gathered and written down. Finally, the woman who was waiting on her began to gather the food. Three large bags were filled and given to the mother and her children. As they turned to leave, the mother paused, looked back, and with a tear running down her check said, “You people must be like Jesus. I always knew that he was real, but nobody ever showed him to me before.”

God, through others, has been merciful to us. God, through others, reaches out to help us in our deepest need. We are given without expectation of anything back in return and in response to such undeserved mercy, we love the one who helps us, who takes us to the inn, who stays with us all night and who offers to bear the full cost of our recovery. We are to love God and our neighbors as we have been loved. And we do this best when we take down invisible walls and return love for love, mercy for mercy, grace for grace, and show the face of God to all.

May we take down the fences that keep us apart from God and neighbor. And may the peace of God, which surpasses all human understanding, keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.



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