ST. STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH                                                                                                      JULY 14, 2013

 

Neighbours

Psalm 82; Amos 7: 7 – 17; Colossians 1: 1 – 14; Luke 10; 25 – 37

The parable of the Good Samaritan arises out of a discussion between Jesus and a Pharisee. Here is a religious lawyer and he is asking a question on the nature of the law. The stage is set by Luke with these words:    “Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus.” It was the kind of question in which any kind of an answer would pose still further problems. It was a test question:        “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life.” Jesus could tell that this man was an astute student of the law. And Jesus said: “What is written.” In other words, use your own mind to discern the essence of the law.

Jesus, being a good discussion leader, throws the question back in his lap. The lawyer had a good answer. He said: “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.” This was a direct quote from Deuteronomy 6. It was part of the Shema, a confession regularly made in Jewish worship. Jesus says: “Excellent. You are correct.” If he were a teacher I suppose he would have said: “You get A+.” I have no complaint with this says Jesus. Do this and you shall live.

You have not only penetrated to the essence of the law but you have worded it succinctly. The question had been asked and the answer given. You would think that the man would be pleased and go home. But this Pharisee wasn’t finished. You see, A lawyer’s responsibility is to define the limits of liability. “wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus ‘And who is my neighbor.’” In other words,      where does my responsibility stop?    Who exactly am I responsible for?”

At this point, instead of further defining the question, Jesus tells a story. A way of indirect teaching that he used quite often. A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho. We can surmise that this man was probably a Jew because this was a road going right through the heart of Judea. He had probably been up to Jerusalem to worship and now he’s going back to Jericho – City of Palm Trees. It was a very long snaky road starting at Jerusalem, the highest point, 2,500 feet above sea level, and going straight down to Jericho, nearly 800 feet below Sea Level. Jericho is the lowest place on the face of the earth not covered by water – It is in fact–the deepest city in the world.

The Jericho Road was a notoriously thief-infested stretch of rocky mountain road, a long, lonely seventeen miles crowded with caves and danger. Since the road was so often traveled by religious pilgrims and businessmen and because it was so crooked, robbers frequented the road often. In fact, the route was so ripe for pillage that it had been nicknamed “The Bloody Pass”. By the time you rounded a bend the bandits were there and you really had no chance to escape. I suppose if there had been newspapers it would not have been unusual                      to read about the latest mugging on the Jericho Road. And so, too, our traveler in Jesus’ story fell victim. He was ambushed, robbed, beaten, stripped, and left to die in a pool of crimson red blood. Now, the question in the story is who is going to stop and help. The first passerby, it just so happens, was a priest from the local temple who saw this beaten man. It may seem curious to us that he makes no effort at all to stop and help       but this priest was probably thinking that the man was already dead and that time for help had now passed.

But perhaps, also, in the back of his mind was the thought that according to temple law whoever touched a dead man was considered unclean for seven days. That meant that he would lose his turn of duty in the temple. For that clergyman his obligations to the temple obviously came before his obligations to this beaten man, a man whom he didn’t even know. It was preaching before practice for this particular priest. That is no practicing what he preached. So he passed by on the other side.

Not long ago on the Today Show a clergyman was interviewed on the subject of AIDS. His position was: These people are not victims; they got themselves into the mess they found themselves in. They have no one to thank but themselves. Why should we help? Well friends – That might well have been the position of the Priest on the Jericho Road: That man took his chances. When you travel by yourself on a dangerous highway you get what you ask for. He got himself into this, let him get himself out. The next passerby happened to be a Levite, a man literally born to the synagogue. He slowed down and curiously approached the beaten victim. Oftentimes these banditos had a habit of using decoys. One of their number would play the role of the beaten victim. When some unsuspecting traveler stooped over, then the others would come running out and pounce upon him. Our Levites motto was apparently – safety first: In life, you need to be careful what you commit yourself to. After glancing over the body, and moving his eyes from side to side to see if anyone was watching, he too passed by on the other side of the road. I am not too sure that our reasons for passing by on the other side of the road have changed too much over the years. Some of you remember the Seinfeld show. In its final Episode, which aired at the end of the 1998 TV season, the main characters (Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer) receive a one year sentence for failing to help someone who was being robbed. What happens is this: Their plane encounters problems and they are stuck in Lakeland Massachusetts. Killing time wandering around on the sidewalks in this quaint New England town, they become innocent bystanders and witnesses of a car jacking. Being New Yorkers and the kind of people they are they make fun of the guy who is being robbed. Kramer, who has a camcorder in his hands, films the incident as a curiosity. They never lift a hand, never shout out; they are 10 yards away, and could care less. They just stand there and casually watch! The robber speeds off with the car and the police arrive late on the scene. With the excitement over, and the poor victim standing dazed in the street, Jerry turns to his friends and suggest they go get something to eat. The police arrest them and charge them under Article 223 dash 7 of the Lakeland county penal code. Also known as the Good Samaritan Law Elaine incriminates them all when she says “But we didn’t do anything”. The series ends with them serving their time. The critics hated it — and it was pretty bad comedy but there was a redeeming quality to that last episode. For nine years Seinfeld’s characters used, ridiculed, and made fun of everyone they met.  The four of them were the personification of the Priest and the Levites of our time – of our modern world. Stopping to help someone crimps our style and requires too much of our time. Looking back on it I can’t help but wonder if the script for that final episode was taken right out of Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan. George says that he never heard of that one. Truth is, the law isn’t new. It’s as old as the tablets Moses brought down from Mount Sinai. There’s nothing NEW about it. The story of the Good Samaritan underscores our apathy. It reminds us how unwilling we are to stop. That is stop what we are doing and help someone who is in need. But the point to the story has a bit more bite to it then Jesus is talking about being friendly to everyone.. Jesus is asking the expert in the Law to treat not just his friends, not just the people in his town, and folks stranded on the road as neighbors, but to treat the very people he despises, or dislikes, or makes fun of, or even hates as neighbors. In a word: Love your enemies. The story of the Good Samaritan is a lesson on how the Law of Moses is to be understood and lived out in the most difficult of relationships. I am convinced that apathy is just a word until you see it in action. That’s what the Seinfeld show did so well over the course of its nine years. It hid the apathy of the characters behind the mask of humor. In that final episode Jerry Seinfeld unmasked it and the critics couldn’t stand it. The show wasn’t trying to get a laugh it was trying to make a point. The point it was trying to make was the same point as Jesus’ parable:Anytime we refuse to stop and help and be a friend to someone in need, then we are committing the sin of the Priest and Levite on the Jericho Road. Then a third person happens down the road and this individual, as it turns out is not a Jew but a Samaritan (hence the title of the parable – The Good Samaritan. The ultimate outsider. Samaritans were descended from Jews in the Northern kingdom of Israel who had intermarried with Assyrians. They had their own temple at Mt. Gerazim.

These were descendants of Jews who had married foreign scum, they were half-breeds, and they were heretics. And so it wasn’t the priest or the Levite, but a despised Samaritan who helped this man. He bandaged his wounds, poured oil and wine on them as a medicine, put the man on his own donkey, and brought him to an inn. He cared for him that night, and the next morning he paid the innkeeper to take care of him, promising to pay any additional bill.

And so, after telling the story, Jesus put the question to the lawyer: which of these three travelers proved to be a neighbor to the man in need. The lawyer can’t even bring himself to say the word Samaritan. He says, “the one who showed mercy.” And Jesus says, “Go and do likewise.”A lawyer has asked a question which in effect says: “What is the outer perimeter of my responsibility? At what point am I no longer liable?          Where does it cut off.” In effect he is asking: where can I quit loving?

When we understand the world as our neighborhood, we will be better able to reach out to humanity from that part of ourselves that is genuinely caring and compassionate. The answer that he probably wanted was: All faithful members of the Jewish faith or all members of the Jerusalem Bar. That’s where you can stop being a neighbor!

Friends – here’s the thing – Jesus is in effect saying, “Look, your asking the wrong question?”The real question is not “Who is my neighbor?” It doesn’t make any difference who your neighbor is out there. The real question is who are you? The question is not who is my neighbor, the question is am I a neighbor. A person who has the love of God within him or her will respond with compassion to human suffering wherever she or he finds it. Mercy–mercy for another human being is not qualified by race, status, religion or any other barrier that society might erect. This Pharisee was looking for where he could stop loving. It was Jesus who effectively said: “Look, its sharing love that makes a person a neighbor. You define it in terms of the center How difficult it is to stop and be sensitive. We want to say: Well, that’s not my neighbor. He’s from another city, or she’s another political philosophy, or another economic bracket, or of another race.

But Jesus is saying, it doesn’t make any difference who he or she is. If we are people within whom the love of God dwells then we will respond with compassion to those whom we pass on the roadside of life. The young Pharisee asked: how can I love my neighbor if I don’t know who she or he is. Jesus replied: It’s not about who he or she is. It’s about who you are.

Amen