When I was a very small child, about 4 or 5, my dad built me a tree house in a sycamore tree in our backyard. It was my own little getaway: it had a built-in bench to store my toys and coloring books, and a little table where I could draw or eat lunch, and I would stay up there drawing or playing for hours. The roof was made of green fiberglass sheets, so I could see the leaves and blossoms in the spring time, and hear the birds and the bees buzzing outside.
Yet, as much as I loved being up there, every weekday at 3 my mom would call to me that Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood was on—and I would swing out of that tree house like a rocket to go watch the show and have a snack with my younger siblings. The song “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” was a staple part of my singing repertoire, but it was also a question that stuck with me—since it ended with this invitation:
“Let’s make the most of this beautiful day
Since we’re together we might as well say
‘Would you be mine? Could you be mine?
Won’t you be my neighbor?
Won’t you please, Won’t you please--
Please won’t you be my neighbor?'”(1)
And even though Mr. Rogers lived somewhere far away from me, he assured us in his soothing voice that being a neighbor was at the heart of being a fully-realized human being, although I certainly wouldn’t have been able to put it into those words. Earlier this year, I watched the film about Mr. Rogers’ life, and Bill and I again marveled that we were blessed to have been influenced by such a caring adult through the medium of television.
I was thinking about how wonderful that show was as I was looking at the biblical texts scheduled for today. In last week’s lectionary readings, we saw how God breaks through human-made divisions and boundaries in order to make plain the nearness of God’s kingdom. Twice we heard that reminder: “The kingdom of God has come near you.”
This week’s readings include the prophet Amos’s word of warning to a corrupt royal house that has oppressed the common people and especially the poor, hardening divisions and exacerbating suffering among those who were so poor they were reduced to eating the fruit of sycamore trees. God accuses them of calling the temple at Bethel “the king’s temple,” rather than God’s. And in our gospel, we are asked to consider anew the question of the heart of living with integrity with God and each other – of how far the bonds of community extend, of who is in and who is out in the kingdom of God. It’s a question I think is vitally important especially in this current climate.
Who is my neighbor? Once again, the answer is one that was surprising, since it once again respects no human-made boundaries of race, national origin, or religious differences. Jesus will tell the story of what we know as “the Good Samaritan.” I ask you to hear this familiar story again with new ears, and remember that a “Good Samaritan” itself was a term loaded with cultural assumptions of superiority on the part of the listeners, who believed Samaritans were apostates who had strayed from true worship of God.
Thanks to Mr. Rogers, I learned as a child that being neighbors was not a function of physical nearness, but of the willingness to seek relationship with others, to draw near and open our hearts to those we encounter. It wasn’t until much later that I learned that Fred Rogers was an ordained Presbyterian pastor passionate to help children develop into the fullest potential of their abilities emotionally as well as educationally.
Mr. Rogers’ invitation lies at the heart of our gospel today, and indeed lies at the heart of the truly Christian life.
Luke carefully constructs this story. The lawyer (his motive to test Jesus and possibly trap him) asks Jesus a question: “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Given that as a lawyer he should know the Law, Jesus answers the questions with a question. The fact that the lawyer answers immediately is telling; this is a chess match, and all good chess players plan out their moves in advance. The answer has a two-part requirement: Love God with all of your being, and love your neighbor as you love yourself. And Jesus agrees.
Then the lawyer then immediately follows up with another question: Who is my neighbor? Now, normally that question could be defined rather narrowly in the cultural context of the time of Jesus. Your neighbor would be those in actual physical proximity to your home, or perhaps it could be extended to your tribe, or at the very most your nation—Israel. Jesus answers indirectly by the illustration of the parable of the “Good Samaritan” – a term which itself would have sounded strange indeed to the original hearers of Jesus’s story. The two words were not considered to go together, and were oxymoronic to good Jews. It would be like calling someone a “trustworthy liar.”
Samaritans were those had intermarried with non-Jews during the Assyrian conquest and who had begun following practices that were considered heretical, such as worshipping on their own mountain, Mount Gerazim, rather than the Temple in Jerusalem. Good Jews considered them to be outside the Law. That’s what makes the Samaritan’s action all the more striking. He is outside the Law, a follower of unclean practices, and yet he follows the intent of the Law better than the priest or the Levite, with no hope of compensation.
He does what is right for its own sake. He sees the fallen, bleeding, naked man, and is “moved with pity.” A more vivid translation, however, is that “his heart went out to him,” or even “his heart was ripped from him.”
The Samaritan connects emotionally to the fallen man. After all, he knows what it is like to be reviled and to be an outsider—therefore he has a crucial, all-too-lacking ability: he has not just sympathy, but empathy. He has the chance to do for another what he or any of us would want done for ourselves. The Samaritan acts as if the opportunity to help this man is a gift—a gift he accepts willingly and without question. Also, remember that a denari was a day’s full wage—and he spends two and possibly more. There is a cost to discipleship, even if it’s merely inconvenience. But the Samaritan spent two days wages on a stranger and promised to pay more if necessary.
Next let’s examine the actions and responses of the priest and the Levite. The priest had the duties of being an intermediary between the people and God to offer sacrifices in the Temple, and for the teaching of the Law. Therefore, there is an obvious expectation that a Priest would exemplify the Law and its intentions whenever possible. Levites assisted priests in the Temple and helped to teach; so too, they would have been expected to be guided by the highest standards of behavior. They certainly know the letter of the Law.
They saw the man fallen among thieves as they went along the road, and yet crossed to the other side of the road rather than get involved. Maybe they were in a hurry. Maybe they were afraid. Maybe they just didn’t want to get involved in something which was none of their business, or so they told themselves. Maybe they thought this man had brought his troubles on himself and deserved what he got. And we often hear that excuse used today, as well, don’t we?
The priest and the Levite know the letter of the Law—and by it they do not define this man as their neighbor, nor do they acknowledge that they are HIS neighbor. Instead they violate the spirit of it by narrowly defining the Law. And that’s the same limitation the lawyer is seeking too—just where does the line between neighbor and stranger run?
Now imagine being the man who has been attacked. Lying there, helpless, unconscious, wounded, vulnerable to other robbery or injury. He’s bleeding—and every moment without help mean he loses more blood, risks infection at a time when a scratched leg could mean death. He may have internal injuries or a head injury—and laying exposed to the hot sun risks adding heat stroke and dehydration to the maladies he is suffering. One thing I’m pretty certain of—if he drifted into consciousness, he was praying that someone—anyone—would act out of empathy and help him as a neighbor. If he were capable of speaking, surely he would be appealing to anyone who was near him for help, just as asylum seekers and refugees do the world over and along our own borders.
Unfortunately, he is mute. Yet his mere presence lying alongside the road is nonetheless an appeal for help, for compassion, for mercy. Further, if the man who had fallen among thieves was a Jew, the Samaritan has done his deed for someone who could be considered his enemy. And let’s face it, sometimes the people who are closest to us are the ones most capable of behaving as enemies to us as well.
We are letting ourselves off the hook if we do not realize that the impulses of the priest and Levite certainly live within us as much as the impulse of the Samaritan. We have all been each of the four people in the story—including the man who had been beaten, robbed, and left for dead by robbers and by the passersby. Thus this story makes it clear that we owe kindness and concern for everyone—even, or maybe especially, those we consider to be outsiders or even enemies. The boundaries of blood, race, religion, tribe—Jesus calls us to transcend all of these and to treat others as we would want to be treated—with mercy and kindness—even if we think they are outside of our own group, even if our first impulse is to blame them for their misfortune.
Truly a parable for our own times, as our society argues over who deserves rights and who deserves asylum and who deserves justice. The joining together of the two commands—to love God and love others—is a command not for what we need to understand but what we need to do. It’s a command to embody the love we ourselves receive from God without reservation. This is the perfect summary of the Law and Prophets. That is why Jesus tells the lawyer, “Go, and do likewise.”
Jewish New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine points out that there is a difference between in the Jewish understanding between compassion and mercy: “The parable spoke of compassion, but the lawyer read the action as mercy. His rephrasing is apt: compassion can be felt in the gut; mercy needs to be enacted with the body.” She also notes that mercy in Luke (and in lots of places) is an attribute of the divine, therefore “the Samaritan does what God does:”
To speak of loving God and loving neighbor does not require theological precision; it does not ask for a particular location of worship… it does not speak to a particular book…. Loving God and loving neighbor cannot exist in the abstract; they need to be enacted. (2)
Thus, being a neighbor is a two way-street. We have all been in the position of giving help, and we have all been in the position of needing help. A neighbor not only helps, but is willing to accept help from others. This openness to others is the basis of all relationship, and under Jesus’s definition, being a neighbor is an obligation within being human. It means being able to be vulnerable and know that you will be cared for rather than despised. It means knowing that when you see someone who is helpless, God calls us to care for them without determining whether or not they are “worthy.”
As we confront the divisions and cruelties that pervade so much of the news nowadays, I am reminded of another thing Mr. Rogers said his mother told him when he was scared by an event as a child: “Look for the helpers.” That fallen man was looking for a helper—someone who saw a need, and rather than running from it, moved toward the need, and committed himself to the common cause of the one who was possibly mere inches from losing everything.
And that’s a call we must hear today. Implicit in that comforting reminder of “looking for the helpers” is the hope that, once we are grown, we don’t have to look for others to do the helping—that part of being a neighbor is BEING the helpers. This is a powerful lesson for our time as well. When we are neighbors to people—when we draw near to those who are in need, especially, remembering that this goes both ways—the kingdom of heaven draws near to us. May we not just look for the helpers, but BE the helpers.
Preached at the 505 on June 13, and at the 8:00 and 10:15 services on June 14, 2019, at St. Martin's Episcopal Church, Ellisville, MO.
1) Fred Rogers, "Won't You Be My Neighbor?"
2) Amy-Jill Levine, Short Stories by Jesus: the Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi, p. 104.