It is not about whether or not you love your neighbor, but how you do so: A Sermon

I preached this sermon at Broadway Presbyterian Church in NYC on Sunday, August 20th.

A Reading from the Gospel of Luke

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus.
“Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Jesus said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?”
The lawyer answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart,
and with all your soul,
with all your strength,
and with all your mind;
and your neighbor as yourself.”
And Jesus said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”

But wanting to justify himself,
The lawyer asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho,
and fell into the hands of robbers,
who stripped him,
beat him,
and went away,
leaving him half dead.
Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him,
he passed by on the other side.
So likewise, (by chance), a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him,
passed by on the other side.
But a Samaritan while traveling came near him;
and when he saw him,
he was moved with compassion.
The Samaritan went to him and bandaged his wounds,
having poured oil and wine on them.
Then he put him on his own animal,
brought him to an inn,
and took care of him.
Then the next day he took out two denarii,
gave them to the innkeeper, and said,
‘Take care of him; and when I come back,
I will repay you whatever more you spend.’

Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”
He said, “The one who showed him mercy.”
Jesus said to him (and to us), “Go and do likewise.”

He Qi, The Good Samaritan
He Qi’s The Good Samaritan

It can be difficult trying to hear with fresh senses this well tread passage. Hearing the phrase “The Good Samaritan” brings up childhood Sunday school lessons for some of us or our favorite television episodes where the main character acts with Good Samaritan compassion. And these starting points color how we hear this parable.

For me, it was when I was called a Good Samaritan after I picked up three hitchhikers at a gas station in my hometown, provided them with a meal, and a shower. Then drove them to their friend’s house two hours away. And really I was only called a “Good Samaritan” the next day after a night of being remed out by my parents. But honestly, I did it, because I was bored and wanted a disruption in my own life. In the parable there’s no sense of boredom, only honest to God compassion.

This is what I love about the parable of the Good Samaritan, it’s straightforward.

Clearly there are those who are morally corrupt: the robbers.
The morally ambiguous: the Levite and the priest.
And the moral hero: the Samaritan.
Unlike other parables too, it’s not about God’s Realm, but about the flesh and blood of this life.

When I was rereading our passage this week, I was struck by all the times the Samaritan touched this bloodied man.

And a quick but important side note: the robbers were not just stealing this man’s wallet, but attempting to take his life.

Now back to the compassionate Samaritan:
First, upon seeing the half dead man, he bends down, wraps up his bloodied body, pouring oil and wine on the wounds.
Next he puts the now bandaged man onto his animal or donkey and ride to the Inn.
At the inn, they stay the night, probably in the same room.
I can’t imagine that the Samaritan slept much that night, since he was probably checking in constantly on the man. Like a parent spending the first few nights with their newborn.
The next morning, the Samaritan gives the inn keeper money to take care of the man and that he would repay him any extra expenses.

In a way, this doesn’t sound like the parable I grew up with. I was taught a bloodless parable on felt board with characters who wore oversized Middle Eastern like clothing. And maybe this parable isn’t meant for kids. Because after spending the last two weeks with 8-11 year olds at Vacation Bible School, I can tell you that they don’t need this lesson. They’re just fine caring for those around them. It’s really for us adults.

So who is my neighbor according to Jesus?
It’s those who are within reach, who are within arm’s length.

Before I get too ahead of myself. Make no mistake about this: Jesus is calling us to be neighbors to those who are along our paths in life. It’s who you are sitting beside now. It’s who you will run into on the sidewalk after church. THEY ARE THE ONES WE ARE CALLED TO BE NEIGHBORS TO!

I stress this because often I get caught up in my own social media world. A world, that’s still real, but is not within arms reach. I can show compassion by texting emojis, but there are still men who sleep on the front steps of our church. I can send direct messages on Twitter to those in difficult life situations, but I often keep in my earbuds when I see an acquaintance who I don’t want to speak to on the sidewalk. I’m Timothy, I have other big important things to do, not just getting to know the name of the person ringing me up at Westside Market for my meatball parm sub. Because I am more often than not the priest and the Levite in this parable.

Is it because I consider myself a New Yorker now, fast walking, head down, and becoming more egocentric. I’m not sure, but Jesus is clear on this point: Know and love your neighbor.

But there’s more to this story that I’ll only touch on. You see the Levite and the priest, in a way, do nothing wrong. They’re bad neighbors, yes. Apathetic, very. But were they actively harming the man? No, of course.

The stark problem though that confronts me every time I read this passage is with our dismissal of the robbers. Why doesn’t anyone talk about why the man was in the ditch, half-dead in the first place?!

It’s complicated because you have to go back to the system.
There are robbers because they have a need.
They have a need because there’s inequality.
There’s inequality because the system was created like this.

Martin Luther King Jr. was onto this holy logic in his “Beyond Vietnam” speech when he said: “On the one hand we are called to play the good Samaritan on life’s roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”

Amen, but woah. Timothy are you trying to tell us that it’s not just about acting kind to those we pass by each day or that it’s not good enough to care only for my family, but that I need to challenge the system? In short, yes. But in long form: no, but also.

No, keep in touch with those around you, but also make sure if they are feeling hopeless that you comfort them.

No, don’t stop reposting articles about Heather Heyer, who was killed by a white supremacist but also live in such a way that celebrates our diverse world and keep naming white supremacy as a sin and enemy of humanity.

No, continue giving money to good organizations that fight for human rights, dignity, and a more just world, but also show deep, deep love to those struggling financially, emotionally, and physically.

This tension of living like the Good Samaritan and changing the Jericho Road is not easy. Nor is following Jesus supposed to be easy. At the end of the day, you shouldn’t be the same person as you were, but transformed by a God who loves and comforts us and expects the same from us.

I’ll end my sermon just as Jesus did:
Go and do likewise.
Go, as in leave your place of comfort and enter places where people have lost all hope.
Do it, not to be called good, since the phrase “Good Samaritan” is not found in the text itself, but do it to further bring God’s Realm on Earth.
So Go and do likewise, Amen.