My neighbor is…
A sermon by the Rev. H. Paul Canady III
Rector of Christ Church, New Bern, NC, on July 14, 2019
I’m going to be down here (by the Baptismal Font) this morning because we have three small children who will we will formally make a part of the Body of Christ this morning. And much of what I have to say has to do with them and the future we are creating for them. So, I don’t want you to look over and past them when you’re looking towards me.
But first, let’s talk about Lawyers…
Jesus spent a lot of time around lawyers. Or more, they seemed to spend a lot of time around him. The Gospel writers often use them as foils in the story, agents to help Jesus get his point across. I know some really good people who happen to be lawyers, and I’m willing to bet that you do, too. If you don’t know a good lawyer, I’ll be glad to introduce you to one so you can remember they really do exist. Because in the pages of Scripture, they aren’t always the best characters. In Luke’s Gospel today, one stands up to test Jesus. I did a quick survey of English translations of that first verse, and nearly all of them said “test.” The King James Version says that the lawyer is trying to tempt Jesus. So either way, at this moment, the intent of the question isn’t to gain more knowledge but to catch Jesus in some legal trouble that might aid the Temple leadership in stopping him.
Like a great teacher, Jesus doesn’t answer the question but turns it back to the one asking. And since he’s a well-learned individual, he knows! And he quotes Deuteronomy 6:5 (Love the Lord with all your heart, all your soul, with all your strength, with all your mind) and Leviticus 19:18 (Love your neighbor as yourself). The paring of these two verses is also found in Matthew 22, which leads scholars to think that this theme of loving God and neighbor as co-equal laws was in the Jewish mindset before Jesus began his earthly ministry. The lawyer knew it. Jesus tells him he got the answer right, so what else is there? Love God. Love your neighbor.
“And who is my neighbor,” the lawyer asks. Luke doesn’t help us with descriptions of facial expressions or tones of voice or any of that. The Common English Bible translates the lawyer’s next move by saying “But the legal expert wanted to prove he was right.” Which begs the question: right about what?!
So Jesus lays out a parable about a Samaritan who helped a traveler who fell into the hands of robbers was left naked and half-dead on the road. It’s a story that even non-Christians know the general premise of. It’s a parable that has given the name for laws intended to protect people who help others and even the name of a chain of campgrounds and RV clubs. The scandal of the story isn’t that a Samaritan would help a Jew, and it’s not that a naked, half-dead Jew would be forced to accept help from a Samaritan. It’s not even that the priest and Levite would pass by on the other side of the road. There are some solid reasons for their behavior, that put the call to love neighbor and serve in the Temple in direct conflict. For all they knew, the traveler was dead and touching him would have rendered them ritually unclean and unable to serve in the Temple for an extended period of time which meant they would not be able to provide for their families during that time. We could have a deeper conversation about what Jesus was trying to do in using the priest and Levite. But not today. If you want to grab coffee sometime and wrestle with that piece of the parable, please call me and let’s do that. I’d love it!
The scandal is that while those of Jesus’ own religious following are wanting to split hairs over who their neighbor is, the Samaritan, someone who Jews looked down on as a general rule, doesn’t seem to care who it is that needs assistance. And Jesus holds that up as the model behavior. He understands that his neighbor is the one he encounters. He doesn’t pause to ask the man’s lineage or bloodline. He doesn’t give a flip about what country he’s from or how he worships God or what language he speaks or even why was traveling alone along a road known to be dangerous. While Jesus’ own people, at least those in positions of religious leadership, seem to be seeking who they can exclude, the Samaritan, whose people worship the same God as the Hebrew people, pays two days’ wages in advance for the care of the wounded traveler. To be sure, Jesus wasn’t the first rabbi to teach this level of mercy and compassion or even to show it. Ancient Jewish texts reveal many such teachings. I wish that 2,000 years later, we didn’t need to still have these teachings. That’s not the world we live in, but it’s a world we can work to create.
When Jesus said “which one was the neighbor,” Luke, again, does not tell us what the lawyer’s face or his tone of voice was like when he said, “the one who showed him mercy.” Jesus merely says, “Go and do likewise.”
We want to think of our neighbors as those who share a street with us or a back yard or whose house we can walk to. But Jesus tells us that we have to broaden our viewpoints. We want to think that our neighbors are those who think like us, pray like us, speak the same language as us. We want to think that our new neighbors will assimilate to being just like us instead of bringing their own experiences and ways of living a faith-filled life. Jesus tells us to think bigger than that. Jesus doesn’t invite us but pushes us to enlarge our vision of the boundaries of the rules of God. If the lawyer knew Leviticus 19:18, he probably knew the rest of that chapter too. It has injunctions against harming the deaf and the blind, honesty in marketplace transactions, and allowing the poor and vulnerable to glean from the edges the fields. That chapter reminds the ancient Hebrews that they, too, were once foreigners in the land of Egypt and that foreigners are to be treated as citizens and not be oppressed.
We are making three new members of the Body of Christ today. Matthew, Francis, and Virginia are going to live in a world that we create. We are going to place a lot of hope and trust in them as they grow older. But they are counting on their parents, grandparents, godparents, and all of us, you, and the person to your right and your left and in front of you and behind you, to help them take over a world that looks more like the way Jesus would want it to look. A world where we behave like the Samaritan and not like the lawyer, where we see our neighbor both as the person who walks their dog past our house at the same time every day and in the person whose house was lost to a wildfire in California, a world where we understand our neighbor as made in the image of God whether they were born in this country or they come here seeking refuge from violence in their homeland; a world that shows compassion to the most vulnerable whether they are in our own town or being held in inhumane conditions at a detention facility at our Southern border.
When you have more than enough, you build a bigger table, not a stronger fence. Our job as followers of Jesus is to show our neighbors, all of them, compassion, mercy, and love, whether we want to or not. It’s a tall order, but Jesus doesn’t offer shortcuts. Jesus just offers to walk with us and love us unconditionally as we work to create a better world where all God’s children are also loved unconditionally.
Keeping in mind Jesus’ answer for us about who our neighbors are and the challenge and opportunity for the world we create for these young people, I invite those being Baptized to come forward with their parents and godparents.
May God continue to bless Matthew, Francis, and Virginia as they continue to grow into the full stature of Christ.