My Neighbor - Reflections - 7-6-16

 Texts for Sunday July 10, 2016
 Note: In light of all the violence and death this past week, the need to contemplate "Who is my neighbor?" seems more urgent. The Samaritan is the only one who truly saw the man in the ditch. Look around. There are wounds waiting to be bound. 

 Deuteronomy 30:9-14
 Psalm 25:1-10
 Colossians 1:1-14

 Luke 10:25-37

Scandalous!  Disgusting!  Surprising!

This story is told to shock the listeners.  But It doesn’t really have that effect on us, does it? It is a fun little skit to act out. Or maybe its an example of a really random act of kindness.  We all “know what it means” so the story of the Good Samaritan has lost its punch - there are even laws named after it, for heaven’s sake. But let's at least think about the shock...

So this lawyer….and remember the law he studies is the Torah, not civil law…. suddenly stands up to test Jesus. (In the verse right before this Jesus was talking privately to his disciples. No idea where this guy comes from) So he stands up to “test” Jesus.  That word “test” feels condescending and arrogant doesn’t it? Jesus zings back with a question. The guy gives a terrific answer; he knows his stuff. And Jesus says – there you go, do that. 

I don’t know what the lawyer expected Jesus to say at that point, but with the spotlight back on him, rather than taking a victory lap, he seems a bit startled. He asks…wait, who do I need to love? What am I committing to? My neighbor? 

And Jesus tells him a story.

The setting:  a rocky, scary road between Jerusalem and Jericho…really best traveled in a group…. accompanied by big guys in dark glasses. Imagine the “deserted lane” of any number of scary campfire tales. The guy is robbed, beaten, and left for dead.  In a blame-the-victim manner, we could say that he brought this on himself by traveling alone.

So two other travelers come by one at a time (traveling alone??).  A Levite and a priest see him, don’t stop to help, and walk instead on the other side of the road. Let’s be clear, the only thing we know is that these guys are religious professionals. There is no indication of why they didn’t stop. Centuries of readers have tried and convicted these two, assigning reasons to their actions. All we know is that they could have stopped and didn’t.

Not to defend them, but I must say that I have been the Levite and the priest more times than I can count. Be honest; so have you. Sure, I have my excuses, but in the end, it is because I kept my distance and did not allow myself any compassion; I walked right by. I might even have felt annoyance, or scorn, or fear, or just apathy. I stand beside these two travelers, also guilty. We don’t have to hammer on these guys, we understand. They are us.

Back to our story: According to a variety of scholars, at this point those who are listening expect an ordinary Israelite to come along. Apparently there was a stylized way of telling a story about a priest a Levite and an Israelite (walk into a bar?). 

But Jesus says instead that a mortal enemy comes along.  It is a tomato-throwing kind of turn in the story. Bah! A Samaritan! Let’s be clear, Samaritans are not oppressed underdogs. They dislike the Jewish people as much as the Jewish people loath them (click here for history of the hostility). In fact, in the Gospel from two Sunday’s ago, Samaritans were so rude about not letting Jesus who was going to Jerusalem-the-evil-city stay with them that his disciples suggested a rain of fire on the Samaritans heads. Jesus had a recent experience with these people.

Here is how Amy-Jill Levine, a Jewish scholar, discusses this story in her book The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus.

To hear this parable in contemporary terms, we should think of ourselves as the person in the ditch and ask, “Is there anyone, from any group, about whom we would rather die than acknowledge, ‘She offered help’ or ‘He showed compassion’? More, is there any group whose members might rather die than help us? If so, then we know how to find the modern equivalent for the Samaritan.

Think about that. Plenty of people today have possibilities for that list.

So picture the Samaritan, disgusted at the thought of helping the victim, and a victim, disgusted at the thought of receiving help. THEN instead, the Samaritan had compassion – a gut-wrenching empathy (that is what the Greek word says) that causes one to act on the other’s behalf. I can imagine that the Samaritan might have had some second thoughts as they made their way down that rocky path, especially if the victim was conscious enough to complain or protest. But with that compassion for the “neighbor”, the Samaritan continued take care of him so he could recover.

After the story Jesus asks the lawyer: Which traveler was a neighbor to the man in need? 

Once again, we do not know the motive behind the lawyer’s answer. 
Was it with disgust that he mumbled “The one who had mercy” – unable to even get the word Samaritan out of his mouth?  

Or was it with a surprised and transformed view of neighbor – a Samaritan and mercy?

You choose your ending.

Oh and - Who is your neighbor?

You can comment below. 

For more reflections on these texts see the G.I.F.T post for July 10, 2016.

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