Who is my Neighbor?

July 10, 2016

By Barb Ballenger

Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 10

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Who is my neighbor?

I’ve been thinking a lot about this question in the wake of the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, unarmed black men killed this week at the hands of police… and in the wake of the deaths of five police officers gunned down by a black sniper while they were protecting people at a rally protesting those deaths.

I’ve been thinking about it as lines get drawn in the sand in places like Facebook, to the subtle drum beat of “which side are you on?” I thought about it during a brief getaway to Washington DC Friday and Saturday, where I didn’t have to think about it if I didn’t want to – the privilege of being a white woman on vacation.

And I thought about it because it’s the key question of our Gospel reading today, the one upon which the whole thing swings. And because the answer to this question of who is my neighbor speaks directly to this week’s wounds, which are just the latest in lifetimes of racial injustice and violence.

If we dare raise the question of who is my neighbor, as this self-righteous lawyer dared, we best be prepared for the answer. Because our eternal life depends on it.

Now we all know the story of the Good Samaritan – we just heard it after all. But it’s worth being reminded of how Luke sets up the story.

It starts with a lawyer who wants to test Jesus.  His first mistake. Jesus can always tell a lawyer – but not much.

He asks: Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?

Jesus answers: You’re a lawyer. What’s written in the law?

The lawyer thinks, ah, a chance to show my stuff: “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 (Deuteronomy) and love your neighbor as yourself (Leviticus).”

And Jesus, maybe smelling a trap or just hoping to make it to lunch before the lines get too long says: Good. Do that and you’ll be fine.

But the lawyer makes his second mistake. He wants to show Jesus how righteous he is, so he asks his big trick question: And who is my neighbor?

And here’s where Jesus resets the trap. Because what this lawyer is asking Jesus for is a list of reasons he doesn’t have to love his neighbor as himself. Then he can have a working list of lives that don’t matter. And he knows that the law will provide him with that information… but he wants to hear Jesus say it.

So Jesus tells him a story about three people who according to law or conventional wisdom are perfectly justified in passing someone by.

A fellow Jew is traveling the dangerous 30 mile stretch from Jerusalem to Jericho and is beset by robbers and left to die. A priest walks by. The man on the road looks dead.
According to the law, touching a corpse would make the priest unclean and unfit to perform his religious duties without first purifying himself, so to be on the safe side and to save time, he cuts a wide path and goes on his way.

Perfectly justified.

Same thing with the Levite, a lay person who also works at the temple and could also be restricted from doing his job if he touches a corpse. From here that guy looks pretty dead. Better not risk it.

Perfectly justified.

Then along comes a Samaritan. He is also of Jewish ancestry, but his religious differences set him apart from the bleeding guy on the road. Way apart. They put him in enemy territory. So by Samaritan standards, our hero would also be perfectly justified in passing this guy by.

But he doesn’t.

Because he does not view this man on the road through the lenses of religious difference, conventional wisdom, or political positions. He looks through the lenses of compassion and mercy. He comes close enough to see that this is not a dead enemy but a dying neighbor. And moved by pity (the good kind) he nurses him back to health.

So Jesus says to his lawyer friend: You wanted to know what a neighbor is. You heard the story. You tell me.

Um, the one who showed mercy?

Good answer. Now go and do likewise.

And the lawyer’s day was ruined.

Because after that little encounter with Jesus, he was no longer justified under the old rules. Under the law he had a much shorter list of people to love in order to inherit eternal life. With this answer the list just got a lot longer – it now included just about everybody, starting with his enemy.

Go and do likewise? Who was he supposed to be in the story anyway? If the Samaritan was his neighbor, did that make him the guy in the ditch?  That meant he would have to be willing to live at the mercy of his enemies, regarding them as people with the capacity to care for him.

Or was he supposed to act like the Samaritan? That meant that he would have to look at people with new eyes – the eyes of mercy rather than religious status or tribal privilege. And when you put on those lenses all you see is neighbor.

Right about here is a good time to ask ourselves who we are in the story? Are we the priest? The Levite? The guy in the ditch? Are we the Samaritan?

Folks, let’s be honest. We’re the lawyer.

I know I am when I start to make my list of exceptions – that list of the ones I don’t have to care about because they do not look like me, or don’t share my values or they have those disqualifying characteristics that come in so handy – lazy, ignorant, mentally ill, prone to bad choices, dangerous, too hard to take care of or just too far away. Because

God forbid I get compassion fatigue.

Does that sound familiar?

And that is what Jesus is up against with the lawyer. That’s what he’s up against with us. That’s what the Kingdom of God is up against. That’s why the world doesn’t change very much or very fast. Because you need an entirely different world view, an entirely different practice to love people this way.

And luckily for those seeking eternal life, that is what Jesus offers with his cross,  his grace, his Holy Spirit, his church. He offers us a new way to be neighbor. And it’s not impossible. Examples of this kind of Good Samaritan are all around us.

There’s Keisha Thomas, who for 20 years has been known as the African American teenager who threw herself on the downed body of a white supremacist to protect him from being beaten by people protesting a KKK rally.  Years later she explained “It was instinct. There was no time to think about it. A lot of time we need to follow our instinct. We don’t because we are fearful.”

Perhaps the key to inheriting eternal life is having an instinct for compassion that is stronger than our instinct for fear.

There is Dr. Ali Shroukh, a Palestinian doctor who was driving with his brothers to Jerusalem recently to celebrate the close of Ramadan when they encountered an Israeli car that had been attacked by Palestinians. The car contained a Rabbi, his wife and their 10 children. Dr. Shroukh stopped and tended the injured, even though he could have been easily mistaken for the attacker, since he wasn’t dressed as a doctor and he was covered with blood. “It doesn’t matter if somebody is a settler, a Jew or an Arab,” he said. “Thank God we helped them.”
Perhaps the key to inheriting eternal life is getting close enough to see the person at hand, and seeing neighbor where others would see enemy.

There is the Amish community in Nickel Mines, PA who practiced ongoing forgiveness of the man who shot their children in an Amish school before turning the gun on himself. In the days following the shooting, they attended his funeral and they raised money for his widow and children.

Jonas Beiler an Amish therapist who provided counseling to grieving families after the tragedy said: “Tragedy changes you. You can’t stay the same. Where that lands you don’t always know. But what I found out in my own experience is if you bring what little pieces you have left to God, he somehow helps you make good out of it. And I see that happening in this school shooting as well. One just simple thing that the whole world got to see was this simple message of forgiveness.”

Perhaps the key to inheriting eternal life is accepting the fact that our own healing requires acts of reconciliation, forgiveness and compassion. And it also requires the company of strong, loving community. Because we can’t do this alone.

We need the story of the Good Samaritan right now, and we need to decide whether we’re going to live by that radical definition of neighbor.

That I believe is the antidote to the mad movement that wants to justify its prejudices, its bigotry and its violence, that wants to make the list of neighbors very small and the list of the enemies very large. Some do this by grabbing the mic. More do it with their silence.

We need not join them in crossing to the other side of the road. In fact, eternal life demands that we do otherwise.


Regular Sunday Schedule

8:00 a.m. Holy Eucharist
9:15 a.m. worship.together (Eucharist for preschool families)
9:15 a.m. Parish Forum & Christian Education (Kairos)
10:30 a.m. Choral Eucharist

Other Days

Morning prayer is offered at 7:30 a.m. weekdays, in the Mary Chapel.

Silent morning meditation is offered at 8:15 a.m. weekdays, in the Mary Chapel.

Mid-week Eucharist is offered at 12:15 p.m. Wednesdays, in the Mary Chapel.

Compline is offered at 7:00 p.m. on 2nd & 4th Wednesdays, in the Church.

Choral Evensong is offered at 5:00 p.m. on 1st Sundays, Oct.-June, in the Church.

We would love to have you join us.


This Episcopal church is located in the heart of the historic neighborhood of Chestnut Hill, five blocks west of Germantown Avenue at the corner of St. Martin’s Lane and West Willow Grove Avenue.

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