Who is my neighbor?
Sermon on Luke 10:25-37
The Gospel text just read is certainly one of the greatest in all of Scripture. But why is it great? Is it great because of the beautiful example of goodness shown by the merciful neighbor? Is it great because of the surprise – that the merciful neighbor is a foreigner? Is it great because we now have laws and hospitals named after that neighbor—the one who’s known to us as the Good Samaritan?
I suggest to you today that the text is great for all of these reasons, but also because it speaks to us on so many levels and gives us, in one amazing parable, three very important messages.
The first message is the most obvious—we are to love our neighbor. This is a message found throughout scripture, and one that is stated very clearly in the ancient Law from Leviticus. We read it as our Old Testament reading this morning: “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Along with loving God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, this commandment accurately summarizes the entire Law of God. Jesus himself taught this summary of the Law on many occasions. Here he confirms the teaching when it is presented by the lawyer, saying “You have answered correctly: do this and you will live.”
Jesus then doubles up on the message by telling a parable about the love of neighbor. He tells of the Good Samaritan who loved his neighbor by offering him help, showing him mercy and caring for his needs. Jesus concludes the parable by saying: “Go and do likewise.”
Love your neighbor. A clear message. But not an easy one.
A couple of days ago I was walking near the Metro station when a young man approached me and said: “I’m so sorry, sir, but I need to take the Metro from here to Rosslyn and I’ve lost my card. Can you help me out? I just need a few dollars.”
How should I love this neighbor of mine? Give him the money as requested? Buy him a card? Tell him “no.” Question him to see if he’s telling the truth? Attempt to find out what his bigger problems might be – like why he has no money to buy a card or friends to help him out?
And what about the monetary needs and obligations that I already have? I have lots of neighbors to love. We all do.
Loving your neighbor in the best way is not always easy to determine. We certainly can’t meet all our neighbor’s needs. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be very serious about the call to love. There are many needs we can meet.
“Do this and you will live,” says Jesus. Love your neighbors. That’s living. We often think that living is about accomplishments, or seeing the world, or finding pleasure. “It’s good living,” a friend once told me about life in a certain neighborhood – meaning there were lots of jobs, money and things to do there.
True living according to Jesus, is loving your neighbor.
The lawyer who initiated the conversation with Jesus obviously understood the complexity and challenge involved in loving. That’s why he asked a follow-up question: “And who is my neighbor?” The answer Jesus gives becomes the second important message of this text.
The Gospel writer tells us that the lawyer asked this question because he wished to justify himself. That means that there must have been some people the lawyer wasn’t loving. The lawyer would be justified in his non-love if the people weren’t really his neighbors.
The lawyer probably knew that the Law was a little fuzzy here. The Old Testament has many, many usages of the word “neighbor.” In just about every one of them, the word is used to refer to fellow Israelites—those who lived near. As such, the word is very similar in meaning to “brothers.” Notice how the two words, neighbor and brother, are used parallel one another in the Leviticus 19 text. Loving your neighbor, to most people, meant the keeping of moral obligations among your own covenant family.
Note too that the text from Leviticus 19, in the passage which says “you shall love your neighbor as yourself,” begins by saying: “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people.” Neighbors seem to be your own people.
A few places in the scriptures, however, expand the usage of the word. For instance, Psalm 44 says: “You have made us the taunt of our neighbors, the derision and scorn of those around us. You have made us a byword among the nations, a laughingstock among the peoples.” Here the word neighbor refers to the people of other nations—those who were foreigners and gentiles.
What was the thinking in Jesus’ day? In Matthew 5, Jesus said: “you have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’” This is not a direct quote from the Old Testament. But it seemed to be a message that prevailed among the people. Neighbors are those with whom you are at peace. And that certainly isn’t everyone.
Who is my neighbor? The question prevails among us as well. In a recent document by our Synod’s Commission on Theology and Church Relations, called “Immigrants Among Us,” section four is titled: “Who is my neighbor?” The document gives a clear and direct answer to that question, saying: “anyone who needs my help is my neighbor.” Martin Luther had said the same thing in his day, while commenting on the very text we’re considering from Luke 10.
The CTCR document goes on to suggest, however, that “if everyone is my neighbor in general, the danger is that no one will by my neighbor concretely.” To assist us in offering concrete help, the document points us to the doctrine of vocation, saying: “In the context of our God-given vocation, or station in life, we have opportunities to fulfill God’s command to love our neighbor as ourselves.”
Each of us has many vocations. We have a vocation as a family member. Those who are working have a vocation as an employee. All of us have a vocation as a citizen of our country. Each of us has a vocation as a member of a church.
The CTCR document goes on to say that “since we are faced with many neighbors asking for our attention, our specific vocations help us to define who are our closest neighbors (those toward whom we bear the greatest God-given responsibility), what neighbor’s needs we should deal with first and how to do so.” This advice is in keeping with a scripture we happened to read last Sunday, from Galatians 6, where Paul teaches us to “do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.”
The document concludes by warning us against excluding some people as our neighbors. “Our Lord showed in his ministry that no one is excluded from his love.”
How we go about distributing our loving and compassionate acts to others is something for each of us to decide. In our collective efforts to do so we will certainly have tough decisions to make. By making the hero in his parable a Samaritan, Jesus reminds us that we often need to be prompted to think beyond our closest circles. To the lawyer’s question of “who is my neighbor,” Jesus basically answers: “the Samaritans are your neighbors too.” Indeed, when Jesus sends out his disciples following his death and resurrection, he tells them: “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)
Love your neighbors by helping them, and know that everyone is your neighbor. These are two important messages of this text. There is a third message found in the text as well—one which we desperately need in light of how hard the first two messages are.
From earliest times, Christians have also interpreted the parable of the Good Samaritan as telling us something about Jesus. This makes sense, for the parables of Jesus always tell us about the kingdom, and only rarely serve as lessons in morality.
In this reading of the parable, you and I are the ones who have been beaten up and lie half-dead and helpless along life’s road. We have been robbed of our good health and happiness by the forces of evil. Our self-sufficiency has been stripped away.
In our helpless state, Jesus, the Good Samaritan, comes to rescue us.
He is the surprising outsider who offers his generous help. He’s different than the priest and the Levite, who represent the Law and the efforts of men. The Law can give knowledge of what to do, but can’t enable a person to do it. Humans will sometimes be of help, but are just as often the cause of the problem. All are in fact constantly failing to love as they should.
Jesus is the neighbor who truly loves. He is the one who acts out of compassion—a word from our text which, in the Gospels, is reserved for Jesus. He is the one who fulfills the Law.
As such, he comes to us sinners in our mortal state and binds up our wounds. He pours on the oil and wine of his grace so that we might live. He justifies us, through his self-giving, that we might have life eternal.
And, as the crucified, risen, ascended and glorified Lord, his healing mission continues among us—for he provides his Church to be the inn where his mercy is dispensed. Here we find the oil of Baptism and the wine of the Eucharist. Here the sores of sin begin to heal and we gradually become restored to the image of God.
Through the ministry of Jesus, our Good Samaritan, we can get back on the road of life with good health. Through his ongoing care we can be good Samaritans to one another—loving them as we love ourselves.
Our good health will never be perfect; nor will our love. We will constantly need God’s help and healing. But we can grow. And we can endure.
Consider this quote from Luther: “This life, therefore, is not godliness but the process of becoming godly, not health but getting well, not being but becoming, not rest but exercise. We are not now what we shall be, but we are on the way. This is not the goal but it is the right road. At present, everything does not gleam and sparkle, but everything is being cleansed.”
Later in his ministry, Jesus would give the command: “love one another as I have loved you.” Jesus has shown us the greatest love. With our eyes fixed on him—his mercy, his grace, his forgiveness—let us love one another. Amen.