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March 8, 2015, 1:43 PM

Neighbors and Enemies


Luke 10:25-37
25 A legal expert stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to gain eternal life?”
26 Jesus replied, “What is written in the Law? How do you interpret it?”
27 He responded, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.”[a]
28 Jesus said to him, “You have answered correctly. Do this and you will live.”
29 But the legal expert wanted to prove that he was right, so he said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
30 Jesus replied, “A man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho. He encountered thieves, who stripped him naked, beat him up, and left him near death. 31 Now it just so happened that a priest was also going down the same road. When he saw the injured man, he crossed over to the other side of the road and went on his way. 32 Likewise, a Levite came by that spot, saw the injured man, and crossed over to the other side of the road and went on his way. 33 A Samaritan, who was on a journey, came to where the man was. But when he saw him, he was moved with compassion. 34 The Samaritan went to him and bandaged his wounds, tending them with oil and wine. Then he placed the wounded man on his own donkey, took him to an inn, and took care of him. 35 The next day, he took two full days’ worth of wages and gave them to the innkeeper. He said, ‘Take care of him, and when I return, I will pay you back for any additional costs.’ 36 What do you think? Which one of these three was a neighbor to the man who encountered thieves?”
37 Then the legal expert said, “The one who demonstrated mercy toward him.”
Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”
 
“Neighbors and Enemies"
As I entered into young adulthood and college, Disney had a resurgence of animated movies that grabbed the hearts of a whole new generation. During the 80s Disney had struggled with their feature-length animated movies. Movies like “The Dark Cauldron” and “Oliver and Company” had not generated the success they hoped. But as we transitioned for the 80s into the 90s, Disney found their rhythm once again and created movies that have become beloved favorites: “Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King, Toy Story” to name a few. But the movie that started it all, the movie that breathed new life into Disney’s animation, was “The Little Mermaid.”
 
How I loved that movie! It spoke to my childhood with former beloved Disney features—“Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella.” I watched it over and over again. I knew all the songs by heart. I loved Sebastian the Crab. Even as I entered adulthood, this movie centered me back in my childhood. So I decided I would read the original story by Hans Christian Anderson—the story that inspired the movie I loved. What a completely different story! Apart from “Ariel” the mermaid and her desire to be human, completely different stories. After reading “The Little Mermaid” I read the rest of Anderson’s stories—“The Matchstick Girl, The Red Shoes, The Ice Queen.” His stories are rich and deep and dark. They confront us with harsh realities and difficult scenarios. They are tragic and thought provoking. They unsettle. If you haven’t read his short stories, I would not call them fairy tales, I highly recommend you do so.
 
I still love the songs from Disney’s movies. Sebastian the crab has a special place in my heart. But I am a better person for having read the original story, for having wrestled with its harshness and tragedy. I am a better person for having moved beyond the Disney story to encounter this original piece of artistry. We must do the same with “The Good Samaritan.”
 
This is a tremendously beloved and familiar parable, so much so that it has become a term in the secular world—to be a ‘good Samaritan.’ We have Samaritan hospitals and clinics, Samaritan relief agencies and social service networks, Samaritan counseling centers and schools.  Even in the dictionary, the first definition for ‘Samaritan’ is ‘a charitable or helpful person.’ ‘A person from Samaria’ is the second definition. When we hear someone referred to as a ‘Good Samaritan’ we instantly picture a good hearted and generous person actively engaged in good deeds in the world. But that is not how Jesus’ original audience would have pictures.
 
This parable 2000 years ago was highly confrontational, deeply offensive, an “in-your-face” story designed to upset. This narrative would have left the listeners shocked and furious. It would have drawn gasps from the crowd as it as told.
 
The scenario that sets up the story is of itself confrontational.  This expert in God’s Law has stood up to test Jesus, to make his look bad in front of the crowd, to show him up and discredit him. The lawyer rises to his feet and asks an odd questions, “What must I do to earn eternal life?” This is bad Jewish theology, asking what check list he must follow in order to have ‘eternal life.” Common Jewish thought at that time was living now God’s way in order to live beyond with God. Eternal life wasn’t something ‘earn.’ It was something lived. Jesus, as a good rabbi, turns the question back to the asker: “You are the legal expert. How do you interpret it?” The lawyer gives a very standard and agreed upon answer: “To love God with everything you are and to love your neighbor as yourself.”
 
The lawyer cannot let the conversation end here, not if we wants to take Jesus down a notch in the eyes of the people. He has heard of this Jesus who stretches the boundaries of the Law, redefines things, and he wants to draw Jesus out and expose him as a fraud. So he asks another question: “And who is my neighbor?”
 
We must remember that this lawyer is not comparable to how we understand the job of lawyer today. This is not American law. This person is an expert in religious law—not just the first five books of the Bible (the Torah), but also the Mishnah and the Talmud. The Law is the structure of everyday life as God’s people Israel. It covers all aspects of life and gives definition for people, events, scenarios…for living.  There is a definition for neighbor and interactions with them, for dealing with strangers and foreigners, for dealing with enemies.  Your neighbor was any person in an intimate or legal relationship with you—think citizenship within a nation. If someone was your neighbor there were certain obligations and responsibilities with one another.  This man is asking Jesus if he will prescribe to these limits. ‘Who is my neighbor’ also asks who is not my neighbor. Who can claim the obligations and responsibilities from me and who can I ignore regarding those things? It is a harsh question, intended to be a little offensive.
 
Jesus answers with a harsh story. It begins with an act of violence. This everyday person, the common Israelite, is journeying down an often dangerous road from Jerusalem to Jericho, and the worst case scenario happens, he is waylaid by thieves.  Their thievery is extreme. Not only do they rob him of his possessions—they steal his dignity (leaving him naked), they steal his health, they almost steal his life. It is a travelers worst nightmare. The crowd is leaning in, imagining this clearly, wondering when and where he will find help.
 
Enter the priest and then the Levite. Both are inherited positions. One is born into a priest family or into a Levite family and carry on this family work. They are keepers of the Law, caretakers of the worship life of the people of Israel, good people by and large. The crowd would have had every expectation that they were respond as the Law commands, by offering aid, providing care.  The audience would be absolutely shocked by their failure to act. It would have shaken them to consider a priest or Levite failing in the basic commands of caring for a fellow Israelite—a neighbor. How could these members of the people of God not respond with compassion and basic care?
 
But even as they wrestle with these thoughts, they recognize that another traveler is coming. Jesus is employing a common storytelling tool—the rule of three.  Think of “The Three Pigs” or “Goldilocks and the Three Bears.” A third person is coming, and their scriptures and culture teaches them who that is, or so they think. If there is a priest, and a Levite…then the Israelite is coming. Think of it as concentric circles, expanding. The tiny inner circle is the priestly families, the next larger circle is the tribe of Levi, and the largest outer circle, the entire people Israel.  The priest and Levite have failed, but now the average Israelite will come along and save the day.
 
Gasps resounded across the audience, cries of outrage, as not an Israelite is named, but an enemy of Israel—a Samaritan. This neighboring nation had tense relationships with Israel at the best of times. Other times the border between the nations would erupt with violence. In the previous chapter in Luke, Jesus is rejected by a Samaritan village because he is a Jewish man heading for Jerusalem. Think of the relationship today between Israeli and Palestinian. Jesus basically stated to the lawyer and the audience that the third traveler on the road is a Palestinian Muslim with sympathies toward Hamas. Jewish people don’t speak with Samaritans, don’t touch Samaritans, and are unsure they would want the Samaritan to stop.
 
What is Jesus saying? Samaritans aren’t neighbors, and yet this one not only fulfills the letter of the Law in caring for the person in need, but goes above and beyond what is required. I imagine that after the initial cry of outrage, the crowd would have fell silent at the extravagance of this compassion—to spend such time and resources for a stranger, for an enemy. The confrontation ends with a stunned lawyer and shocked crowd, reeling from the audacity of Jesus’ story. Jesus’ words echo over the audience, “What do you think? Who was the neighbor to this wounded person?” And the hesitant and reluctant reply, “The one who showed mercy.” That is quite the understatement. The Samaritan did so much more than show mercy, he showed nothing less that divine compassion. “Go,” Jesus demands, “and do likewise.”
 
Go and do likewise? Is Jesus saying that we are to be that extravagant with everyone, with my enemies, even those I can’t stand?
Also in the 90s, a television show aired late at night called “Picket Fences.” It was about life in a small town, about the sheriff, the doctor, the judge, and other townsfolk. I only saw two episodes, I think because of how the last one I saw unsettled me. In this particular episode, the son of the judge returns to town having completed his sentence in prison as a sex offender. The town is turned upside down by his return. Though he seeks to re-establish relationships with his father and his neighbors, he is rejected by most everyone, including his father. In the end he kills himself and the town is left to cope with their mixed emotions in this manner. During the final scene, one neighbor, one of the few that was somewhat friendly toward the son’s return, though reluctantly so, declares to another neighbor, “He was your neighbor! And you showed no compassion!”
 
Who is my neighbor? Jesus’ answer turns the world upside down

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