Who is my neighbor?

Children’s Time: share items brought back from Africa (jewelry, paintings, hand-carved gifts, currency). Even though everything is quite different in Tanzania, we are still neighbors. We share the same earth on which to live. We share the same faith in Jesus with our friends at Ikengeza. In just a moment I’ll be preaching about Jesus’ story: The Good Samaritan. I want you to be listening for ways you can tell who is your neighbor.

Intro: Dear friends in Christ: grace to you and peace, from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

From a young age, we’re taught to “be good.” To “keep our nose clean.” “Good on ya, mate!” Even that classic film, The Wizard of Oz, has a scene where Dorothy scolds the wizard, now exposed: “You’re a very bad man!” “No,” he replies. “I’m a good man, just a very bad wizard.”

Before we jump into this story of the Good Samaritan… a story we’ve heard so many times before… let’s be careful that we don’t make it just about being good. There’s a lot to learn here about who our neighbor is, too.

This story tugs at the heart of who we are. It lays pure suffering right at our doorstep to see what our reaction will be. Today – the tragedy isn’t happening to someone else – it’s not down on the gulf or in some tornado-stricken town out-state. It’s you in this parable. You in the ditch. You walking along the roadside.

And sometimes you just have to go all out. All or nothing. I’m betting this Good Samaritan didn’t take a long time to decide what to do. He just did what he was hard-wired to do. Someone was in need and that was that.

There’s an old saying: “Those who agonize never act.” And, “Those who act don’t agonize.” Now that’s a simplistic way to put it. Surely, some decisions need to be weighed carefully. But in this case, the Samaritan didn’t agonize. He acted with mercy and compassion. His neighbor was whoever happened to be in need in his midst.

Two years ago when we were beginning to talk about a trip to Africa with our church, I brought it up with my wife, Sandy. What would she think if I went away for 3 weeks on this mission trip? And it was quite clear in her mind from the start: all or nothing. Either we all go or none of us go. In other words: “You’re not leaving me with the kids for a month to go half way around the world!” So, we decided to all go. And it was a wonderful experience for our family and for the other adults who journeyed with us.

So many of you shared this experience with us in the planning, fundraising, and with the website we created to journal about the trip. For that, I am grateful. We’ll have much to share in the days and weeks to come. As I’ve mentioned before, in spite of our many differences… it really is a small world after all. Our neighbors can be across the street or around the globe!

In our gospel lesson today, it’s a lawyer who is going to learn something about being a neighbor. In some sense, he “knows it all.” Some translations refer to him as a “religious scholar.” So, before you start thinking about your favorite lawyer joke remember that we’re talking about the Law of Moses here. And it’s also important to remember that the lawyer isn’t necessarily “out to get Jesus.” It was quite common for people to “test” their rabbi with questions. He even refers to him as “teacher.”

In the lesson before this, the 70 evangelists have returned rejoicing in their ministry – so excited to share all that has happened with Jesus. And he says: “I thank you God that you have revealed your will to infants (these disciples who are so new to the faith) and hidden it from the wise and learned.” (In the Message translation of this passage, the word used for “wise” is “know-it-alls”) That’s the context in which this lawyer stands up to test Jesus. He’s one of those guys, wise and learned in the faith.

And his question deals with the big stuff: how we get into heaven. (Or, in his words: “inherit eternal life”) Jesus has him answer his own questions. He knows the greatest commandment: to love the Lord, your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength… and to love your neighbor as yourself. But when he asks Jesus: “Who then is my neighbor?” Jesus tells him a story.

“Let’s say you’re robbed and beaten – stripped naked and left for dead along the road. Several people pass you by, except for this Samaritan. He alone cleans up your wounds, takes you to an inn for the night and foots the bill for your care. So… which one of these is a neighbor to you?”

It’s a no-brainer. But the lawyer can’t even bring himself to say the word: “Samaritan.” Jews and Samaritans didn’t mingle with each other. They were seen as Gentile outsiders – unclean – to be avoided at all cost. So, he answers: “The one who showed mercy.” And that’s good enough for Jesus. “Go and do likewise.”

This isn’t so much a story about following the example of the Good Samaritan – as it is about knowing who’s fit for ministry. We all think it’s the teachers of the Law who are qualified – the pastors and seminarians. We look to the wise ones for guidance and direction. We think there’s no way we could teach Sunday school or confirmation because that’s best left to “the wise and learned.” And Jesus sends out fishermen, tax collectors, zealots and harlots. He’s not interested in your credentials as much as he is in your compassion. He’s not even so interested in your “being GOOD” as he is in your “telling the GOOD” God has done for you.

If you go away today thinking the story of the Good Samaritan is simply about being nice to others – stopping along the roadside to help change a flat tire in the rain – then you’ve missed the whole point.

Martin Luther King once said, “Everyone can be great because everyone can serve!” The greatness of this story is that it helps us to see who our neighbor is – and to show compassion to them, regardless of their stature or rank in life. In his sermon entitled: “The Drum Major Instinct” Dr. King goes on to say:
“The church is the one place where a doctor ought to forget that he’s a doctor. The church is the one place where a Ph.D. ought to forget that he’s a Ph.D. The church is the one place that the school teacher ought to forget the degree she has behind her name. The church is the one place where the lawyer ought to forget that he’s a lawyer. And any church that violates the “whosoever will, let him come” doctrine is a dead, cold church, and nothing but a little social club with a thin veneer of religiosity.
When the church is true to its nature, it says, “Whosoever will, let him come.” …It’s the one place where everybody should be the same, standing before a common master and savior.”

You see, this lawyer (the Bible says) wanted to justify himself. He wanted to stand behind his credentials, rather than stand behind Jesus. He identified more with the GOOD in the Samaritan than the neighbor who was foreign to him.

And we know, that any good we do, we must acknowledge that it comes from God. Left to our own designs, we are bound to be led astray. There is no way we can “be good” without the goodness of Christ in our hearts!

As the words from our first lesson in Deuteronomy ch. 30 remind us that when prosperity comes to us, it is because our hearts have been turned to God. From verse 10: “Turn to the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul. Surely this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you… the word is very near to you, it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.”

My prayer for us all today is that we will be hard-wired with compassion – fit for ministry based on God’s Goodness, rather than our own.

Let us pray: O God, we thank you for our neighbors. Open our hearts with mercy to help those in need among us. We ask it in the strong name of Jesus Christ, your son our Lord. Amen.

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