When our children were young Brad and I would volunteer at the Center City Homeless Shelter. From time to time we would take the two younger ones with us, as their older siblings had something else to do. We would arrive at 6 p.m. on a Friday night and leave after breakfast on Saturday about noon. Friday night we would prepare a meal for them and Saturday we would serve them breakfast. After dinner, or for those early birds that woke early so they could get the coffee started, we would spend time with our guests. We got to know them pretty well, because back then they could stay as long as they needed a roof over their head. The children enjoyed their time at the shelter and looked forward to playing board games or cards. They learned a valuable message about loving our neighbor as ourselves.
It was surprisingly proven to us on a trip to New York City. We were having lunch in Battery Park while we waited for the ferry to take us to Ellis Island to see the Statue of Liberty. We found a nice picturesque area with benches and pigeons and the children picked a bench close to ours. A few minutes went by and Jess and Chris approached us to ask if they could give half of their lunch to the homeless guys sitting a few benches away. For full disclosure I must admit that Brad and I had not even noticed them. We all walked over and met these two gentlemen and freely shared our lunches with them. Our “new neighbors” were much appreciative.
When the lawyer asked Jesus, “Teacher what must I do to inherit eternal life,” Jesus turned the question right back at him. He knew this person knew his scripture and wasn’t being completely sincere with his question. So Jesus asked, “What is written in the law? What’s written there?”
The lawyer answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind; and you shall love the neighbor as yourself.”
“You are correct,” Jesus said, “now go and do it!” But, for some reason the man persisted and asked Jesus, “But who is my neighbor?”
Jesus had given him a pass with his first exchange but that wasn’t enough for the man. He had to justify himself and push harder. Who is my neighbor? So Jesus complied and told him the parable we just read. A man was on his way from Jerusalem to Jericho when he was attacked. He was robbed, beaten and left on the road to die.
Jesus was directing his story to the lawyer, while speaking to the crowd. So, let me tell you something about this road. The distance between Jerusalem and Jericho is about 18 miles. It was the major thoroughfare for trading caravans, and the pilgrims who visited Jerusalem multiple times each year; it was also an isolated terrain and people on this road were easy targets for bandits, who would have found ample hiding places and escape routes into the desert where no one would pursue them. So when Jesus mentioned that this man was traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho, he was talking about familiar territory to his listeners and they could fully engage in the story because they knew the area so well.
So too could they recognize the characters he placed in the story: a priest, a Levite and a Samaritan. A priest and Levite were well respected. The Samaritan, however, was not. When the Jewish people returned from exile the Samaritans did not choose to worship in the rebuilt temple. Instead they built their own and that distanced them from the mainline Jews. So, all three examples that Jesus set the story with were Jewish and all had studied the Torah since they were children. They all followed the laws of purification and the consequences of breaking them. That day, the story goes, all three encounter the injured man as they walk passed him on that road.
Upon seeing him lying on the road, the priest and Levite cross to the other side and went on their way. I am sure the crowd listening was a bit surprised that it is the Samaritan who breaks his travel plans and cares for the injured man. The Samaritan is the first responder and gets off his mule and begins to tend to the beaten man’s wounds. Seeing that the injuries to this person are substantial, he lifts him to his mule and takes him to an inn. He tells the owner as much as he can and that he has business to tend to; he leaves the man, along with the necessary costs, which are far more than will be needed, and goes on his way.
I suspect Jesus takes a meaningful pause here so the crowd could let the unfolding story sink in.
As Jesus continues, he asks the lawyer, “So which of the three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” Unable to even utter the word Samaritan, the lawyer answered, rather sheepishly I suppose, “The one who showed him mercy.” The conversation ends with Jesus saying, “Go and do likewise.”
But wait a minute, what did we miss? The lawyer, who is trying to rile Jesus asks, “What must I do to gain eternal life?” Jesus sends him back to the law, and then the lawyer answers the question! Is Jesus happy? Is the lawyer happy? Well no! The lawyer asks another question, “Who is my neighbor?” and the next thing we know we are on the road to Jerusalem.
How does the first question and the second tie in? Well to begin with, the priest, Levite and Samaritan all play a role, very different roles, in the ministry of Jesus. The priests usually don’t engage in conversation with Jesus – they are there to listen and are very critical. Jesus is teaching a new way of understanding who God is. God is no longer the constant punisher – Jesus teaches his followers that It’s all about Love.
The Levites also were part of the Temple structure but not as powerful as the priests. The Samaritan was not very well liked. He was thought of as “less than” and was one that no one wanted to be seen with.
By using them in this story, Jesus was able to teach them a little about themselves and elevate the Samaritan in a way that changed the priest and Levite’s opinion of themselves. He was saying, “Oh you that wear your faith on your sleeve instead of your heart – you have some learning to do. You try to do faith instead of living faithfully. You try to act faithful and your actions say something different. You try to live faith, instead of allowing your faith to show you how to live.” Everyone got a message that day, and not many in the crowd were happy about it.
The second commandment is Love your neighbor as yourself. I think this is as tough as the first commandment. You see in today’s world, not many people truly love themselves. We abuse our bodies, our stress is palpable, our self-esteem is suffering, and our body image is not very good. We judge ourselves so harshly – we don’t have anything left to reach out to love others. But I may have a solution.
An elder of this church used to hold a women’s retreat. Her introductory lesson would be to ask the women to finish this sentence: “I AM …” She explained: write down all the thing that make you who you are. The women would fill their paper with answers. The leader would intentionally give them ample time to think of all the things that identify themselves. She would then ask them to go around the room and share what they discovered, trying not to repeat an answer they already heard.
“I am a wife.” Our leader than asked, “Yes, you are a wife, but if you were not a wife would that mean that you do not exist.”
“I am a sister.” Yes you are a sister, but if you were not a sister would that mean that you do not exist.
“I am a daughter, an aunt, a teacher, a student, a nurse,” each answered one after another. And they were met with the same BUT – but if you were not a daughter, an aunt, a teacher etc. would that mean that you do not exist. It was then that the leader picked up a marker and wrote.
“I am a child of God. And if you were not a child of God you wouldn’t exist.”
Her lesson then began, and she taught about God our creator, who created us in God’s image. God waited until the last to create us. The fish of the sea and the animals of the earth, the stars in the sky and the birds in the air; light and darkness, land and sea were all created by God before us. But God’s children were created last – in God’s image – God breathed life into us and through his unbounding love we exist.
The lesson was: we could be all those things the women listed and we could excel at their meaning and purpose in our lives; but even if we don’t become a nurse or doctor, teacher or sister, we are still and always a child of God. So my lesson today is focus on love – with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind; and love your neighbor as yourself. Friends, always start with love – love of God and love of self. This is not a two-step process – one feeds the other – think about what it means to be loved by God unconditionally and then strive to love others and yourself in the same way.
May it be so.