Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Who Is My Neighbor?

Who Is My Neighbor?
Ps 82; Lk 10:25-37[1]
  We all know the commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  It’s at the heart of our faith.  Although it is associated with Jesus, it was the heart of the Jewish faith long before Jesus’ day.  It’s not even unique to the Jewish and Christian traditions.  Every world religion advocates compassion for one’s fellow human beings.  Jesus just set the bar about as high as it could go.  He insisted that we treat all people as brothers and sisters, as beloved children of God, as persons of value and worth.  That means regardless of where they live or what they wear or whether they went to school or even have a job.  “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” includes everybody.
  I believe this is the essence of the gospel lesson for today.  Unfortunately, the “Parable of the Good Samaritan” has become so commonplace in our society as to lose the impact it would have had in the ears of Jesus’ original audience.  These days we have made this parable so tame that travelers even have a club named “The Good Sam Club,” whose members pledge to stop and help someone who is broken down on the side of the road! But in Jesus’ day, there was no such thing as a “good” Samaritan in the eyes of most of Jesus’ Jewish contemporaries.  Samaritans were the “unclean Samaritans,” the “unwelcome Samaritans,” or the “hated Samaritans.”[2]  And although Jesus’ fellow Jewish men and women very well knew the command to “love your neighbor as yourself,” those kinds of attitudes make it clear that the vast majority would never have thought to view a Samaritan as a “neighbor” whom one must love as oneself.[3]
  That’s what made the parable so shocking in the ears of Jesus’ original audience.  It would have been one thing for Jesus to tell a parable about a particularly righteous Jewish person who showed mercy toward a Samaritan.  That person would have been viewed as exceptionally compassionate, but the story would have left intact the Jewish people’s sense of ethnic and spiritual superiority over the Samaritans.  In other words, it would have been a story that would maintain the assumption that Samaritans aren’t normally included in the list of people they were supposed to love.[4]
  But that’s not the story Jesus told.  Jesus made a despised Samaritan the hero of the parable.  More than that, Jesus made him the example for Jewish people to follow if they wanted to obey the command to “love your neighbor as yourself.”  That was turning their world upside down.  The outcast became the ideal for those who viewed themselves above him.  That would have been like making a terrorist into a spiritual example for us to follow.  It was shocking; it was confusing; it was offensive to them.  There would not have been many who heard this parable who would have signed up to be part of a “Good Sam” club.[5]
  The Youth and Adults of the Presbytery of the New Covenant spent two weeks this Summer serving the poor and homeless population of Austin.  One of the key themes that the volunteers and staff there continually emphasized to us was that we were not working “for” them, but “with” them.  Whether it was washing clothes, or distributing food, or praying about their needs, the point was that in serving the poor and homeless people we met, we were recognizing that we are all equally loved in God’s eyes.  We’re all equally valued from the perspective of a merciful Creator and loving Redeemer.  I think it’s the same point Jesus was trying to make in his parable, but it’s a point we may not want to hear.  We may be more comfortable with “working for” them, because that maintains a sense that we are superior to them. 
  In Austin we learned that approximately twenty percent of the population there lives at or below the poverty line.  As defined by the federal government, that means persons with $11,000 per year or less to live on.  In Austin there are about 400,000 people living in poverty.  But we don’t have to go to Austin to find people living in poverty.  In the Houston metro area there are about 6 million people.  And it was estimated in 2009 that about twenty-eight percent of the population of Houston are living at or below the poverty level.[6]  That’s about 1.7 million people!  If you took the entire populations of Pasadena, the Clear Lake area, Pearland, Baytown, League city, Texas City, Galveston, La Porte, Friendswood, La Marque, Deer Park, Galena Park, Dickinson, and Santa Fe, that would only be roughly half of the number of our “neighbors” who are living in poverty in Houston.
  They are all around us if we will only open our eyes and our hearts to them. The question for us is whether we will do that.  Will we continue to favor those like us or will we “Give justice to the weak and the orphan” and “maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute” as the Psalmist calls us to do?[7]  I would say that is one of the Hebrew Bible’s definitions of “loving your neighbor as yourself.”  But in order to love our neighbors living in poverty, we have to first recognize their humanity.  We have to recognize the humanity of the homeless, the refugees, the migrant workers, and the single moms and elderly retirees on welfare in order to love them enough to truly work with them to improve their well being. That’s where compassion starts. This requires more of us than just feeling sorry for them, or giving money to causes that support them.  It requires recognizing “that every human face is the face of a neighbor.”[8]

[1] © 2013 Alan Brehm.  A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 7/14/2013 at First Presbyterian Church of Dickinson, TX.
[2] Cf. Fred Craddock, Luke, 151: “This man who delayed his own journey, expended great energy, risked danger to himself, spent two days’ wages with the assurance of more, and promised to follow up on this activity was ceremonially unclean, socially an outcast, and religiously a heretic.”
[3] The question “who is my neighbor?” betrays the selfish desire to restrict the range of “love” to those who are just like “us.”  Cf. Darrell Bock, Luke 9:51–24:53, 1018, 1021, 1028, 1035, where he points out that the important question, according to this parable, is not “who is my neighbor?”, but rather “how can I be a neighbor to others in fulfillment of God’s command?”
[4] Cf. Naim Ateek, “Who Is My Neighbor?” Interpretation 62 (Apr 2008), 156: “So long as we divide the world and our own communities into friends and enemies, neighbors and strangers, we feel no moral obligation towards those whom we have already designated as outsiders.”
[5] Cf. Robert Funk, “How Do You Read? A Sermon on Luke 10:25-37,” Interpretation 18 (Jan 1964): 61: ““The parable of the Good Samaritan is a language trap which the lawyer could not comprehend. He asked a straightforward question; he got an enigmatic answer. Jesus in effect is saying: If you knew what love means, you would not have asked the question.”  Cf. similarly, Joseph A. Fitzmyer, Luke X-XXIV, 884: while the point of the story is that a neighbor is “anyone in need with whom one comes into contact and to whom one can show pity and kindness, even beyond the bounds of one’s own ethnic or religious group,” Jesus’ final question turns the lawyer’s effort to justify himself on its head.  The point is not define the “neighbor” as the object of mercy, but rather to define one’s own attitude and actions in terms of being a neighbor as an active effort to show mercy to others.  Cf. also Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 1.2:419.
[6] See the data at http://www.city-data.com/poverty/poverty-Houston-Texas.html.  The Houston Chronicle reported a lower rate of approximately 24 % in 2011.  See Renée C. Lee, “Houston poverty up, but so is income across the city: Local census data show mixed economic signals,” The Houston Chronicle September 19, 2012; accessed at http://www.chron.com/news/houston-texas/article/Local-census-data-show-mixed-economic-signals-3879028.php.
[7] Cf. Paul Tillich, Love, Power, and Justice, 60, where he defines this kind of compassionate justice in terms of recognizing “the intrinsic claim of every person to be considered a person.”
[8] Henri Nouwen, The Wounded Healer, reprinted inMinistry and Spirituality, 134.  Cf. also Jurgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 97-98, where he says, “Fellowship with the crucified one cannot be lived in any other way than in fellowship with the least of [his] brethren.” 

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