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Defining "Neighbor"
a homily based on Luke 10:25-37
by Rev. Thomas Hall

Luke's story of the Good Samaritan is quite familiar to all of us. Maybe too familiar. We’ve read or heard this story so many times that we may have been eyeing our watch before we got through the gospel reading. We've met the wounded man, the priest, the Levite, and Samaritan in Sunday School, in sermons, on flannel boards and thumb-tacked to the wall in the foyer; the story has been allegorized, analyzed, and moralized; it's been stretched into three point sermons, dramatized, and puppetized. The Good Samaritan might be the Good News, but its old news; it's grown stale through the years.

But there is something odd about this story; something that throws us off balance, that confuses and shocks. We just have to hear it with new ears. So put on some fresh ears and see what this story has to tell.

A pair of fresh ears might pick up excessive amounts of FAQs and answers flying all over the story. First the lawyer begins the conversation by asking a question. So does Jesus. Then the lawyer ventures an answer. So does Jesus. Later the lawyer again asks another question and again, so does Jesus. Finally, the story ends with the lawyer giving an answer. But so does Jesus. The lawyer knows the right questions and gives the right answers to the questions and Jesus heartily agrees with him. What could possibly be wrong with this conversation? Four good questions, four good answers, and two men who know how to agree. What could possibly be wrong? That's Luke's surprise for us.

We already know that the lawyer has come to put Jesus on the spot. We know that because Luke has whispered his insincerity-he wants to test Jesus. I wouldn’t want a guy like this giving me an impromptu exam. He's the guy who graduates summa summa cum laude at seminary, has memorized the 10 commandments, the 23rd Psalm, the Lord's Prayer, and the prayer of Jabez. But we also know he's just like the rest of us when it comes to this "eternal life" stuff. We all want eternal life and the keys to the kingdom. Whether Peter lets us in the front door or the back; doesn't matter, just so we get in.

So we've come to Jesus with the question, "what shall I do to inherit eternal life?" Jesus gives the textbook answer:

You shall love the Lord your God
with all your heart,
with all your soul,
with all your strength,
with all your mind
and your neighbor as yourself.

"Do all of the above," Jesus says, "and you’ll make it."

"Who is my neighbor?" can tell us more about the person asking than the answer given. When asked by some members of congress it means what’s the least amount of healthcare money we can allot for older Americans. How can we get a tougher illegal alien policy on the books and enforce it? Where do we draw the line between who is and who is not my neighbor when we have more problems than we have resources to go around?

"Who is my neighbor?" the lawyer asks Jesus. Jesus doesn't answer immediately, but turns to the famous story. A nameless man is cut down by thugs. He lies under the sun in shock; looks dead alright, blood dripping and drying, mouth dry, sweat running down sunburned face. He's stripped naked; can't even cover his own shame; looks half dead; unconscious maybe. The priest and the Levite, both professionals pass by, perhaps wanting to help, but don't. Probably torn between duty and duty. Duty to God and duty to the temple. Other priests and Levites may have stopped, but these did not. Then comes the Samaritan. Considered a half-breed by homeland Jews, and the most despised of all peoples. A person not voted the most likely to succeed award among Palestinian neighbors. I think we know the type. Samaritans are those people that we so dislike that when we see them "our bellies go tight, and without thinking we take a step back."

They're not our kind of people. They're in our NOT neighbors category. But that's the curve Jesus throws us. He reaches deep inside our NOT neighbor box, dredges the bottom and comes up with his hero for the story. This is not exactly what we had in mind the last time we went shopping for heroes. A faithful church member we could appreciate; a Viet Nam Vet would even suffice; but don't turn some half-crazed cult member into a hero. So despicable was Jesus' hero in the story, that the lawyer chokes on the word, "Samaritan." He refuses to say the word of his Not Neighbor. Jesus asks, "Who was neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?" The lawyer grunts, "The one who showed him mercy."

The entire conversation comes down to how we ask the question, "who is my neighbor?" [NOTE: Use facial expressions and body language to ask question negatively by crossing arms, clenching fists, scowling; then turn palms upward and open arms up to ask question positively ].

I read this week of the people who live in a small village in Eastern Europe. The government purchased two homes in this village to be used as hospices for children who are in the terminal stages of AIDS. Before the children even arrived, the stones arrived marring and battering the hospice; then the graffiti and then the entire village arrived in a show of force to demonstrate their resistance to undesirables coming into their neighborhood.

Yes, the question can be asked with clenched fists and crossed arms. But the Good News of the Gospel is that it can be asked with open arms and positive action, too. Meet a friend. I honestly don't know her name. A seminary student who was doing rounds on the fifth floor in a hospital. Entered a patient's room to offer prayer. The door was usually guarded by a nurse known as "Sergeant Sally." The sign outside read, "absolutely no one allowed in without gloves and mask." With the appropriate protection, the seminary student entered and sat together with Jonathan. The silence was broken by the patient.

"Could you do something for me?"

"Sure, what is it?"

"You know, I've been here for six months, without even once feeling a human being's touch. Could you for just a second let me feel the touch of your hand?"

Well, Sergeant Sally wasn't around. Slowly the young seminarian removed her latex glove; each finger finally pulled free of the sticky latex. She said nothing, just held his hand.

"Could you do just one more thing for me?"

"Of Course."

"Could you take your mask off. I would really like to see your face. Could I see your face for just a moment?"

The seminarian began to pull at the threads that kept her face masked. Slowly she lowered the mask for just a minute or two but the moment was seemed frozen in eternity. No Bible reading, no homily. Just the intersection of two people and the sharing of a fragment of humanity with another. No big deal, no halo; the seminarian was just learning to ask the question in a new way. That is the way of the Good Samaritan.

Who is the Good Samaritan? Maybe she's Heather. Heather sports scuffed Nikes, balances a Walkman on her shoulder and loves Madonna. Heather's a high school student who gives a couple hours a week to sit in a circle with some Alzheimer’s patients who meet in a Lutheran church. No halo. No big deal. She just plays her favorite CDs for her Alzheimer friends. Sometimes she jives a little and gets the group to laugh and clap different keys and rhythms; but she always gives these precious folks plenty of hugs and smiles. She doesn't even know she's a Good Samaritan. She just knows that they need her; and she's beginning to discover that she needs them. She's discovered the power of asking "who is my neighbor" in a jive, jazzy, open armed way.

What do Samaritans look like? They're hard to pin down because they come in a large variety of sizes and shapes and temperaments. he's the boy in the park who sits with the kid who's just been laughed at because he's overweight; they're those special older ones among us who have discovered the rejuvenating power that comes when they look for other folks who need their time. Good Samaritan types might be singles, parents, teens, pensioners, lay persons, professionals, pastors, and secretaries. But the single characteristic they share in common is in how they ask the question, "Who is m neighbor?" They're the ones who have transformed the lawyer's question, from a narrow, key hole question to wide angle, open armed question.

And Jesus' word to the lawyer is his word to us. "Jesus said to him, "Go thou and do likewise." Amen.