Neighbors We Ignore

If you’ve gone to church even a few times, chances are you’ve heard the story of The Good Samaritan. It’s a “classic” among the parables of Jesus. One that preachers love to tell because the imagery is so simple, yet the message is so moving. This story stirs something deep inside us. It flips the script of what we assume to be true, which is that religious people are people of character who always do the right thing. Because in this particular story, the person who ends up helping the wounded man, essentially, is not the minister or the deacon or the Sunday school coordinator. It’s the bi-racial 20-something yr. old, Catholic converted Muslim woman, fully tattooed and wearing a hijab that stops to care for the man beat up on a city street. But we’ll come back to this story... 

There’s actually two stories happening in these 12 verses of Luke 10. The story of The Good Samaritan is encapsulated by a larger story in which Jesus is having a conversation with a Hebrew scholar. This was an expert of law and there was no distinction in this society between civil and religious law. This lawyer had every intention of trying to back Jesus into a corner. The Greek word used translated “test;” he was testing Jesus. 

He asks Jesus, “What must I do to have eternal life?” And this is where Jesus sounds like every mother that out-wits her children on a daily basis by answering a question with a question. 

My mom had this technique down. There was this one time I remember asking my mom, in front of my friend, “Mom, can I spend the night with Laura tonight?” And she side-eyed me and said, “Is your room clean?” And so I assumed that was a NO since the floor of my room wasn’t even visible. It turns out, when we got home I discovered my mother’s number one rule was NEVER ASK TO SPEND THE NIGHT IN FRONT OF THE FRIEND. She made this very clear. So next time, I thought I would be clever and asked again, in front of my friend, “Mom, can I spend the night with Laura tonight since I cleaned my room today?” Surely I had outwitted her, since this was a premeditated attack and I had cleaned my room earlier that day in preparation for this moment. But she was much wiser than 9-year-old me and spoke these hushed words through still lips almost like a ventriloquist, “Do you remember what happened last time when you asked me this question in front of your friend?” 

And just like my mom, Jesus shuts downs the lawyers question with a question,
“What do you think you must do? What is written in the law? How do you interpret what is written?”

The lawyer’s next response is actually a very clever one. This answer is one we only see in the Gospel of Luke, because it combines several different commandments from Jewish law: from Deuteronomy and Leviticus (which were written in Hebrew) and the Septuagint (which was a translation of the law written in Greek)*. In other words, this lawyer knew his stuff and he gave this answer that was amazingly thorough: “You shall love- love the Eternal One your God with everything you have: all your heart, all your soul, all your strength, and all your mind. And love your neighbor as yourself.”**

I love this command to this all-encompassing love. We are created in God’s image, God-breathed into existence, with this spark of the Divine One in every crevise of our being: our emotions (or our heart), our intuition (or our soul), our physical bodies and resilience, (or our strength), and our intellect (or our minds). We are to love God with every fiber of our beings, no part separated from God or unused by God.

We are given a clear outline to Love: love God, love our neighbors, and love ourselves. And the order was no mistake either. Jesus responds, “Your answer is perfect. Follow these commands and you will live.” But this infuriates the guy because he was trying to outwit Jesus and make him appear to be a fool and a fraud. So, he tried to get really technical with Jesus, “Then who is my neighbor?”

And this was like his checkmate. He thought he had Jesus stumped, but Jesus tells a story… the story we all know so well, where no one helped a man badly beaten and left for dead.
Not the priest. 
Not the person who helped in the temple (the Levite).
But the Samaritan stopped and helped. 

The Samaritans were considered “half-breeds” because they were “racially mixed and religiously compromised.”** They were the “have-nots,” the outcasts, but Jesus turns societal expectations on their head and makes the outcast the hero of this narrative. This is not an uncommon idea, throughout the Second Testament, that the last will be first in the Kingdom of God.

Jesus asks yet another question, “So which of these three was the neighbor?”
Was it the man closest to God? No. 
Was it the man who was (probably) the same race and from the same place? No. Who was the neighbor?

The Greek word is here for neighbor is plesion (sounds like play-see-on) which translates in the most amazing way: any person, from any nation, of any religion, that we may live among or possibly meet one day.* Imagine the look on this lawyer’s face as this type of definition of neighbor really sunk in with him. This expert of the law has been debating with Jesus and tries to outsmart him by asking “Well, who is my neighbor?” and Jesus replies with an explanation of neighbor that means, “Any person, from any nation, of any religion, that you may know or could possibly know one day.” That pretty much covered it. And Jesus blessed him, saying “Go and behave like the Samaritan.”

This parable and this conversation between Jesus and the religious scholar has been on my mind for the last few weeks, because I’ve been watching my neighbors quarrel and fight over their property. One neighbor has lost sight of the larger picture and greedily rejects any compromise with the other neighbors. He is taking care of himself, all others be damned. Thankfully, I’m not talking about my neighbors in proximity to my home, but I’m talking about my neighbors at our borders and my neighbors in our government. The situation at our border seems so bleak, so void of hope, compassion, and love. 

The situation at the border has turned into yet another political hot-button issue between Democrats and Republicans. These here are fighting words, just like “gun reform,” “pro-choice,” “gay rights,” “black lives matter,” “equal rights,” and that’s just naming a few. It’s all highly politicized and polarizing. I know I’m not the only one who’s absolutely sick of all the quarreling on Capitol Hill, in the news media, and especially on social media.

I’ve gotten where I avoid political conversations with people, especially people I live and work among. It’s like when you finally meet a celebrity you love and have supported for years, and they’re a real ass. Then, you’re totally disappointed and can’t even look at them the same way. I really don’t want to know if those around me (who I find to be generally pleasant, kind people) are hardcore haters of this or that. It’s difficult enough for me to carry on small talk, but if I now know you’re an ass… I just can’t. 

I have to remind myself that I’d rather get to know people in a deeper, more meaningful way. I want to know people’s names and stories.
Why are you the way you are?
What’s your story?

And I want them to know who I really am. Very few people know the real me. I realize, that’s partially my fault. I’ve been wounded, deeply, over the course of 36 years, so I let few people in these days. It doesn’t mean I don’t like people. It means I require a level of authenticity before I trust placing the most delicate pieces of my story in your hands. Sidenote: Don’t be offended if some people take more time than others to share personal, private, even sacred details of their lives with you. It’s not about you, but it is about how authentic of a relationship you are willing to invest in.

Back to my point, this isn’t about all the messy political stuff. This is about what Jesus commands of those of us who choose to live our lives modeled after his. Jesus’s message over and over and over is to love.
Love God.
Love our neighbor. 
Love ourselves.

There are no simple legal answers to the very complex situations that are happening right now with the number immigrants wanting to reside/work in the US and the number of refugees seeking asylum in our country. Immigration law is extremely complex and convoluted. According to the American Immigration Council, “Immigration to the United States is based upon the following principles: the reunification of families, admitting immigrants with skills that are valuable to the U.S. economy, protecting refugees, and promoting diversity.”

There is, however, a very simple answer to how we should be treating immigrants and refugees seeking work and security in our country… with love.
With compassion.
With dignity.
With humanity. 

Last week, the US closed a bridge immigrants and refugees used to cross legally into our country. Without any information about when the bridge would reopen, a 25 year-old father, Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez, decided for his family’s safety, rather than waiting, their only option was to cross the Rio Grande. With his 23 month-old daughter, Angie Valeria, on his back and his wife following behind, they waded out deeper and deeper into the river. The river’s current proved to be too much. Martinez and Valeria were swept away.
You know the result.
A photo was captured the next day… gut wrenching.

Two lifeless bodies lie at the river’s edge, while a grieving mother and family mourn their unimaginable loss. This father knew death was a possibility. He knew it was more probable they would be killed if they remained in El Salvador, where a gang violently controlled their neighborhood. They couldn’t earn a living wage and barely scraped by day to day. He packed his family and began traveling through Mexico. When this father weighed his limited options for keeping his family safe, he had hope that safety was just across the river. 
Instead, he met death.

He risked his life and the life of his child on the hope he could make it into the safe embrace of United States. 

Our neighbors are being turned away.
Our neighbors are being ripped from their families and children.
Our neighbors are being kept in cages.
Our neighbors are being denied basic essentials like food, water, medical aid, and humane living conditions.
Our neighbors are being denied legal ways to enter into the safety of our country and legal routes to claiming asylum as refugees.
Our neighbors are being denied their freedom.
Our neighbors are being seen as less-than-human.
Our neighbors are dying.

Our neighbors are standing, in many cases there is not enough room for all to sit, in deplorable facilities all over the US, waiting for their chance to legally apply to remain in the US. They are waiting. They are hurting. They are dying. 

And so many of us are walking past them…

I’ve had several sleepless nights this week, in the comfort and safety of my home, with a full stomach, clean water and warm baths, and the comfort of knowing my kids are sleeping peacefully just down the hall. The questions plague me, “Who is your neighbor?” and “How can you help?”

It feels so hopeless to me… how must it feel to those who are experiencing this trauma? I’ve decided lots of small steps eventually carry you a great distance. There are things we can do- 

  1. Listen to their stories. Don’t change the channel. Don’t ignore the tears, the agony, the deplorable situations, and blame a political party. Listen and hear.

  2. Volunteer or give to organizations all over the country that help immigrants and refugees with all types of services. A quick google search can help you find lots of places to volunteer or make donations to.

  3.  Use your voice. Marching and protesting still works. We should be calling any and all representatives and filling their voicemails with our concerns.

  4. Use your gifts. We can use our writing, art, poetry, songs, dance… whatever to spread our messages of love and compassion and concern for immigrants and refugees.

  5. Read through this article about 20 ways you can help immigrants and refugees.

We cannot pass by our neighbors. They need us. God forbid, one day it just may be you or me that need the care and compassion and love of a neighbor.

Carra Greer

Revised Sermon by Rev. Carra Greer
Original sermon preached by Carra Greer at St. Lukes in Gainesville on June 30, 2019. Based on the text Luke 10:25-37.

*The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. IX, Abingdon Press (1995). 

**The Voice Bible, Thomas Nelson Inc. (2012).