Go and Do Likewise
In the summer when I was a kid, one of my routines at lunch time was at 12:30pm and 1pm to watch re-runs of the Andy Griffith Show. Oh how I loved that show! I wanted to live in Mayberry! I wanted to live in a place where you walked down the street and every single person was friendly to one another. You go into Floyd’s Barber Shop or the Diner for lunch and everyone knows you by name. Mayberry was the place where I learned that neighbors are gentle and kind.
Kathy and I joke sometimes when we are walking around Toomer’s Corner or around town and watching people interact with people, that living in Auburn sometimes feels like Mayberry. Being from a fairly friendly town we might feel real comfortable answering the lawyer’s question to Jesus from today’s Gospel reading, maybe even too comfortable.
WHO IS MY NEIGHBOR?
Who is my neighbor? Such an interesting question for a religious lawyer, also known as a scribe, who is an expert on the laws handed down to Moses by God. By asking Jesus the question about defining who his neighbor is, it seems the lawyer is wanting Jesus to define the limits of who he should love, and who is he free not to love -- a way to justify who you care for and who you do not care for.
As disciples of Christ, we believe that we are called to love and serve God by loving and serving God’s children. We believe that since the beginning, God has called humanity into community to lean on and support one another -- which on paper sounds happy, and joyful, and fulfilling. However the reality is since the days of Adam and Eve, God’s children have sinfully created barriers to one another and have struggled to live out this calling. Yes, even Hollywood Mayberry, and lovely Auburn have barriers preventing us from truly accepting and loving everyone as our neighbor. They just might be hard to notice, because our human sinful nature blinds us to them.
Last week Kathy preached from Galatians and talked about how we have markers or signs or traits that we use to define the family or community we come from. Things like an Auburn logo for the Auburn family, a cross for Christians, Red, White, and Blue for citizens of the USA. These markers or signals can unite a group and make them feel like family. She also mentioned that we can begin to get so fixated on them that they can begin to tear us apart.
Today’s text continues this conversation from last week and makes us think about barriers we might be keeping between us and those around us. Some of those barriers could be based on our religious markers, political markers, or socioeconomic markers. Our barriers or boundaries help us feel comfortable so we don’t have to engage those not like us.
While we might not notice them as clearly, Jesus was laying out in today’s parable the barriers that were keeping people from loving each other. After a man was robbed, beaten, and left for dead on the side of the road, the first two people ignored him and made great strides to walk on the other side of the road. We are never given a reason for why a Priest and Levite, those who know the commandment to love God and love neighbor, did not stop. We are left with our own theories for why they walked past a fellow human in need. Maybe the barrier of fear of ending up like him stopped them from helping him, or maybe they had their religious reasons of purity to ignore him. What we do know is they chose to ignore human life, and they chose to deny this man the status of neighbor. It is easy to ignore someone when you decide not to love them.
Then the true scandal of Jesus’ response to the religious lawyer’s question comes into play. A Samaritan helps the man. To help with the context of the scandal of this situation, let me explain the background of Samaritans. Samaritans and Jews did not like each other traditionally. Both claimed to worship the God of the ancient Hebrews but each group had its own scripture, temple, and religious practices. The Samaritans would NOT have been considered a neighbor to the lawyer and other leaders, and for the Samaritans the feeling was mutual. A chapter earlier Jesus finds himself in a Samaritan Village, and they refuse to receive him into their village because “his face was set to Jerusalem.” Samaritans believed the Holy temple was in the mountains, not Jerusalem. Because of this difference the two groups despised each other.
But in today’s story it was a Samaritan who decided to let love break through all the barriers and show compassion and tend to a fellow human in need. You can almost picture the shock on the religious lawyer’s face as Jesus tells the parable to answer his question about who is his neighbor.
To drive his point home, Jesus asks this expert of the religious law, which of the three was a neighbor to the man in need? Did you catch that the lawyer can’t even bring himself to say the persons name? The scandal and radical-ness of the text was too much. The one he despised was his neighbor! The one he was raised and brought up to shame because they did not worship God where he worshiped God was his neighbor! The neighbor, one who shows mercy and love and empathy to their fellow human being no matter what the circumstances! Then Jesus heaps burning coals on the lawyer’s ego. he tells him “go and Do Likewise”, go and show love like the one you refuse to love.
When we get to a place where we want to pick and choose our neighbors, we get to a place where we lack empathy. As disciples of Christ our calling is to be in relationship with all of creation and have empathy for all of creation. Today’s parable offers a reminder that a neighbor is someone who needs empathy. Jesus’ words offer a reminder to his followers that our empathy is needed in places we do not want to recognize.
In our community, in our nation, and in our world, we have physical, emotional, and ideological barriers that help us feel distance from those not like us. While we live in the heart of the Bible Belt and love a good Gospel story, we also are like people in Jesus' day -- we knowingly or unknowingly put up barriers to help us forget or deny our neighbor.
Our history sadly has lots of examples of barriers preventing people of different race, nationality, and gender from being identified as neighbor, instead they became identified as insignificant or not worthy.
A week after the September 1963 Bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church where four little girls were killed on a Sunday morning by white supremacists, progressive theologian and Christian Ethicist Reinhold Neibuhr joined novelist James Baldwin on a radio program by the Protestant Council of City of New York to talk about the meaning of the Birmingham Tragedy. Both progressive minds agreed that love needed to be the motive, and justice the instrument, to bring about change in regards to integration and race relations in the US.
In his book The Cross and The Lynching Tree, Dr. James Cone points out that as you hear the two talking on the radio broadcast you can hear the different levels of passion in their responses as they talk about love and justice. He writes, “Baldwin, identifying with a powerless black minority, was seething with rage, ready to say anything to get white Americans to stop such violence, while Neibuhr, identifying with the powerful white majority, was calm and dispassionate in the face of what most blacks regarded as an unspeakable evil…Why was Neibuhr not as upset as Baldwin, where was his prophetic outrage of this horrible act?”
Even with Neibuhr’s progressive mind set for justice, when it came to the Civil Rights movement, he was not for instant justice. His speeches and writings tell us he was in the camp that sided with the idea that a gradual integration would be best for all involved. Dr. Cone argues that what Nieburh lacked was empathy and truly knowing and understand the plight and suffering of his neighbor the African American. How can love be your motive and justice the instrument if you have little empathy for those you are suppose to love and seek justice for?
For example, Dr. Cone points out that in the same period of time, Niebuhr went out of his way to listen to the Jewish community process the Holocaust and the pain of hate and discrimination they faced in the US, and was their champion for justice. If he would have done the same for the black community and truly listened to their story, he would have been empathetic of their pain and he would have chosen a stronger stance on integration. Instead, at that moment of history, he seemed to side more with the white barrier.
The parable of the Good Samaritan has become so familiar that maybe it has lost its edge. It was scandalous then, and I believe if we replaced the names of the characters and the situation it would be scandalous now in 2019, even in our own Mayberry world where every thing might seem kind and gentle on the surface.
We can read our newspapers, watch the news, and walk around our town and create our own version of the text. We can imagine who is the lawyer, the robbers, the traveling man beaten and left on the side of the road, the Samaritan, the priest, the Levite in our 2019 story. We can imagine where we fit in. May this parable ignite us to revisit where our empathy is lacking, what neighbor we are not seeing or ignoring.
As barriers surround us, prevent us from recognizing our neighbor in need, let us not forget the beginning of this text. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as your self.” Love is the core of our existence. Love is the core of our purpose. Love is what tears down those barriers and boundaries we have unknowingly or knowingly put up between other people around us. Love is the source of our empathy for one another.
The Good News of the Gospel is where we find our bearings or GPS signal in a broken and fearful world. God’s love for us through Christ revealed through the cross and empty tomb tells us that we are loved and will always be loved. Christ’s ministry and love for the least of these proclaims to us that we are called to go and do likewise. God’s love through Christ gives us courage to love others and give our empathy to others when the world tells us otherwise. Thanks be to God for LOVE! Amen!