Won’t you be my neighbor? Well, maybe not all of you. . .
It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood, a beautiful day for a neighbor would you be mine? Could you be mine?
I’ve always wanted to have a neighbor just like you. I ‘ve always wanted to live in a neighborhood with you.
So, let’s make the most of this beautiful day, while we’re together we might as well say, “Would you be mine, could you be mine, won’t you be my neighbor?”
Everything we know about being a neighbor we learned from Mr. Rogers! Too bad Fred Rogers wasn’t around when the lawyer asked Jesus the proverbial question:
WHO IS MY NEIGHBOR?
If that lawyer could have tuned into PBS on weekday afternoons, he would have already known that being a good neighbor means stopping at all red lights, being nice to old Mr. McFeeley, and always feeding your fish on time and with just the right amount of fish food.
All too often, I think we reduce this compelling parable of “The Good Samaritan” to an injunction to be a Mr. Rogers kind of neighbor. Now let me go on record at the outset and say that I have absolutely nothing against Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, and I really do believe that helping people in need is most certainly a biblical ideal, but I also believe that there is something much more biting below the surface in this parable. As one of my seminary professors used to say, “If you read one of Jesus’ parables, and the meaning is immediately clear, then READ IT AGAIN!”
Although the parable of the Good Samaritan is one that we tend to think is quite clear and to the point, it bears a second and even a third look.
You should note that nowhere in Luke’s Gospel is this parable called “The Good Samaritan.” Jesus doesn’t name it at all. I would suggest that if Jesus were to name it, he might call it the parable of “The Man Left for Dead.” Just think of all those hospitals that would need to be renamed, and the “Good Samaritan Act” would now be called “The Man Left for Dead Act.”
I believe that Jesus wants his listener to identify with the victim on the road. We most often tend to identify with the Samaritan in the story, do we not? But that would have been impossible for Jesus’ Jewish audience. Samaritans were half breed turncoats! To use the words “good” and “Samaritan” in the same sentence would be unthinkable. The hatred between Samaritans and Jews ran so deep that it would make the McCoys and the Hatfields look like the Brady Bunch.
There was once a Sunday school teacher who wanted to tell this parable in realistic terms to her class. She was very descriptive when she talked about the blood on the ground next to the victim and described the flies buzzing around the victim as well as the horrible smell. She then asked her young students what they would have done if they were there? A little boy looked up sheepishly at the teacher and said, “I think I would have thrown up.” That just about describes the mood of Jesus’ audience. They would not have identified with the Samaritan in the story.
When Jesus finishes the parable, he asks the lawyer, “Which one was a neighbor to the man?” Did you catch the lawyer’s answer? He says, “THE ONE who showed him mercy.” He used an impersonal pronoun. He couldn’t even utter the word “Samaritan;” it was unthinkable.
No, this parable isn’t just about being neighborly in the traditional sense. It is also very much about how salvation comes to us. It turns out that sometimes it comes in unthinkable ways!
The question, “Who is my neighbor?” comes as a result of the Lawyer wishing to “justify” himself. It isn’t even the main question. The main question comes at the beginning of today’s Gospel when the man asks Jesus the million-dollar question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
This whole discourse is about salvation and the hope for salvation. That’s what the half- dead man in the ditch needed, he needed to be saved by someone.
And true to Jesus’ penetrating style, the one who comes along to save the man is the VERY LAST PERSON ON EARTH that any of them would have expected: A SAMARITAN!
If the poor man lying along the road hadn’t been half dead, if he had been conscious, he would most likely never have accepted the help. He might well have said, “Get away from me you filthy Samaritan. I would rather die here, naked and beaten, than to have you even touch me.”
The lawyer asked, “Who is my neighbor.” That’s not the question Jesus answered. Jesus answered the question “Who can BE my neighbor?”
On April 3, 2019, 24 Hour News reported that Muslims of the Islamic Society of a Mid-Manhattan congregation in New York City were left without a home for Friday prayers after a fire destroyed a restaurant in the same building. Police restricted access during investigations.
As the faithful gathered in uncertainty outside the building, a quick-thinking rabbi, Stephanie Kolin, offered the facilities of the nearby Central Synagogue. Soon, hundreds of people were walking down the two blocks that separate the two institutions.
The Rabbi of Central Synagogue said, “People just started streaming down 55th street into our pavilion, and we scrambled really quickly to let everyone know to clear out the space.” The imam, who led prayers, called it “one of the most blessed moments of my life in New York.”
That causes me to wonder.
When I’m in one of my times of need, when I’m in one of those ditches that I dig for myself from time to time, whose help will I refuse because I’m too smug to ask the question: “Could THEY help me?” When will I miss one of the most blessed moments of my life?
When we are around people we don’t like, we usually don’t ask ourselves, “How can this person be of help to me?” However, when salvation comes, it does not always come in the “proper” form. It does not always come from the good works and right living of a neighbor, but by GRACE AND MERCY. That’s the way of the kingdom. Those are the glasses of Jesus’ world view that we are being asked to place on the bridge of our noses and fasten behind our ears!
I’m always reluctant to over-allegorize the parables of Jesus, but in this case I’m tempted to say that Jesus is the Samaritan in the story. Like the Samaritan, he came from questionable family background. His help was hard to accept, he lived in the wrong part of the country, and he died a shameful death. The only thing as bad as being a Samaritan was dying on a cross at the hands of the Romans.
Things really will be different under God’s reign! It really will be a kingdom of reversals. Spears really will be turned into pruning hooks, and the lion really will lie down with the lamb. The word “salvation” has its roots in the word “to make whole,” to “bind up,” to “heal.” If someone were to ask us, “Who is your neighbor? We might be tempted to say, “Well before I answer that question, I would want to know the person’s political beliefs and maybe something about their religious beliefs. . . oh, and a thorough background check might be a good idea also.” But our appointed Gospel shows us that healing can come when one we least expect to help us, yes even someone we despise, binds our wounds. Mr. Rogers was right. The only credential for someone to offer us healing is that they happen to be in our neighborhood.
Grace is not only undeserved, but it also sometimes comes unexpectedly. A Good Samaritan is more than someone we trust with a can of gasoline or a set of jumper cables. A Good Samaritan might be the last person on earth we would think could offer us any kind of healing or wholeness, but we might just find that they are that person if only we would take the time to look into their eyes and set aside our preconceptions.
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Stephen Mills says
Great reflection. Thanks!
Rev. William Joseph Adams says
Thanks Stephen, Maybe our days at CDSP weren’t a total waste. 🙂
So, if we were to extend Mr. Rogers’ advice for children to our own adult lives, we shouldn’t just “look for the helpers…” We should strive to be helpers—and graciously accept help from others, even when they’re not “like us.”
Rev. William Joseph Adams says
As usual, I could not have said it better myself. Thank you so much for taking the time to offer your thoughts.