WHO IS OUR NEIGHBOR?
A Meditation for Hard Times
James Ishmael Ford
5 March 2017
Unitarian Universalist Church
Long Beach, California
Thus have I heard.
A lawyer asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” In reply Jesus told a story.“ Once there was a man traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho who was set upon by thieves, who beat him severely, stripped him of his money and even his clothing, and left him lying in the road, half-dead. A series of people passed by the man. The first was a priest, who noticed him, but turned his gaze away and walked by. Then a Levite, one particularly knowledgeable in the law noticed him, but crossed to the other side of the road to continue on his way. Then a Samaritan who was walking by saw the man. Filled with a wave of compassion, he knelt down, cleaned the man’s wounds using wine as a disinfectant, bandaged him, set him on his donkey and then carried him to the nearest inn. There he continued to care for the man. The next day as he left to resume his trip, the Samaritan gave money to the Innkeeper, saying take care of this poor man, and when I return if there’s any additional cost, I will pay it.” Then Jesus looked at the lawyer who asked, who is my neighbor, and asked his own question. “Who do you think was that man’s neighbor?”
The Gospel According to Luke, chapter 10, verses 29 through 36
Today let’s talk a little about Jesus. Not the Jesus of that wonderful and terrible story about some cosmic war, an ugly death and a mysterious resurrection. Rather lets talk about the Jesus we can find in the handful of documents that are preserved in the Christian church’s sacred texts. Let’s explore just a little, what he actually seems to have taught.
As a teacher, at least as best we know from writings put to paper one, two and three generations after his death, the good rabbi liked using short stories to make his points. As a literary form they’re called parables. They account for approximately a third of his recorded teachings. By a strict definition of brief story with a moral, there are thirty-three of them recorded in the synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark & Luke. Interestingly, well, at least to me, John the outlier gospel in so many ways, written maybe two or even three generations after the others doesn’t feature these stories at all.
I deeply love several, but one that continues to haunt me is the parable of the Good Samaritan. Partially because after the first read, the moral, that point which marks parables, can in fact become slippery. The story appears only in the Gospel of Luke, which makes it a little bit suspect for those on that quixotic quest for the historical Jesus. Although the majority of biblical scholars seem to concur that it is indeed a story attributable to Jesus, in part because the obvious point is consistent with the general direction of his teachings.
The story has a set up, the lawyer who asks about who is “one’s neighbor” is following on an earlier passage where perhaps the same lawyer asks, apparently as an entrapment, there are a lot of these set ups recorded where enemies ask leading questions that could earn the word heresy, or, worse, sedition. These were indeed dangerous times. In this case the lawyer asks how to earn eternal life, to which Jesus responds, “what do you think?” The lawyer then says, “Love God and love your neighbor,” when taken together this has come to be called the Great Commandment. Jesus agrees with him. In fact this pronouncement of love of God and neighbor is recorded straight out of Jesus’ mouth in both Mark and Matthew. However, then the lawyer goes in a very interesting direction, asking, “Who is my neighbor?”
There is a world of comment on this parable. Frankly, I find most of it not particularly compelling. The earliest strata of these comments are, typical of late antiquity, pure analogy with Jesus himself understood to be the Good Samaritan. In more recent years Liberationists, whom okay, I tend to adore, and others put a lot of emphasis on the outsider qualities of a Samaritan to quite good effect. I kind of like how even old Christopher Hitchens, late raconteur and atheist polemicist cited the Good Samaritan parable as evidence that you don’t have to be religious to be ethical. I’ll return to that in a moment.
I mentioned that I was writing something on this subject at a clergy group on Facebook and the UU ministers in that particular group all jumped in with their suggestions. What surprised me was how much of it was the same old, same old. “Don’t forget Samaritans were a hated minority. For liberals, think of the story with Donald Trump as the Samaritan, for conservatives think Elizabeth Warren.” Worthy, yes – but hardly turning any new soil.
Another colleague suggested, “Remember we’re all the parts, sometimes the Samaritan, sometimes the man, sometimes the robbers.” Feeling snarky I tried picturing myself as the donkey. Another said, “Don’t forget the ritual prohibitions that hampered the observant from acting out of love.” That’s an old standard for Lutheran types holding up spirit against letter, but actually its not true, as there are clear exceptions in the traditional Jewish laws to the prohibition on touching blood in just this sort of circumstance. So, that one is actually more about buried anti-Jewish sentiments than any reality.
Then a friend and colleague with, how shall we put it, a less conventional view of reality pointed me to a YouTube clip of a Mitchell and Webb retelling where Jesus is caught up in a conversation that could easily take place in your typical Unitarian church coffee hour. In the clip the listeners are offended at Jesus’ use of Samaritan as a placeholder for a bad person, suggesting this revealed Jesus’ own underlying racism. It concludes with Jesus making a very badly done apology for anyone who thought they were offended, and then saying with exasperation, “it’s only a parable.” In response to which he is asked, “What, it didn’t really happen?” And he replies, “Well, of course not. A Samaritan wouldn’t do that for his own grandmother…” Actually there’s an adjective used to modify the noun Samaritan in that line I can’t use in a sermon.
And, there are yet other invitations to be found within this parable. One of my mentors is Ruben Habito, a former Jesuit priest who now teaches comparative religion at the Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. In one of his books he comments on this parable, saying it can in fact be seen as something more than a moral injunction, however useful that can be, and whether God-given or as natural as nature itself. Ruben points out that it all turns on the question framed at the beginning of the conversation with that lawyer. “What do I do to earn eternal life?”
Eternal life: a lovely placeholder for the great longing of the human heart. For some perhaps it is a literal hope of living beyond our physical deaths, some kind of post mortem reanimation. It is also, and I find this vastly more important, about recognizing a sense of separation, of hurt, perhaps of wound we humans commonly share, and with that offering us a hope of reconciliation between us and all we seem separated from. For me that phrase “eternal life” is a way of acknowledging our divided hearts, of finding ourselves lost and longing for our true home, a place where all of us belong.
For Ruben, Jesuit priest for a dozen or more years, oh, and did I mention today a Zen teacher of some renown, for him this eternal life is the same as that kingdom of God which in various other biblical passages is clearly something not elsewhere, or at least not entirely elsewhere. Rather the kingdom the realm is right at hand, within us, and among us. It has very little to do with some life after death.
For Ruben this parable is about finding a more intimate presence with our own hearts and with the world itself, all of it. From this perspective of wild intimacy God and love and neighbor cannot be disentangled. As Ruben says, “As we see our neighbor as not separate from ourselves, but as embraced in the same circle of Love that we ourselves are embraced in, in the same way, we embrace them with our whole soul, our whole mind, our whole heart, our whole strength.”
So, my Facebook friend is right, the one who said to play all the parts. But the invitation is to something deeper than as a thought experiment. We are the wounded man. We are the thieves who set upon him. We are the Samaritan and the innkeeper. And, yes, we are the donkey. And we are the inn and the road between Jerusalem and Jericho, and the sky, and the sun, and the moon, and the stars in heaven. We are all of these people and things. Yes. And.
And this is relevant to you and to me. It is present here in this very place in our lived times. Someone asks who is our neighbor? We can see it in how we choose to engage Black Lives Matter. Someone asks who is our neighbor? We can see it in how we choose to stand with the immigrant and refugee. Someone asks who is our neighbor? We can see it in things like this little card affirming our Unitarian Universalist values and calling us to stand with the Trans community, along with handy resources for those who might need them. Who is our neighbor? We open our hearts and just look and we know who our neighbor is. Finding this within and without is just like someone who takes a drink of water and knows for herself whether it is cool or warm.
Then the mysteries of remembering and forgetting and acting all come together like a song or a dance. And perhaps then we come to understand that line from one of those ancient Chinese worthies, who is asks, “why is it that the Bodhisattva of Mercy has all those hands and eyes?” And replies, “it is like someone in her sleep, who reaches behind her head and adjusts the pillow.” Or, it is like a man walking down a road and sees another who has been set upon by thieves, and lies broken and wounded. No theology. No commandments. Unencumbered by should or should not, he simply does what needs doing.
Here is the great way. All we need do is open our minds and hearts. And with that we find the intimate way. We see how each of us is as different as night and day. Of course we are, that’s as obvious as the nose on your face. And, when we look deeper, truer, truest, each of us is also one thing, like a hand and a heart, like a cause and an effect, where we cannot see which part it is we play, although perhaps, perhaps in some ancient dream, all of them. All of it, all of us, you and me, earthworms and galaxies: a thread within a seamless garment, a point within a vast web of interdependence.
And all of it, shot right through like a deep breath, dazzling, amazing, wondrously, with Love. That’s what that parable is about. Love. That’s the great pointing. Love. That’s the invitation. Into love, into the great healing for all of us.
Picture by Dinah Roe Kendall.