Monday, July 11, 2022

The Challenge of Being a 'Neighbor'


Luke 10:25-37

Proper 10 / Year C

Gay Jennings, who this weekend concludes her ten years of service as the President of the House of Deputies of the Episcopal Church, tells the story of a time she witnessed a car drive off the highway and skid down an embankment.  She pulled over, rushed to vehicle, which was billowing smoke, and helped the driver get out and get to safety.  Once home, she told her family about her harrowing experience.  Her grade school aged daughter said excitedly, “Let’s turn on the news.  I want to see the video of it.”  Gay explained it all happened so fast and there was not a news crew there to film it.  “Well, isn’t that just like life,” the child said with disdain in her voice.  “You save a person’s life and no one notices, but if you pick your nose the whole world sees it!”

What is the most heroic thing you have ever done?  Some professions absolutely require heroism: police officers, fire fighters, and emergency room workers come to mind.  These folks, whether on duty or off, instinctively run toward a person in need.  I think of two parishioners I have known over the years whose lives literally were saved by a person who tended to them in an emergency situation: a bicycle accident and cardiac arrest.  I suspect most of us here this morning would do whatever we could to help a person in desperate need.

That being said, I find Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan to be troubling.  We may be capable of heroism, but what about compassion?  Like many of you, I fret about how to respond to the person holding up a sign asking for money at a traffic light.  I know what it is to be like the priest and the Levite in today’s parable because I typically turn my head, look away, and drive on past when the light changes.  I can think of at least a dozen reasons to justify my not helping them, but I never seem to be able to let myself off the hook. 

I had an interesting experience when I visited Portland, Oregon a couple of years ago.  There are high-end retail stores in the downtown area of the city.  There is also a huge homeless population.  From what I could tell it is a diverse group running the gambit from runaway teenagers to the more traditional winos and bums.  Even though the shoppers and the homeless occupied the same space, the two groups never interacted.  No one asked me for a handout.  No shopper asked a street person for directions.  Physically, we were only a few feet apart, but in reality we were worlds away from one another.

I think what frustrates me about this parable is how it sets an impossibly high standard to meet on a consistent basis.  Had Jesus told the story of a motorist who pulled over to help the victim of an accident, I would feel so much better about myself.  Sure, if and when I see a car crash, I will stop to help.  Then I would be able to check my “good neighbor” box and know I had done my Christian duty.  But, as I said, Jesus’ story is not about heroism, it is about compassion and indifference and it sets the bar very high.

Here are a couple of things to notice about the story.  Jesus offers no reason why the priest and the Levite do not stop to help the wounded victim.  Perhaps they thought he was already dead and didn’t want to make themselves ritually unclean by touching him.  Maybe they feared the robbers were still in the area.  Jesus offers no insight as to why they pass by.  They just do.

The Samaritan is the least likely person to stop and help.  There was such enmity between Jews and Samaritans you would expect one to walk past the other and ignore the need.  It would be like a Ukrainian stopping to help a wounded Russian soldier. 

And finally, the Samaritan did not offer a handout, but rather a hand up.  He did what was necessary to get the victim back on his feet again: bandaging his wounds, transporting him to shelter, paying for his care, and promising to return to check on his condition.  Jesus could have had the priest say a prayer and the Levite give a shekel, but the Samaritan still would have been the true neighbor of the story.   

I took a philosophy class in college and one day we were assigned to go the library, select an article from one of several philosophy journals, read it, and write a paper on it.  I picked an article about world hunger and moral responsibility.  It seems someone had written a scholarly piece holding if you have food and someone anywhere in the world dies of hunger, you are morally responsible for that death – all deaths.  The author of the article I read argued we have limited moral responsibility.  Yes, we have to make a serious effort to help, but as individuals we can’t possibly prevent all starvation.  This was the perspective I embraced, which turned out to be a good thing because the article, I came to discover, was written by none other than the professor of my class. 

The back-and-forth scholarly debate highlighted for me a dilemma I have never been able fully to resolve for myself: when and where does my obligation as a Christian to be a good neighbor begin and when and where does it end?  I suspect many of you wrestle with this as I do.  I also suspect our struggling is a good sign because it indicates we are trying to discern God’s will and God’s call.  That we don’t always get it right is why in a few moments we will ask for forgiveness for things “done and left undone.”  Then we will have a chance to make a fresh start of this neighbor thing and perhaps do a little better at it.