Clarifying questions are important.
Like the one the lawyer puts to Jesus. Sure, the “Greatest Commandment” is to love God and love our neighbor as ourselves. But he wants to know: who, exactly, counts as our neighbor?
After spending the better part of my life trying to live into this command, I’d like to have the chance to ask some clarifying questions of my own. What if my neighbor is making bad choices? What if my neighbor doesn’t want to be loved?
What, exactly, does it mean to love my neighbor as myself?
Jesus has a story for that.
--- CHARACTERS MAN: An average, every-day dude or gal ROBBERS: 2-3 ruffians [start crouched down by altar rail] BISHOP: The (loose) modern-day equivalent of a priest PASTOR: The (loose) modern-day equivalent of a Levite SAMARITAN: Of a race that is hated by the MAN’s people SETTING A patch of downtown sidewalk. TIME A Sunday afternoon, following church. NARRATOR: There was once a man traveling from one end of town to the other, through a notoriously bad neighborhood. (MAN walks across stage) On the way he was attacked by robbers. They took his clothes, beat him up, and went off leaving him half-dead. (ROBBERS pretend to beat MAN, and leave him behind) Luckily, a bishop was walking down the same road, but when she saw him she angled across to the other side. (BISHOP walks near man, is disgusted, changes direction to avoid him.) Then a pastor showed up; he also avoided the injured man. (PASTOR walks near MAN, considers helping, turns away) A Samaritan traveling the road came on him. When he saw the man’s condition, his heart went out to him. He gave him first aid, disinfecting and bandaging his wounds. Then he put him in his car, drove him to a hotel, and made him comfortable. (SAMARITAN goes to MAN, giving him care.) In the morning he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, SAMARITAN: ‘Take good care of him. If it costs any more, put it on my bill—I’ll pay you on my way back.’ NARRATOR: “What do you think? Which of the three became a neighbor to the man attacked by robbers?”
So… what do you think? Was it the bishop, or the priest? No, of course not – it was the Samaritan who acted like a neighbor.
And why? How did the Samaritan act differently? It’s because he stopped to help the man, of course. There’s another component, and we can’t let the word “Samaritan” hide it from us: the Samaritan helped someone of a different race – a race that was prejudiced against him.
What does it mean to love our neighbors as ourselves? It means to (1) help others when they’re in need and (2) to be willing to go to those who are different than ourselves, people we might not initially think of as neighbors.
We have a new staff member at Andrews UMC with a pretty cool work history. One stop along her way was as the Executive Director of an organization called Sunday Suppers, and what they did illustrates being this kind of neighbor really well. They went out into a park and served a meal for the homeless, making it a festive affair complete with music. Clearly Rebecca and the people she worked with were being neighbors by stopping to help – not just with physical needs like hunger, but also with spiritual and emotional needs by making this sometimes-invisible population not just visible, but celebrated.
Rebecca worked with Sunday Suppers while she was in seminary, so imagine a Masters-level student working with homeless men and women – Rebecca was being a neighbor by going to people different than herself, right? So I asked her to elaborate in church: “How were the homeless men and women different than you?”
But Rebecca didn’t hesitate, telling our congregation something like: Actually, they weren’t that different than me. They had families. Some of them had Ph.D.s. The more I got to know them, the more we had in common.
Interesting, right? Is it possible that stopping to help someone different than ourselves… will actually make us neighbors?
In the spirit of Jesus – who loved to answer questions with questions – I want to close with a question mark (or two) this week.
Who do you need to stop and help? Have you walked past someone in need – literally or mentally? Have you seen someone lonely or hungry or bullied or lost and closed your heart to them?
Who is different than you that you might be reluctant to help? Is it someone of a different race, or upbringing, or income, or gender, or lifestyle?
If you’ve ever wondered how to love your neighbor as yourself, those two questions will be a good start. May the answers guide you to someone that you are called to stop and help.