“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”
Sermon on Luke 10:25-37
July 15, 2007
The Rev. J. Curtis Goforth, O.S.L.
When I was a little kid, I used to love to watch Mr. Rogers on PBS. You remember his show, don’t you? He was such a mild-mannered and nice guy. He would come in the door singing his famous song about his neighborhood asking you to be his neighbor. He would go over to the closet and put on his cardigan sweater and his slippers. Then he would go and feed his fish in that big aquarium. And then the show would begin. I liked the little Trolley that came through his house the best that would take you away to King Friday’s neighborhood of make believe. That theme song still sticks in my head even though I haven’t watched it in many, many years. “Won’t you please, won’t you please, please won’t you be my neighbor?” I always used to ask my mother if we could move into the same neighborhood that Mr. Rogers lived in. She would just say, “Maybe one day.”
Well, long before Mr. Rogers had a television show or a theme song, the question of “Who is my neighbor?” was in full swing. And it’s a question we still ask today in one way or another. When the lawyer in today’s gospel lesson was reminded that the whole of his religious devotion could be summed up by loving God and loving his neighbor, the lawyer asked, “Who exactly is my neighbor?” Isn’t that just like people? We tend to make everything so complicated and divisive—who’s in and who’s out, who belongs and who doesn’t? The lawyer was asking the question not so much to know who his neighbor was, but to know who his neighbor wasn’t. In other words, the focus of the lawyer asking the question was on the fence, not the neighbor (I’m reminded of that show Home Improvement where the neighbor, Wilson, was always obscured by the fence. All you could see was his eyes and forehead. You could never see the whole person that was the neighbor. Even when the neighbor Wilson appeared outside of the confines of Tim the Tool-man Taylor’s backyard, there was always some sort of object covering most of his face).
Instead of telling the lawyer, “Everyone is your neighbor,” Jesus turns the question back around on him. Jesus doesn’t tell him a story so much about who his neighbor is (or isn’t), but a story about what it means to be a neighbor to someone. Jesus shifts the focus from the fence to the neighbor and from the neighborhood to neighborliness.
Now this story about the Good Samaritan is one most people know by heart. You probably don’t need to be reminded that the religious officials of the day passed by the victim on the side of the road for fear that they might be ritually unclean from touching him according to the Old Testament laws of the time. You probably also don’t need to be reminded that the Samaritan that helped the man in need was looked down upon by the Jews because he was of a mixed race. We all know that this Samaritan was an unlikely candidate to be presented as the hero of the parable.
But it’s precisely because we know this story so well that it’s important to take a deeper look into this parable. It’s precisely because we know this story by heart that it’s important to let this story be known by our hearts. It’s always good to go back over those stories in the Bible we know so well because every time you read them you get something different out of them depending on what’s going on in your life.
I want us to take a deeper look at this story because it has so much to tell us about the way we live our lives even today. What does it teach us? Well for one thing, it teaches us that everyone is our neighbor and that we are to be a neighbor to everyone regardless of the circumstances surrounding the situation. We don’t know much about the priest in the story. We don’t know much about the Samaritan. We don’t know much about the victim. We do know he was traveling alone which was something that was very risky to do. You could make a case that the man brought his condition upon himself by not being a smarter traveler. We are inclined to put people into those categories of deserving and undeserving. We think that if the people deserved their lot that we don’t have to help them. This story that Jesus tells reminds us that Christianity is about help for the undeserving—because we are all undeserving.
Verse 33 of this story tells us, “But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity.” A second thing we can learn from this story is a lesson in coming close to people and seeing them. Many times we simply close our eyes to the hurt and pain and suffering in this world. Many times we avoid those places where we know our hands might get dirty. Jesus reminds us here that being a neighbor to someone is more than just passing by on the other side. Being a neighbor involves coming near and seeing and then acting.
The Samaritan bandages the man’s wounds and pours oil and wine on them. Before you start thinking that oil and wine seem like a strange home remedy, you should know that our word for ointment comes from the Greek word for wine, oinos. But the act of the Samaritan pouring on the oil and wine has double meaning to it. Yes, the Samaritan is helping the man by doing that, but there is a scathing comment on the religious establishment at the same time. Oil and wine were prominent fixtures in Jewish worship, and the priest and Levite that handle the oil and wine at the temple fail to apply them as needed to relieve human suffering on the road. It is the hated Samaritan who pours out the libation on the altar of the man’s wounds. It is the hated Samaritan who pours out the true offering acceptable to God (Bailey, Through Peasant Eyes, 50).
In this exchange, Jesus leads us to define neighbor, not in terms of boundaries, but in terms of relationships and human need. The Samaritan is willing to be a neighbor to the wounded man, and the wounded man is willing to accept his help. That might not be the case had he not been wounded.
But we are still left with the question “Who is my neighbor?” Well, like Jesus, I think that’s just the wrong question to ask. The more appropriate question is not “who is my neighbor?” but “won’t you be my neighbor?” Mr. Rogers had it right. I was sad to hear of his death a few years ago. But hey, maybe now one day I really can move to his neighborhood. “Won’t you be my neighbor?” Amen.