Who Is My Neighbor in the Time of Coronavirus | Dan McCoig | 22 March 2020
Luke 10:25-37 Common English Bible (CEB)
Loving your neighbor
25 A legal expert stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to gain eternal life?”
26 Jesus replied, “What is written in the Law? How do you interpret it?”
27 He responded, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.”
28 Jesus said to him, “You have answered correctly. Do this and you will live.”
29 But the legal expert wanted to prove that he was right, so he said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
30 Jesus replied, “A man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho. He encountered thieves, who stripped him naked, beat him up, and left him near death. 31 Now it just so happened that a priest was also going down the same road. When he saw the injured man, he crossed over to the other side of the road and went on his way. 32 Likewise, a Levite came by that spot, saw the injured man, and crossed over to the other side of the road and went on his way. 33 A Samaritan, who was on a journey, came to where the man was. But when he saw him, he was moved with compassion. 34 The Samaritan went to him and bandaged his wounds, tending them with oil and wine. Then he placed the wounded man on his own donkey, took him to an inn, and took care of him. 35 The next day, he took two full days’ worth of wages and gave them to the innkeeper. He said, ‘Take care of him, and when I return, I will pay you back for any additional costs.’ 36 What do you think? Which one of these three was a neighbor to the man who encountered thieves?”
37 Then the legal expert said, “The one who demonstrated mercy toward him.”
Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”
I’m always amazed how old, old stories become even more powerful when read in a different time and a different context and amidst different circumstances, like a pandemic. Today’s story from St. Luke is told by Jesus. Jesus tells the story in response to a question asked by an expert in religious law. The expert asks, “Who is my neighbor?”
No doubt, most of us have heard the statement “There are no stupid questions.” I’m not sure that is true. There are stupid questions. I’ve heard them. I’ve asked them.
Comedian Bill Engvall of Blue Collar Comedy coined the phrase “Here’s Your Sign” for people who ask “stupid” questions to identify themselves. For example, “A trucker got his rig caught under a low overpass and a cop comes along. ‘You get your rig stuck?’ ‘Nope,’ says the trucker. ‘I was delivering this overpass and ran out of gas.’ Here’s Your Sign!”
I want to make what may seem like a peculiar suggestion. Here it is — that the expert in religious law is asking a stupid question when he asks Jesus “Who is my neighbor?”
In the Bible, it’s always helpful to pay attention to context. Our passage comes immediately on the heels of the return of the 72 disciples that Jesus sent throughout Galilee to declare God’s peace, to heal the sick, and to announce the arrival of God’s kingdom to everyone. It’s possible the expert in the religious law was one of the 72.
Taking Jesus’ message to everyone may have energized him or unsettled him. I think any time we do something new and different, it energizes and unsettles us. My guess is that our expert in the religious law in our story had never before gone town to town and village to village and household to household with a life-changing message like Jesus’. It certainly helped him rediscover that religion is not what you believe but how you treat others.
Still, he asks this question about eternal life. It sounds like he wants to know what the ticket to heaven is. That’s a misreading of the question. What he is really asking is “what is the meaning of life?” or “why are we here?”
That’s what I would call a smart question. We don’t ask it enough. We don’t pursue it enough. Life can become routine and we can be lulled into assuming that today will look like yesterday and tomorrow will look like today until it doesn’t. Given the coronavirus pandemic we are all experiencing that life can change in a moment. What we took for granted can no longer be taken for granted. We are now on a very different footing.
After the expert asks Jesus what the meaning of life is, Jesus asks him what his religious texts say, what does his religious traditions tell him. Go back to your sources, says Jesus. By the way, they are also Jesus’ religious texts and traditions. They are both Jewish.
The expert doesn’t have to think twice. “Love God with all you’ve got. Love your neighbor as yourself.” That’s the answer. The expert got it exactly right. He rang the bell. That’s the meaning of life — love God, love your neighbor.
And then comes the stupid question. Who is my neighbor? How could the expert not know who his neighbor is? He just came back from this remarkable mission. He interacted with all sorts of folks. Weren’t every single one of them his neighbor? And because God loves them, he loves them and will help them if hey need it.
I’ve read and heard a lot of sermons that have speculated why the expert asked the question. The text tells us that he asked the question to “test” Jesus. Some of the more complicated answers involve the expert wanting to appear clever or to avoid certain types of people he considered not his neighbor.
This is where Jesus’ story comes in. We know the story. A man has been beaten and robbed and is lying by the side of the road. He is near death. Three other men traveling the same road encounter him. The two most religious men see the hurt man and pass by on the other side of the road. They had other, better things, even religious things to do. Best not to get involved, they may have thought to themselves.
But one of the men, the third man, a Samaritan of all people — a race of people long despised and ill thought of and looked down upon by many ancient Judeans — stopped, tended to the man’s wounds, put the man on his own donkey, and provided the man lodging that night and paid the innkeeper to continue to lodge and feed the man until the Samaritan returned. Two things distinguished the Samaritan. He was moved with compassion. And, he had mercy on the man near death.
Jesus concludes his story by asking the expert: “So, who was the neighbor?” Again, the expert hit it out of the park. “The one who showed mercy,” he said. This is what his religious texts said repeatedly. This is what his religious traditions said repeatedly. He knew this. Why did he even have to ask, “Who is my neighbor?”
Martin Luther King, Jr. preached numerous sermons on the parable of the good Samaritan. In one of them he said what distinguished the Samaritan from the priest and the Levite was this — the priest and the Levite saw the wounded man and thought of what might happen to them if they helped him — this is the “best not get involved crowd”; the Samaritan saw the wounded man and thought of what might happen to the wounded man if he didn’t help — “this is the how can I help crowd”.
Friends — we know the answer to the question “who is my neighbor?” Our religious texts tell us who it is. Our religious traditions tell us who it is. Jesus tells us who it is. Equally important, the compassion we feel welling up within us when we see someone in need tells us who it is. It’s anyone and everyone who needs us and needs our mercy.
We are in the midst of a pandemic. This is a crisis. The word crisis means decision or turning point. Crisis demands of us, “What’s it going to be — what are you going to do? Who are you going to be?
As Christians, we are going to regard our neighbor first and foremost every time. When people need us, we can help and will. This congregation embodies this principle in countless ways — a soup kitchen, a homeless shelter, an assistance fund, a Stephen Ministry, Guardian Angels, 12 Step Recovery Groups, small group Bible studies.
My colleague Amanda often quotes her favorite theologian, Mr. Rogers. He’s one of mine as well. Here’s his take on Jesus’ parable of the good Samaritan. Fred Rogers writes:
“We live in a world in which we need to share responsibility. It’s easy to say ‘It’s not my child, not my community, not my world, not my problem.’ Then there are those who see the need and respond [like the Samaritan]. I consider those people my heroes.”
In this time of the coronavirus, every child is ours, every community is ours, the world is ours, every problem is ours. No more us and them, no more me, only we. And, we can’t and won’t look the other way. Compassion and mercy won’t let us.
Remember, God is always with us and God bids us not to fear and instead to love.