Who is your neighbor?

A Sunday school teacher was telling her class the story of the Good Samaritan, which we just heard in today's gospel reading.[1] She described the situation in vivid detail so her students would catch the drama. Then, she asked the class, "If you saw a person lying on the roadside, all wounded, and bleeding, what would you do?" A thoughtful little girl broke the hushed silence, "I think I'd throw up."
Jericho was a thriving commercial center located about 8 miles north of the Dead Sea and 12 miles east-northeast of Jerusalem. In spite of Jericho's proximity to Jerusalem, robbers infested the road between the two cities, as was common on many first century Palestinian roads. We know nothing about the victim left for dead by his attackers nor are the details of his injuries important. Three passersby are the parable's main actors. Their deeds reveal Jesus' message.
The first was a Jewish priest. After the consolidation of all Jewish sacrifices in the Jerusalem Temple, only male Levites descended from David's priest Zadok were permitted to touch the altars. The priests' work in the Temple provided them a biblically mandated portion of the offerings. However, by the beginning of the first century AD, priests were so numerous that some engaged in secular employment and many lived outside of Jerusalem in order to survive.[2] Jesus does not tell us if the priest was on his way to Jerusalem to serve in the Temple, in which case touching a dead person would have disqualified him from serving by having made him ritually unclean. Nor does Jesus offer any other explanation of why the priest passes as far from beaten, naked man as possible.
The second actor was a Levite, a member of one of Israel's twelve tribes who originally offered sacrifices at altars across Israel. In time, the Jerusalem Temple became the only place for Jews to offer sacrifices, probably when they returned from Babylonian exile. The Levites then became a subordinate order of Temple priests. Like the priest, the Levite ignores the robbers' victim, passing as far from him as possible. Jesus again offers no extenuating explanation.
In 1972, two Princeton University psychologists conducted an experiment using Princeton Theological Seminary seminarians as their subjects. Meeting with each seminarian separately, the psychologists asked the seminarian to prepare a brief extemporaneous talk on a biblical theme and then walk to a nearby building to present it. The talk's theme varied, but included both the clergy's professional responsibilities and Jesus' parable of the Good Samaritan. Some seminarians were rushed out of the preparation room, told they were already a few minutes late. Others were told to leave so that they would have several minutes to spare. Each seminarian's path to the building where the talk was scheduled passed "a man slumped in an alley, head down, eyes closed, coughing and groaning." Of the group told they were late, only 10% stopped. Of those with a few minutes to spare, 63% stopped to help the man.[3] Thankfully, I did not enroll in Princeton Seminary until a couple of years after this experiment.
Jesus' parable of the Good Samaritan and the research of the Princeton psychologists emphasize that clergy are just as human as is anyone else. Ordination requires gifts and education for certain ministries, such as preaching, conducting worship, teaching Scripture, and pastoral care. Ordination also sets a person apart for specific tasks, especially officiating at the sacraments. Sadly, after decades supervising clergy from many denominations, I can assure you that ordination does not transform human clay into holiness. At their best, clergy – bishops, priests, and deacons – function as icons or windows. As an icon, a clergyperson is a living symbol that God's love and healing manifest in human brokenness and weakness. As a window, a clergyperson allows God's love to shine into the world. Christ and not the clergy is at the center of the Church.
The third actor in Jesus' parable is the Samaritan. Samaritans are a conservative Jewish sect of whom several hundred survive today. Some scholars argue that the Samaritans are the remnant of the ten tribes that inhabited the northern kingdom of Israel following Israel's split into the separate kingdoms of Judah and Israel. Alternatively, the Samaritans may be descendants of Jews who continued to worship at altars elsewhere than in the Temple. Regardless, devout Jews viewed Samaritans as unclean heretics to be avoided.[4]
Yet the Samaritan, and not the priest or the Levite, stopped to care for the injured man. He administered first century first aid, using oil, wine and bandages, loaded the man aboard his animal, and then walked alongside to steady him. He took the victim to the nearest inn, probably some miles distant, and stayed with him a while. When the Samaritan did leave, he paid the innkeeper a generous advance and promised to reimburse any uncovered expenses. Jesus does not make explicit what is obvious to his hearers and to us: the Samaritan saw a need, responded in spite of his vulnerability to attack had the bandits lingered in the area hoping for another victim, and then paid for the man's care.
So, who is our neighbor? Who do our actions say we think is our neighbor? If Jesus were to include you or me as a character in a twenty-first century version of the parable of the Good Samaritan, would Jesus use us instead of the priest, the Levite, or the Samaritan?
Before answering, consider:
  • Do you know your neighbors' names? Do you know their needs, their physical and emotional wounds?
  • Do you turn away from, or avoid seeing, the homeless, some 7200 of whom live in Hawaii? Alternatively, do you help to feed them, campaign for increased affordable housing, and encourage elected officials to prioritize helping the homeless? Incidentally, you are invited to join the group that will meet in the foyer after the 9:30 service to explore additional ways Holy Nativity can aid our houseless neighbors.
  • Do you only lament the shooting of black people and others, perhaps offering a prayer, or are you actively working to end the gun violence that claims 90 lives per day in the US? What difference would it make if one of your loved ones died as the victim of a mass murder, random shooting, or other incident?
  • Immigrants and refugees around the world are also our neighbors. On the one hand, no nation, not even one as large and wealthy as is the US, can host every immigrant and refugee who wishes to live here. On the other hand, closing borders in the name of national security symbolically turns our backs on needy neighbors, thereby emulating the priest and Levite in Jesus' parable. Although there are no easy answers, loving our neighbors entails aiding victims who seek a safer place in which to live, educate their children, improve their economic security, and enjoy greater freedom. We, and other developed nations, can host more immigrants and refugees. More broadly, we need to work assertively to end war, support democratic governance, and promote economic development. Jesus' parable of the Good Samaritan is about not only what you or I or as individuals can do, but also about what we as God's people can do collectively.
Who is your neighbor? Do your actions, like those of the Samaritan, demonstrate that you love your neighbor as yourself?

[1] Luke 10:25-37.
[2] Aelred Cody, "Priests and High Priests," The Oxford Companion to the Bible, ed. Bruce M. Metzger and Michael D. Coogan (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), p. 610.
[3] Malcolm Gladwell, The Tipping Point (New York: Little Brown and Company, 2002), pp. 163-166 citing John Darley and Daniel Batson, "From Jerusalem to Jericho: A study of situational and dispositional variables in helping behavior," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (1973), Vol. 27, pp. 100-119.
[4] Leon Roth, Judaism: A Portrait (New York: Viking, 1961), pp. 144-145. Richard Coggins, "Samaritans," The Oxford Companion to the Bible, ed. Bruce M. Metzger and Michael D. Coogan (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), pp. 671-673.


Dotun Olagoke said…
Fr. George---This story reminds me of a pastor who transformed himself into a homeless person---Walked around his soon to be church for 30 minutes prior to the service and only 3 people out of almost 7000 people said hello to him---NO ONE gave him change to buy food and was asked by the ushers if he would please sit in the back---Not to talk of stares and dirty looks---Thanks
George Clifford said…
Great story! Thanks for sharing.

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