Who is my 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."[2]

From Jericho to Jerusalem is about twenty miles. The southwesterly pre-Roman road descended thirty-six hundred feet in elevation. Long parts of it traversed wilderness infested by notorious robbers.

Jesus implicitly criticizes two figures in his parable who had important religious roles. Levites cared for the temple; priests offered sacrifices. Hopefully, Jesus is not commenting about all religious leaders. If so, Ha’aheo, I, the altar guild, lectors, eucharistic ministers, and so forth are all in trouble. Hopefully, Jesus was painting a contrast between, on the one hand, the religious and cultural stigma of interacting with the unclean and, on the other hand, the Samaritan’s willingness to aid the man robbers had stripped, beaten and left to die along the roadside.

Samaritans were the remnant of the northern kingdom of Israel, many of whom had intermarried with the indigenous population. In the seventh century B.C., the Samaritans had refused to centralize worship in Jerusalem, preferring their syncretized version of Judaism that incorporated local, indigenous beliefs and practices. Consequently, faithful Jews avoided all Samaritans.

Yet Jesus chose a Samaritan as his parable’s hero. The Samaritan bandages the victim’s wounds, takes him to an inn, spends a night caring for him, then pays the innkeeper for additional care. Two denarii equaled roughly two days’ wages, a large sum in a subsistence economy. The Samaritan also instructs the innkeeper that when he returns, he will reimburse the innkeeper for any additional expense.

A recent Pew survey identified a substantial number of Americans who live in quiet despair, depressed, mentally ill or abusing drugs or alcohol. Social, economic and spiritual scarcity have worryingly displaced the meaning people formerly derived from their relationships with family and friends and from serving a cause larger than self. Adults who find meaning often look narrowly inward or point to moments when they feel loved, satisfied or good about themselves. Their worldview has shrunk. On an encouraging note, high school students tend to identify themselves with the cause they serve, whether it is working for racial equality or environmental justice.[3]

Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan seeks to stretch our horizons, memorably illustrating his command to love our neighbor. He calls us to break the cultural and religious boundaries and stigmas that cause us to not see or to ignore our neighbor, turning our heads and walking by on the other side of the street. Jesus asks, do you really love your neighbors?

Native Hawaiians comprise just eighteen percent of Hawaii’s population but forty percent of the incarcerated. Releasees leave our prisons with only what they had when they entered prison. Unsurprisingly, over half of all releasees from Hawaiian prisons recidivate within three years. Ha’aheo has been instrumental in the backpack program, providing new releasees with some basic necessities. The Diocesan Jubilee group, which includes several from this congregation are working for systemic reform. Jesus asks, do you really love your neighbors?

Nobody wants to be mentally ill. Medical researchers and practitioners do not understand the causes of most mental illness, a broad category that includes addiction, depression, schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s, and much more. Nor do these professionals understand how to treat most mental illness effectively. Yet many people stigmatize and avoid the mentally ill. Hawai’i’s shortage of mental health providers exacerbates the situation.

One group trying to aid the mentally ill is the Samaritan Counseling Center of Hawai’i. The Center is interfaith. Its therapists, all licensed professionals, seek, as appropriate, to integrate the client’s spirituality into the therapeutic process. Nobody is ever refused assistance because of an inability to pay. I support the Center and serve as its Board President. When the housing bubble burst and this parish experienced its own difficulties, the Parish ceased to contribute annually to the Samaritan Center. This sermon on the parable of the Good Samaritan is the commercial that Heather has suggested for some time that I make for the Center. Jesus asks, do you really love your neighbors?

With which role in today’s gospel reading do you most identify? Do you want self-justification, affirmation for your spiritual journey and the neighbors you love? Do you avert your eyes and pass by at a distance from needy, hurting neighbors? Or do you stop to help, generously caring for those in need.

May we increasingly, with God's help, courageously and honestly answer Jesus’ question, “do you really love your neighbors?” with a resounding “Yes!”. Amen.

Sermon preached the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, July 14, 2019

Parish of St. Clement, Honolulu, HI

[1] Luke 10:29-37.
[2] Source unknown.
[3] David Brooks, “Will Gen-Z Save the World?New York Times, July 4, 2019.


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