Who is My Neighbor?
The very last movie that I saw in an actual movie theater was before the pandemic. It was the 2019 movie called Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. And it starred Tom Hanks as Fred Rogers, who most of us grew up knowing as Mr. Rogers, from the beloved PBS children's program, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.
But I discovered there's actually an even better film about Mr. Rogers. It's a documentary called, Won't You Be My Neighbor, and it's streaming now on Netflix. And watching that documentary, I learned so much that I didn't know about Mr. Rogers.
You know, we’ve come to think of him as being a very mild and gentle man. And he was, but he was also very courageous and very progressive. His children's program first aired on PBS in 1968. And it was during a time, as you know, of great civil unrest and social upheaval in our country. And Mr. Rogers was not afraid to tackle those issues on his children's television program.
So for example, on one of the very first episodes, the hand puppet, who was known as King Friday the 13th,announced that he was going to build a border wall around his kingdom to keep out strangers. And on another episode, Mr. Rogers cools off his feet in a kiddie pool. And he invites Officer Clemens to also come and dip his feet in the pool along with him. Officer Clemens was black. This, of course, was during a time of segregation in our country, when there were many parts of the US where black people and white people were not allowed to swim together in the same public pool. So these are just two examples of the really brilliant way that Mr. Rogers was able to very gently, but very powerfully, address issues in this country like xenophobia, and racism, and prejudice.
One of my favorite, Mr. Rogers quotes is he said, “We live in a world where we're all responsible for one another.”
We're all responsible for one another. He said, “It's so easy to say, that's not my child. That's not my community. That's not my problem.” But he said, “Then there are people who see the problem, and they do something about it. Those people are my heroes.”
Now, I share this with you today, of course, because in the Gospel reading today from the lectionary for the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, Jesus has asked that question, “Who is my neighbor?”
And notice Jesus doesn't answer the question directly. Instead, he tells one of his parables, one of his stories. And of course, it's the parable of the Good Samaritan. It's probably Jesus's most famous parable. Maybe it's one of the most famous stories in the whole Bible.
You know, if you think about it, people who aren't Christian or maybe people who have never even read the Bible, they know the term “Good Samaritan.” It's become part of our vernacular. We say someone's a Good Samaritan when they do an act of selfless service for someone.
So today, that term Samaritan is a very positive word. But in Jesus's day, it was a very negative word. Samaritans were people who were despised. They were rejected and scorned. They were outcast and marginalized. Good, upstanding people like Jesus were forbidden from associating with Samaritans. You could not talk to them. You could never have them inside your home. And they weren't allowed in the temple.
Samaritans, you see, were born out of the marriage between a Jew and a Gentile. And that was forbidden in the religious laws and the societal laws of Jesus' day. So to call someone a Good Samaritan in Jesus's day would have been an oxymoron. You couldn't be a Samaritan and be good, at least according to the religious and societal rules of the day.
That's why Jesus's story is so brilliant. He makes the hero of his story a Samaritan.
As we just heard, it's the Samaritan who helps the dying man. The priest and the Levite just walk on by. Now, a Levite, if you don't know, was a member of the priestly class who was assigned to the ceremonial duties in the temple. So they were kind of like a deacon would be today.
So these two upstanding religious men do not help the dying man. And why? Well, because the man is bleeding. And it went against the religious rules that were written in Scripture, for a priest to touch the blood. Because that was considered unclean. The person was considered untouchable. That's what it said, in the law. So the priest and the Levite believe they're following what God would want, because that's what it said in the law.
Jesus's whole point in the parable is, it is not about following the letter of the law. It's about showing God's love and compassion to those in need. It's not about loving theology. It's about loving people.
So let's try to bring this parable into contemporary, modern day life. Let's say the priest and the Levite are a wealthy televangelist, and a big megachurch evangelical pastor, they pass by and refuse to help someone on the side of the road, because that person is a sinner.
But who does help them?
Who would be the 2022 Samaritan? Well, maybe it would be a transgender woman of color. Maybe it would be an undocumented immigrant from another country, maybe it would be a hijab-wearing Muslim. They come along to help groups of people that some Christians in America today consider to be sinners and unclean and unsaved.
Jesus's whole point with the parable is saying, ‘Look, you think the person that your religion told you was a sinner is the bad person, but I'm showing you that they're actually the one that did what God wanted, where the devout faithful person did not.’
Such a brilliant lesson in such a simple story.
But that's why Jesus was such an amazing teacher. And of course, Mr. Rogers was also an amazing teacher. And I'm sure some of you know, Mr. Rogers was an ordained Christian minister. He was a minister in the Presbyterian Church. And although on his children's program, he never quoted the Bible. And he never mentioned Jesus, it was clear that his faith informed the way he spoke to children, about loving your neighbor as yourself.
So again, Jesus is asked today, who is my neighbor? The lawyer that is asking him, that is trying to test Jesus, asking, ‘Isn't my neighbor, just the person of my tribe?’ You know, the person who's the same faith as me, the person who worships how I worship? The person who believes what I believe? Isn't that my neighbor, my group? And Jesus, of course, doesn't answer the question. He tells the story, and has the lawyer answer for himself.
And so he says to the lawyer after telling the story, which one was the neighbor, of the three men? And the lawyer has to admit it was the Samaritan. And so Jesus says, ‘Good. Now go and do as he did.’
And I don't know if you realize how shocking that would have been for Jesus' day. But it would be like the megachurch pastor telling his congregation now go and be like the transgender woman of color, go and be like the hijab-wearing Muslim. That's how shocking it would have been.
And you can see why Jesus' teachings got him in so much trouble, because he was speaking out against those who so rigidly followed the letter of the law and not following that spirit of Love and Compassion.
Now many of you are familiar with Marcus Borg. Marcus Borg was one of the leading voices in the Progressive Christian movement, in which our church is a part. He passed away a few years ago. But in his wonderful book, which is called Seeing Jesus Again, for the First Time, he writes, “One of the hallmarks of Jesus's teachings was his pointed attacks on the purity system. This was a dominant theme in the Jewish social world during his time, and it was focused on creating a world with sharp social boundaries between who was pure and who was impure, who was righteous, and who was a sinner, who was whole and who was not, male and female, rich and poor, Jew and Gentile. Jesus deliberately replaces the core value of purity with compassion.”
Jesus lived in a world not unlike ours, with sharp divisions. And Jesus was saying it is about showing compassion. It's why Jesus said, “Whatever you do to the least of these, you do to me.”
So that's my question for you this morning. What are you doing for your neighbor? What are you doing for the least of these? Are you showing concern for their needs? Or are you more like the priest and the Levite, you care more about yourself, than the needs of the least of these in your midst?
Now there are people we know who blame the least of these, they say to the prisoner, or the drug addict, or the homeless person, why should I help you, you got yourself into this situation, not my problem. Or they say to the family detained at the border, you shouldn't have come into this country, it's your own fault.
Jesus is trying to say, we need to be concerned about the needs of others. In Philippians 2, verse three, it says, “Do nothing out of self interest, but rather, consider the needs of others greater than your own.”
Now, I'm going to give you an example about my neighbor. It may seem silly, but it's not to me. I have a neighbor who claims to be my friend, who continues to patronize an anti-gay fast food places, even though I've told him that this corporation spends millions of dollars on anti-gay legislation. He still goes and eats there on a regular basis. And why? Because it doesn't affect him. It doesn't affect his marriage. It doesn't affect his rights. But it affects mine, his neighbor.
It's like people when they go to vote, they vote in their own self interest. They vote for the candidate who's going to be best for them, for their stock portfolio, and for their real estate investments. They don't care that that candidate has anti-gay policies, or has policies that harm communities of color or the poor. They don't care because it doesn't affect them.
My friends, you cannot claim to be a Christian and say that you love your neighbor, and then vote for people that will harm and make your neighbors’ lives more difficult. Now the 20th century Christian mystic, Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk, he said this: “Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they're worthy. That is not our business. And in fact, it's nobody's business. What we're asked to do is to love, and this love will render both ourselves and our neighbors worthy.”
It pains me so much as a Christian pastor, to see so many Christians in America today who are still deciding who is worthy, and who isn't worthy of God's love. All people are worthy.
And so if we truly are to be followers of the way of Jesus, we have to demonstrate that love and compassion to all people, people who worship differently than we do people, who believe different things than we do, people who are different than we are, speak a different language. Because all people are one.
Jesus came to do to tear down the boundaries that divide people, so that we could see our oneness.
And so my friends, that is what I am inviting you to do this week, to think about who you are in the Good Samaritan story. Maybe you still have religious beliefs that you're carrying, about who's worthy and who's unworthy. In our Words of Integration and Guidance this morning, sister Joan Chittister encourages us to become more and more Christ-like. And in order for us to do that we have to become more and more like God, meaning we have to see all people the way God sees them, through eyes of unconditional love. For all people are worthy, and all people are one.
Rev. Salvatore Sapienza
Words of Integration & Guidance
By Sr. Joan Chittister
To become “God-like” is the most common – and the most elusive – of all spiritual aspirations. What can that desire possibly mean? A medieval mystic answers the question directly. “When are we like God?” the mystic Mechthild of Magdeburg writes. “I will tell you. Insofar as we love compassion and practice it steadfastly, to that extent, do we resemble the heavenly Creator who practices these things ceaselessly in us.” When we, too, “know of what we’re made,” there is no room in us for anything but mercy for the other. Mercy takes us outside ourselves. It makes us one with the rest of the world. Or as Martin Luther King, Jr. reminds us, “The first question which the priest and the Levite asked when they saw the wounded man dying on the street was, “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?” But the Good Samaritan reversed the question. He said: “If I don’t stop to help this man, what will happen to him?” A sign in Springdale, Connecticut makes the whole subject clear. It reads: “There is so much good in the worst of us and so much bad in the best of us, that it’s rather hard to tell which of us ought to reform the rest of us.” A Japanese proverb reminds us, “It is often the most wicked who know the nearest path to the shrine.” Don’t let anybody fool you: Goodness is as goodness does. Be careful who you call bad simply because the “good” people have named them so. God, it seems, is far less quick to judge.
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