Who is my neighbor?

While we were at Chautauqua, I met a retired pastor, Curt Ackley, who told me proudly about the church he attends in Sahuarita, Arizona, The Good Shepherd United Church of Christ, in a community south of Tucson and less than two hours by car from Nogales, Mexico. He is proud of the ministry being done there, a commitment to save migrant lives in the desert. The ministry is called Samaritans or Los Samaritanos. Teams of three people go out at a time in a vehicle marked with the organization’s name, at least one of them a Spanish-speaker. The border control agents know what they are doing, going out into the desert to be sure no one is alone out there, to bring food and water, and to make sure people get to safety. Some agents wave; others are more grudging.

The checkpoint behind them, the Samaritans turn onto the Arivaca Road. People desperate to get into this country will pay a guide, and sometimes those guides, who are really in the business of human smuggling, will lie about how far they have to go, will leave behind people who can’t keep up. It’s particularly dangerous for women, who may trade the dangers of life in Mexico for an assault in the Arizona desert.

Kathy Babcock is one of the team members in this story from 2012:

Their journey today takes them down 22 miles of gently curving Arivaca Road. Just outside of Arivaca they come across a truck from Humane Borders and exchange greetings. The Humane Borders workers are putting 55-gallon barrels of water in the desert with the permission of the government.

Babcock doesn’t buy the argument that immigrants are more likely to attempt a crossing because they know there is water placed in the desert by humanitarian groups.

“They have no idea anybody is out here,” she says, adding that she has never come across an immigrant who has heard of the Samaritans or their work. Water or not, they will come, she says.

Immigration is a hotly contested issue in Arizona, and not everyone likes the work the church is doing, Curt told me. In fact, the church attracted a picketer, who would walk back and forth in front of their building carrying a sign that said, “Good Samaritan, Bad American.”

Why would we want to help people who don’t look like us, talk like us, worship like us? That seems to be the frame of reference of the picketer, who also sometimes carried a sign reading “Say No to Social Justice.” That particular church understands its faith in one way, and the protester understands the same faith in another way.

Our gospel story brings us just such a conundrum. You probably know this story so well you could tell it yourselves. You learned it in Sunday School or at Vacation Bible School, right? Jesus is being questioned by a lawyer, which means a person who had great knowledge of and familiarity with the religious law, not our modern-day version of a lawyer. The man pushed on Jesus, and his use of the term “teacher” was not respectful. In Luke’s gospel, the only proper way to address Jesus is “Lord.”

“Teacher,” he wants to know, implying that the real question is “Teacher, if you know so much, if you are so well-informed, so wise, riddle me this!”

“What must I do to gain eternal life?”

Jesus knows a lawyer will have the answer to this question, taken from the scriptures he knows well, so he answers with a question. “What does your reading tell you?”

“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.”

They agree on the answer. Yet there remains an underlying question, a challenge directed at Jesus’ tendency to hang around with a questionable crowd: tax collectors, fishermen, lepers, women of the street.

“Who *is* my neighbor?”

Jesus offers a story in response. When my boys were younger we once acted it out in church, with a narrator and a person playing Jesus and another taking the part of the lawyer, probing the meaning of the parable. A collection of volunteer non-speaking “actors” from the congregation portrayed the Samaritan, the priest and the Levite, the victim and the robbers. When they mimed the assault, the congregation could not see the victim, only the fists flying. Although no one was harmed, or even touched, the congregation members flinched and looked away.

This is the story Jesus tells, of a victim beaten almost to the point of death, left in a ditch, abandoned to his fate. This is the story Jesus tells, in which the religious authority figures pass by on the other side of the road, avoiding contact with horror, looking away from suffering, ignoring the outcome of evil. The listener feels a sense of relief when a Samaritan comes along and takes care of the wounded man. Thank God! There is some caring in the world!

Then Jesus returns to the question, and again asks another one. Who was the *injured man’s* neighbor?

The lawyer knows the law, and he answers the question correctly. The neighbor is the one who showed him mercy.

Amen!

But wait. Who was this neighbor?

That’s the uncomfortable core of the story.

The person who showed kindness was not a member of the victim’s own community. The person who showed kindness was from a despised group.

He was a Samaritan. And while we have co-opted that word to mean caring, and we have added the word “Good” to describe him more fully, a Samaritan would have been low in the estimation of the original audience of the gospel.

good-samaritan
He Qi, “Good Samaritan” (2001)

Although they followed the same religious Law, the two groups each thought their own interpretation was correct. Samaritans were descended from the villains of Jewish history, from rapists and murderers. New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine writes that a Jewish crowd hearing the story would have expected a priest and a Levite to be followed by an Israelite. To change the pattern this way “would be like going from Larry and Moe to Osama bin Laden.”

The lawyer wanted to hear Jesus explain the letter of the Law; instead Jesus taught him the spirit of the Law. No one is outside the neighborhood of God’s Love. From the man on the Jericho Road, modern-day Samaritans draw inspiration for their work on the Arivaca Road.

Neither of them are safe routes.

Just before Easter I was over in Harrisburg visiting some Faith members, and I’ll be honest with you, my grip on Harrisburg geography remains pretty sketchy. I blame this on Google Maps. I rely too heavily on a voice that tells me when to turn, and haven’t had to really learn the shape of things. I was way, way out on Derry Street, heading back toward 83, on my way home. But when I turned from Brookwood onto 17th Street, there was a back-up so bad on 83 South that cars were lined up beyond the on-ramp into local traffic. I pulled into a parking lot and regrouped. I didn’t want to crawl across the bridge. There are other bridges, right? Surely I could make my way, well, thattaway, and get to a place I recognized and make my way home through Lemoyne or Camp Hill. I turned back onto 17th Street the other way, then took a left on Derry, and I prayed that the Google lady would get me somewhere recognizable.

Then I realized I must be in Allison Hill, and reflexively, I locked my doors. It embarrasses me to tell you this, but it’s true. I didn’t breathe deeply until I saw the bridge that would carry me over the railroad tracks to the part of Harrisburg I know better.

I’m ashamed by how relieved I was. I’m ashamed to be so racist.

When I think about this parable, this old, familiar story, I want to be the good guy. I want to be the one who helps another human being, without worrying about whether we dress alike, or worship the same way, or have the same skin color. I want to think I am one of those good people who is above the prejudices so common in our country.

I want it after this horrifying week of violence, in which we saw Black people killed by police officers on video. I want it after this terrible week, in which a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest organized with police cooperation turned into a massacre that also played out on our television and computer screens. I want to be a person who can help make things better, who can engage in conversations about guns and racism and policing, about white privilege and white supremacy, and what our Lord Jesus Christ taught that can help us untangle the mess we’ve made. He taught us that no one is outside God’s love; all people are our neighbors. He taught us that the first requirement to be a neighbor, to love our neighbors, is to show them mercy.

I don’t think we can reach a future of mutual mercy without first confessing our urge to pass by certain places and people as quickly as we can.

I don’t think we can reach a future of mutual mercy without first confessing our urge to lock our doors, to lock our hearts.

Kathy Babcock got started helping migrants because three days after she moved into her house, two migrants knocked on her door and asked for food and water. It leaves me wondering. Whose neighbor am I?

Because this isn’t a story about who is a neighbor to us. It’s a story about what it means to be a neighbor, to love another as we love ourselves.

Remember the picketer? One day he came to the door of the church and asked to speak to the pastor. “I’ll be away for a few weeks,” he said, “and I didn’t want you to worry that something had happened to me.” He figured they would care. He trusted they would show him mercy. He knew they would be neighbors to him, too.

In the name of the One who never passes us by, Jesus Christ. Amen.

  1. Life and death: GV Samaritans comb desert for immigrants,” Green Valley News, October 10, 2012.
  2. Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi, Amy-Jill Levine (2014: HarperOne), p. 95.

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