Are we good neighbors?

May 15, 2014

Mrs. Bea was my mother’s best friend. The two of them used to laugh together as if they were the only two in the universe. They spent a lot of their free time together, which was easy since they lived half a block apart.

Mr. Fred was Mrs. Bea’s husband. Everybody in the neighborhood called him “neighbor” because he greeted everyone with the same question: “How’s my neighbor?” He was the kind of man who would interrogate strangers who happened on your property and didn’t look as if they belonged. He would repair a door or mow a yard without being asked. He was a neighbor.

I played with Bea and Fred’s five children. We did everything from ride our bikes together to play basketball or stickball in the neighborhood park to chase one another in frenetic games of tag or hide-n-seek. We children were neighbors, too.

I thought about Bea and Fred last week as I prepared to preach Luke 10:25-37, the parable of the so-called “good Samaritan.” I prefer to call it the parable of the godly neighbor since Jesus tells the story to a religious man who asked in a self-justifying moment, “who is my neighbor?” Here’s the parable:

25 And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” 26 He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” 27 And he answered, ”You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” 28 And he said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.”

29 But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” 30 Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. 31 Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. 32 So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. 34 He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’ 36 Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” 37 He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.”

I read this and six things stood out to me:

1. To be a neighbor requires risk (v. 30). The Jericho road was 17 miles long, descended over 3,000 feet, featured many twists and turns with caves along the way. It was perfect for robbers and it was a dangerous pass. Any good neighbor will have to take some risks, like stopping on a dangerous road to help the hurting.

2. Simply being religious and theologically orthodox will not make you a neighbor (vv. 31-32). The priest and the Levite are religious leaders in Israel. They’re holy men. They believe all the right things and worship in all the right ways ceremonially. But they are not neighbors to this hurting man. It’s possible to be deeply religious in one sense and treacherously unloving.

3. A neighbor isn’t necessarily someone like you (v. 32). Common ethnicity is no predictor of neighborliness. If the robbed man were an Israelite, then being fellow Jews did not make the priest and the Levite his neighbor. They passed by. It is the despised, outcast Samaritan (John 4:9) that proves to be the true neighbor. It’s someone thought to be “unclean” and “cut off” that emerges as the truly loving. I recently heard Ed Copeland say, “Not all your skin folk are your kin folk, and not all your kin folk are your skin folk.” I think the parable demonstrates that–neighbors are not determined by ethnicity. In fact, these two men were strangers to one another. Yet that Samaritan crosses the xenophobic gulf to care for the stranger in his midst. Jesus expands the definition of neighbor well beyond family, friends, co-workers, ethnicity and those who live in physical proximity to us.

4. A neighbor is someone who sees your need and responds with compassion (vv. 33-34). That’s the difference between the Samaritan and the priest and Levite. They all see the man on the road naked and half-dead. But the Samaritan has compassion. He allows himself to feel for the man and acts out of that concern. A neighbor doesn’t turn his eyes away or cross the road when he sees someone in need. Neighbors render practical and sacrificial assistance in time of need.

5. The most natural and effective mercy ministry in a community is a good neighbor (v. 36). I’m all for organized mercy ministries. In fact, some problems in a community are so widespread or intense that they require an organized response. But the deeper, longer-lasting, truly transforming “mercy ministry” comes in the form of good neighbors. Saturate a block, a community, a city with neighbors like the Samaritan and you’ll transform that community slowly, deeply, and effectively.

6. Love and Law demand every Christian be a merciful neighbor to anyone in need in our presence (v. 37). Jesus’ discussion with this expert in the Mosaic Law summarizes all the Law and prophets with two commands: Love God and love neighbor. Love God with all yourself and love neighbor like yourself. The final command from Jesus, “go and do likewise” (v. 37), binds us to this duty of being Samaritan-like neighbors. It also binds our conscience with guilt so that we any attempt to justify ourselves apart from Christ miserably fails, like the lawyer’s. We’re thrown onto the back of Christ for justification with God. But then having been freed from the Law for justification, we find ourselves drawn to the Law in sanctification and Christian witness. Having been loved, we now turn to love (1 John 3:16-18; 4:20).

What does all of this mean?

Very simply: Christians ought to be good neighbors with an expansive definition of neighbor.

The reason there are fewer and fewer true neighborhoods is because there are fewer and fewer true neighbors. Even though more and more people live atop one another and we aggregate the need in cities, we don’t often love like this Samaritan. In fact, the Samaritan is so striking to us because we so seldom see such sacrifice for others or make such sacrifice for others. But we Christians ought to be the best neighbors of all.

My last memory of Bea and Fred came when I was about seven years old. I was standing in the back door of my childhood home, looking lazily through the glass onto our block. I saw Freddy and his siblings running down the street from their apartment half a block away. They were loud, shouting something back and forth to one another. It looked like a frenetic game of tag. Then I saw Bea run from the house. She rounded the corner and looked to be headed to our house. Last of all I saw “neighbor,” Mr. Fred, round the corner. In moments that slowed to a dream I saw Mr. Fred aim his shotgun at Mrs. Bea and shoot her in the back. She stumbled to a house just before ours, the home of a third friend, and died on those steps.

I was seven when I witnessed a neighbor kill his neighbor wife and our neighborhood with her.

I don’t know why these things have come to mind so powerfully of late. Perhaps its the anticipation of moving next door to a lot of children and families who have seen the same thing–sometimes repeatedly–in their “neighborhood.” I think it’s a freshly awakened desire to be a merciful neighbor in a context where mercy is sometimes in such short supply. What would our cities and communities be if we could saturate every block with Christians who showed the sacrificial compassion of this Samaritan, who showed to others the same love they have received in Christ? I dream of Mrs. Bea and then I dream of southeast DC. I dream of neighbors and neighborhoods transformed by Christ.


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