Won’t you be my neighbor?

mister-rogers

When I was a kid I was always fascinated by the television show Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. The premise of the show was that the viewer was visiting Mr. Rogers’ house and he would tell you about a ton of different things and teach valuable life lessons. He would start the show off singing a catchy song that asked ‘Won’t you be my neighbor?’ which I thought was a great question.

I grew up on a small farm outside of a very small, rural town. The people who lived closest to me were about a mile away. Needless to say, the idea of a neighborhood escaped me for most of my life. I would watch television shows and movies that would depict what living in a close-knit neighborhood was like and I’d get a little envious. I’d see these depictions of children riding bikes (I’m a terrible bike-rider by the way) and hanging out on side-walks watching the cars go by or having block parties. Some of the children’s shows I remember watching as a kid even showed firemen opening up fire hydrants and flooding the street with the effect of a massive sprinkler for the kids to play in. It seemed really awesome.

After I grew up and visited some big cities I realized I never should have been envious of those shows because they made city life look much better than it really is. All of the noise, the hustle and bustle, the traffic, and the pollution reminded me of just how awesome it was to grow up in the country and being able to play in the woods, build forts, ride four-wheelers, breathe fresh air, and see the stars so brilliantly at night. Even as an adult I am thankful for the peace and quiet of the country life. I can’t tell you how many times I have looked up at the sky at night and been in absolute awe of the majesty of God’s creation.

With all of that said, the idea of what exactly constitutes being a neighbor was lost on me for most of my life. Even now the people that live on the same road as we do are people I wave at but rarely actually speak to. Our lives are mostly only intertwined by the fact that we live on the same country road. Yet, this was not the way life has been for many people throughout the ages. It definitely wasn’t what life was like during the time of Jesus. During Jesus’ lifetime, their culture was almost completely interconnected with the idea of working with your neighbor just to make life happen.

In Jewish small-town societies everyone played a crucial part to how the town existed; some were bakers, other were carpenters, some grew certain types of crops, while others were craftsmen. It was the idea of trade and bartering that fostered a community that learned to depend on each other and value each other’s’ successes. When a farmer had a large wheat crop then everyone in the town knew that there would be flour for the baker and therefore bread for their families. When a shepherd had a large number of new lambs born then there would be plenty of meat for the community to trade for. This process went on and on creating an intricate web that connected all of the members of the community (for more see Jesus and the Gospels by Craig L. Blomberg, B&H Publishing Group, 2009, pgs. 58-70).

It is this idea of being a neighbor that Jesus told a very famous story in. When we try and force this parable into our modern American culture we lose the radicalness of the story and how big of a shock it would have been for his audience. These people were vastly made up of Jews who had been born and raised in the Jewish culture (the Law of Moses, the Temple, the sacrificial system, the Jews being God’s chosen people, etc.). All of this colored their world and gave them a unique perspective that we must try and wrap our own around to get to the heart of this parable:

[25] One day an expert in religious law stood up to test Jesus by asking him this question: “Teacher, what should I do to inherit eternal life?”

[26] Jesus replied, “What does the law of Moses say? How do you read it?”

[27] The man answered, “‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your strength, and all your mind.’ And, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”

[28] “Right!” Jesus told him. “Do this and you will live!”

[29] The man wanted to justify his actions, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

[30] Jesus replied with a story: “A Jewish man was traveling from Jerusalem down to Jericho, and he was attacked by bandits. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him up, and left him half dead beside the road.

[31] “By chance a priest came along. But when he saw the man lying there, he crossed to the other side of the road and passed him by. [32] A Temple assistant walked over and looked at him lying there, but he also passed by on the other side.

[33] “Then a despised Samaritan came along, and when he saw the man, he felt compassion for him. [34] Going over to him, the Samaritan soothed his wounds with olive oil and wine and bandaged them. Then he put the man on his own donkey and took him to an inn, where he took care of him. [35] The next day he handed the innkeeper two silver coins, telling him, ‘Take care of this man. If his bill runs higher than this, I’ll pay you the next time I’m here.’

[36] “Now which of these three would you say was a neighbor to the man who was attacked by bandits?” Jesus asked.

[37] The man replied, “The one who showed him mercy.”

Then Jesus said, “Yes, now go and do the same.”

 

If you are like me, you’ve heard this story so many times you could tell it from memory. From Sunday school to a million sermons it seems like I have heard and read this parable so many times that it is just another story. To those who heard it when Jesus originally told it, however, this was a radical idea. See, in their culture there were numerous preconceptions that they had concerning God, faith, and life that play into this story.

First, in their minds when a person experienced a bad life event they believed that God was punishing them for some sin in their life (cf. the Book of Job chs. 4 & 5). In their minds, a person who had been mugged would fall into this kind of situation. This was also why the religious leaders (the Pharisee & the Temple servant) passed by the man. Another possibility is that they might have thought the man dead and not wanting to come close to a dead body thereby become ceremonially unclean. The conflict with this idea is that that they would’ve been able to easily walk close enough to see the man still alive and struggling to stay that way.

More likely, they had cast judgement on the man who had been attacked and robbed thinking that God was punishing him for some sin issue in his life. Because of this, they had condemned him as deserving of his punishment and stayed away lest they get caught up in God’s wrath. Their condemnation of the man stemmed from their pious, holier-than-thou attitude that placed their own value above another’s. Jesus condemned this mentality by showing that a casual passerby was willing to do what the religious leaders should have done as ambassadors to the Kingdom of Heaven.

Here is the rub: the person that helped the man who was attacked was a Samaritan. Samaritans were half-breeds who had been away from the traditional Jewish culture of Temple oriented worship that they had begun worshipping at Mount Gerizim and even had their own version of the Pentateuch. Because of this, the Jews considered them outcasts and lesser-class citizens. They were not welcomed in Jewish society and were generally considered to be untouchables and definitely someone you’d never think spending time with (cf. Yitzakh Magen, ‘The Dating of the First Phase of the Samaritan Temple on Mt Gerizim in Light of Archaeological Evidence,’ in Oded Lipschitz, Gary N. Knoppers, Rainer Albertz (eds.) Judah and the Judeans in the Fourth Century B.C.E., Eisenbrauns, 2007 pp.157–212 .p.187).

Look at this parable again from a Jew who heard this during the milieu Jesus told it in. Here is a man who the crowd thought deserved condemnation and Jesus was saying he deserved to be saved. They thought that the religious leaders were the heroes but Jesus portrayed them as evil for refusing to help their neighbor. Jesus even goes so far as to make the hero of the parable a detestable Samaritan whom the crowd would’ve considered beneath them and not even worth talking to. Jesus flips the cultural script on them by taking away the layers of cultural bias and getting straight to the heart of the matter: who is my neighbor after all?

This question is incredibly important in our current American cultural context. We are still fighting to combat issues of race, class, political parties, social ideals, morality & ethics, how to handle immigrants & refugees, and how to live in the same world as those who are lives are almost completely opposite from theirs. This fight to get out of our own heads and into those of our neighbor has been a fight that has been going on since the beginning of humanity. Yet, it is no less important an issue now than it was in Jesus’ day. While feelings can be deceptive, many people I know feel that this is perhaps the most divided our culture has been in a long time.

Jesus answers this question with unmistakable clarity. Our neighbor is not defined by their race, location, nation, or creed. They are not defined by their religion, gender, political party, lifestyle choices, or their appearance. They are not defined by their income, neediness, education, or their social affiliations. They are not defined by our preference or even by our own personal belief sets. Our neighbor is anyone in need of mercy; and we are commanded by God to love them like we love ourselves.

The ramifications of this truth affects so many areas of our lives. The person we see whom we do not agree with becomes our neighbor and I treat them with kindness rather than anger. The person who does not live according my lifestyle becomes my neighbor and I choose to show them the love of Christ rather than condemn them because they don’t agree with me. The person who is in need becomes my neighbor and I give selflessly to them because I love them like I love myself. I feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the wounded, and share with those in need because I am not just being obedient to my King but because I want to bring them the Kingdom here on Earth like it is in Heaven.

What would our nation look like if those who claimed the name of Jesus started to love people like Jesus loved people? Not just those who are like us, live like us, believe like us, and act like us. We need to love those who are so different from us that we wonder what in the world we have in common with them. After all, what do we have in common? We are all sinners in need of a savior. They deserve the Kingdom to be brought to them the same way we do.

May we be the Church Jesus called us to be. May we be Kingdom bringers who have not just a story to tell but love to give. May we so out-love and out-give our culture that people ask why we do these things and we earn the opportunity to share the Gospel. May we, like the children’s show often did, ask ‘Won’t you be my neighbor?’

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