Those Pesky Neighbors

**I just returned home after attending the annual Apprentice Gathering. This  year’s theme was “The Joy of Kingdom Living,” and all the large group gatherings and workshops focused on the six traditions of Christian spirituality outlined by Richard Foster in his 1998 book Streams of Living Water: Celebrating the Great Traditions of Christian Faith. In keeping with this year’s theme, I thought it might be worthwhile to post a series of sermons on the same subject I preached back in the spring of 2012.  Each week during the series, I included a bulletin insert with some suggestions for trying the practices of each tradition, based on suggestions at the end of each chapter of Foster’s book.  This is the fourth week’s sermon, on the Social Justice Tradition.

May 6, 2012
Those Pesky Neighbors
Luke 10:25-37

Two years ago, a certain radio and TV personality created quite a stir when he urged his listeners and viewers to leave their churches if the pastors advocated “social justice.” He said that “social justice” is nothing but code for communism and Nazism, and that it thus has no place in American faith communities.

Many Christians from all over the political spectrum, including the man’s own church’s leaders, quickly spoke up against these comments. They pointed out that the Bible—even the book of Leviticus, more often used as a club against homosexuality than a document supporting social justice—is filled with passages that urge people of faith to a life of compassion and care for the most vulnerable in our world.

(Leviticus 19 is the origin of the second of Jesus’ “Greatest Commandments,” which we just heard in our Scripture reading for this morning. There are also commandments in that chapter about gleaning—the ancient world’s version of a food pantry, where you were called on to leave unharvested the edges of your field so poor people could gather some grain for themselves so they’d have at least something to eat—and about not oppressing foreigners in the land [because we, the people are reminded, were once oppressed foreigners in Egypt], and about not cheating in business.)

Far from being an innovation thought up in modern times by left-leaning folks wanting to inject politics into churches, the idea of social justice is a tradition deeply rooted in Scripture, going all the way back to the Torah, the Jewish Law we have in the first five books of our Bible, and to the Hebrew prophets, most especially Amos and Micah. We may tend to think of the Law as mostly a bunch of irrelevant rules about sacrifices, and what people should and should not eat or wear, and perhaps a slightly unseemly concern for what people do in the privacy of their bedrooms. But in reality, the Law has quite a bit to say about how we treat other people, and how we are supposed to treat one another is lovingly, compassionately, and keeping in mind the reality of what’s going on in their particular life.

The Law says, for instance, that you can take a person’s cloak as collateral if they borrow your cart. But you have to return it at nightfall, whether or not they have returned your cart. That’s because, if the person is poor, that cloak may be all they have to wrap up in against the chill of the night. And Leviticus takes it a step further: if that poor person shivers, God will take notice.

There are always going to be poor people among us; both the Torah and Jesus acknowledge that reality. But that isn’t an excuse; it’s an invitation. Because there are always going to be people in need among us, there’s always going to be an opportunity to show kindness and compassion to someone else. In other words, we’ve got plenty of neighbors to love—and that’s what the social justice tradition of Christian spirituality is all about. It’s about treating others, especially those who are in need but not just them, with the same kind of love God has shown us.

The parable of the Good Samaritan is a guiding text for the social justice tradition, for quite a few reasons. I’m sure it comes as no surprise that many Christian social-service organizations, from hospitals to counseling centers, have taken the name “Good Samaritan” as their own. Even in secular law the term “Good Samaritan” is occasionally heard—as in the “Good Samaritan Laws” that protect people from lawsuits when they have only sought to help someone in need. Turns out that even people who know nothing about the Bible have a picture in their minds of what a “Good Samaritan” is. But there’s a bit more to the idea of “Good Samaritan” than just a decent person who helps someone who’s in need.

The shocking part of the parable is that for those who originally heard it, “Good Samaritan” would have been an oxymoron. To first century Jews, a Samaritan was a despised person. They were the descendants of the “people of the land” left behind after Assyria and then Babylon destroyed the Jewish homelands. They intermarried with other foreigners who were relocated to Palestine, and their faith was corrupted by those foreigners’ influence.

The Jews hated the Samaritans, hated them hard—to the point that, if they could, they would take the long way around to avoid traveling through Samaria on their way from Judea to Galilee. (That would be about like us traveling from here to Canada without going through Minnesota or North Dakota. It can be done, but it’s inconvenient.) Their prejudice was so intense that they didn’t even want to set foot in Samaritan territory, because they might actually have to talk to or seek help from a Samaritan.

So this lawyer comes to Jesus and asks about eternal life—“what must I do?” he wants to know. He might have been trying to trap Jesus with the question, but that’s not really all that important right now.

Jesus turns the question back on him: “You’re an expert on the law; what does it say?” And the man quotes back to him the two greatest commandments, one from Deuteronomy 6, the other from Leviticus 19.

Jesus says, “Yes, that’s right”; but the lawyer isn’t satisfied. Perhaps he wants to know not so much what he needs to do, but what he can get by with not doing. So he asks another question: “Who is my neighbor?”

And Jesus tells a story that, by its end, has made a couple interesting points about neighborliness—about social justice. We know the story, but we might have to substitute in our own prejudices to make it come alive.

The story starts with an old formula that was used fairly commonly in those days: a priest, a Levite, and… Normally there it would have been an Israelite, a regular person, a normally observant Jew, not a religious professional like the other two. But Jesus does something unexpected with the formula.

So we have a man laying in a ditch, the victim of a brutal attack. The story doesn’t say anything else about him, whether he was a Jew or a Samaritan, maybe even a Roman, rich or poor, not a thing. All we know about him is that he’s been stripped, robbed, beaten, and left for dead.

All we know about him is that as he lays there, probably not even able to call for help, the religious professionals, leaving Jerusalem perhaps after having performed their service at the Temple, don’t do a thing for the man. We can’t really even say they’re too preoccupied to notice him; the story says both the priest and the Levite cross to the other side after they saw him. (Jesus actually is saying the same thing in story form here that the prophets Isaiah, Amos and Micah said in poetry: if piety and religious ritual are not accompanied by a life characterized by justice and righteousness, they aren’t worth much.)

The listeners at this point, because they knew the formula, would have expected the punch line to have said a regular Israelite happened by and did what he could to care for the man. But no. Jesus makes the hero of the story a Samaritan! A despised half-breed, a foreigner, a heretic—he stops and helps!

(What would be the equivalent today? whom do we despise; who would we be surprised to have as the hero of a story like this?)

Part of social justice, it seems to me that Jesus is telling us, is setting aside prejudices. “Good Samaritan” would have been considered an oxymoron in the mind of a first-century Jew—similar to how some white settlers on the American frontier a century and a half ago said, “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.” We probably wouldn’t say something like that today; we might say something different, or say something similar about someone different. I’ll leave it to you to figure out what label, when paired with the term “Good,” we’d consider to be an oxymoron.

But perhaps Jesus is saying, in a subtle way, maybe our prejudices need to be rethought.

And then, of course, when he comes to the end of the story, Jesus asks the lawyer another question, which turns the lawyer’s question, “Who is my neighbor?” inside out. “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” Suddenly it’s not so much about having a neighbor—who might need help—as about being a neighbor. The question isn’t, “Who is my neighbor?” any more; it’s “Whose neighbor am I?” To whom do I have the opportunity to offer some compassion?

Being a neighbor means not walking on by when we see a need, but doing what we can to help. So one aspect of the social justice tradition is helping those in need. But sometimes it has to go further.

This isn’t in the text, but what if the Samaritan, having cared for a man who fell among robbers, and being aware that this happens far too often to travelers on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho, goes to some authorities to try and increase the safety of that road, to keep others from falling among robbers? What if he took it even a step further, to find out what conditions might lead a person to such a desperate situation that they resort to robbing innocent travelers, and—without excusing the robbers’ actions—seeks to change that situation, so the robbers might have more honest ways to support themselves? Those things are part of social justice, too.

When we look back at the words of the prophets, who stand at the center of the social justice tradition, not just in Christianity but in the Jewish faith as well, we find that they call not only for the poor to be taken care of, but also for an answer to the question of why they’re poor. That’s not the easiest thing in the world to do: if we can ascribe some negative characteristic to those in need, such as laziness, then we can avoid the uncomfortable reality that sometimes people wind up in poverty, in desperation, because of realities that could be changed, if we were willing.

But we don’t necessarily have to jump into that deep end; perhaps the matter of social justice begins with simply offering a hand to someone in need, loving a neighbor, being a neighbor. Perhaps, though, having done that, we may see that there are things we can do to improve the neighborhood, beyond simply helping a person in need one time… and that too is part of loving our neighbors.

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