How God Defines "Neighbor"

  A Sermon for July 7, 2022 by Pastor Teddie McConnell
     Some things are eternal; God’s laws, and the lawyers who like to challenge other people’s interpretations of them. Jesus answered the expert’s question with a challenge of his own: what is written in the law? The word “written” is specifically about the permanent, unchanging element of God’s directions. What did God say that is eternal about life in God’s kingdom? Who does God say is our neighbor?
Amos was a humble herdsman and tree pruner when God showed him a plumbline, God’s moral standard. Just in case you don’t know, a plumbline is a tool that indicates straight up and down, a string with a weight at the bottom. Gravity will eventually topple any wall that isn’t straight. Maintaining the uprightness of the law brings the harmony that should be present in God’s neighborhood.
When Amos held up God’s moral plumbline to the behavior of the Israelites as they took from the poor instead of helping them, their walls were not true to God’s will. God had been patient until it was clear that they chose not to change, would not straighten up of their own volition. God had to tear down their crooked walls and send them into slavery and poverty to destroy their complacency.
Amos warned everyone who might listen what God would do. Amaziah the priest ordered him to be quiet. Maybe Amaziah thought Amos was crazy, dismissing him as not sent by God, or maybe he just didn’t want to hear what Amos had to say. Bad news is never easy to accept. Self-deception and denial are much more comfortable.
The legal experts that followed Moses added over 600 commandments to the original ten to ensure there would be no offense. Many other rules were added and followed by tradition that made deciding who to help harder than God had intended. Legalism led to exclusivity and prejudice. This still happens today. To quote Zack W. Lambert, “The vast majority of people walking away from Christianity in America are not rejecting the person and work of Jesus. They are rejecting faulty biblical interpretations that lead to bigotry, oppression and marginalization. This rejection isn’t unchristian. It is Christlike.”
Using the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus guided the lawyer to a better understanding of what obeying the law really means. He started by showing the wrong things to do. The priest was limited by the traditional rules about helping an outsider or getting too close to a dead body, either of which required him to take the time and effort to go through ritual cleansing before he could resume his duties in the temple. Jesus said that the injured man was half-dead and naked, making it impossible to know anything about his background. The priest couldn’t tell whether the man was an outsider or a neighbor, Gentile or Jew, clean or unclean. The rules made the decision more about his own status than that of the injured man. If the man had been obviously alive and clearly Jewish, then the priest would have been within the rules to help him. The man’s potential uncleanness made the priest decide not to stop and give aid. He thought he was doing the right thing, but it was for the wrong reasons. His moral plumb line was tilted. If he had saved the man’s life, would it really have been so arduous to go through ritual cleansing? If the priest had any compassion, wouldn’t the rescue have been its own reward?
The Levite wasn’t under the same degree of legal limitation that the priest had to follow, but he too decided he shouldn’t take a chance and help because he couldn’t tell whether the man was a fellow Jew, his neighbor.
Then Jesus threw his audience a plot twist they didn’t see coming. We’ve heard this story so many times that we can easily forget the prejudice, the enmity between Jews and Samaritans, who the Jews considered to be unclean. The two groups are similar to the Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, enemies with a common faith background warring and hating each other over centuries. The Samaritans came from a group of Israelites who stayed behind when the rest were deported to exile in Egypt after Israel was destroyed. For a despised Samaritan to help a stranger was unthinkable. They didn’t believe in the concept of a “good” Samaritan, even if the victim had been Samaritan, too. The prejudice ran too deep.
But this Samaritan challenged their stereotypes. He got down in the dirt and blood to see whether the man was still alive, even though the robbers might have stayed around, ready to strike again. He literally went out of his way to treat the man’s wounds and take him to safety, took care of him at the inn, and paid the equivalent of two days wages for his care in advance until he could return. This is compassion and mercy personified.
There are two parts to the eternal law. One is to love God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind, with everything you have. Our behavior will reflect our love when we follow the second part, loving our neighbor as ourselves. Sometimes we miss the “as ourselves” part. We can’t do a good job of loving anyone else, including God, if we don’t love ourselves.
Modern psychology places everyone on a broad range from narcissistic to neurotic. Narcissists only care about themselves. In a way, they never outgrew being two years old and incapable of sharing their toys. Their needs come first. They think their time is more important than other people’s time, like the priest and the Levite. They don’t even think they need to change.
Neurotics, on the other end of the spectrum, don’t like themselves and don’t think they deserve to have their needs met. They often suffer from depression. At least neurotics are willing to admit they need help and can improve with therapy.
A healthy self-concept falls in the middle between these two extremes, with the ability to share, take turns, love self and others, admit wrongdoing and make amends, and ask nicely when their needs aren’t being met. When you can love yourself, you can empathize with the needs of others for love and help. Loving God is a reminder that each of us is just a tiny part of the universe and not the center of it. Loving God isn’t just for God’s sake, it’s also for our own. Loving God and self makes love, compassion and mercy for others possible, makes a healthy community possible.
Even though Jesus came to bring us forgiveness for breaking the law when we truly repent, the commandments to love God and our neighbor as we love ourselves still stand. Truth, justice, equality and non-violence are moral plumb lines. Jesus didn’t come to negate the law, but to make it possible for us to keep it more consistently, be forgiven when we do break it, and lean on Jesus and the Holy Spirit to help us do better out of gratitude for what Jesus did and in imitation of his pure and holy life.
When we love God with our heart, mind and strength, we study the Bible and pray as often as we can, even when we don’t understand why things are happening the way they are. For example, the mass shooting in Highland Park reminds us that God doesn’t shield us from suffering, but is with us in it. Even when the circumstances are so excruciatingly painful that all we can pray for is God’s comforting presence, we can trust that God will eventually bring healing out of the brokenness. We can be angry with God, but know that God’s love is still with us, big enough to take our anger, loving enough to forgive our little minds for not understanding why other people can do such extreme evil. God gave us all free will. We can choose whether to love God back. Sadly, some choose not to. Some choose to do evil.
 We Christians choose to follow the example of Christ, using Jesus as our plumb line for living. We still sin, we still hurt each other, even if it’s in smaller ways than what ends up on the news. The Holy Spirit helps us check ourselves against the plumb line of the law and see the opportunities to show mercy to our neighbors.
Fred Rogers, the Presbyterian minister and star of Mr. Rogers’s Neighborhood, once said, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother's words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.”
Who is our neighbor? Not just the injured man. It’s also the hated Samaritan we assumed wasn’t good. It’s the person who doesn’t look like us, doesn’t think like us, might be dirty or homeless, might be gay, bisexual, and so on. Anyone can be our neighbor. We just have to be open to seeing them with the eyes of Jesus and choose to be caring helpers. Maybe, just maybe, our actions will also help them understand that God loves them, too.

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