Sunday, November 22, 2009

And who is my neighbor?

Recently I was listening to the radio and it was a Christian talk show where the person was talking about organizing a clothes drive for the poor in Afghanistan. Having been to Afghanistan, I found myself agreeing with the person thinking how much these poor people there could use the help.

Out of the blue, there was a caller who said he agreed that we should help the poor but we should start with the poor in America before we started helping foreigners.

I was stunned.

On one hand, there are certainly poor in America that we should help. But I also know that our most poor still does not come close to the poverty that I witnessed on a regular basis in Afghanistan.

But doesn't charity start at home? What would God say? Who is our neighbor?

The story of the Good Samaritan has been told so many times that it has become ingrained into our collective culture whether we are Christian or not.

Most of us know the story.

A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, took him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper. "Look after him," he said, "and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have."

The full power of this story is lost on us today. A priest, a Levite and a Samaritan were walking down a road sounds more like the opening of a joke rather than a parable.

But for the Jewish audience of the period the message would have been jarring especially for a teacher of the law which was the person Jesus was telling the story to. A teacher of the law would have been a Levite.

At this time, the two highest positions of the Jewish faith were occupied by the priest and the Levites.

From the time of Moses, the descendants of Aaron or the Kohanim ("Priests"), had the special role as priests in the Tabernacle in the wilderness and also in the Temple in Jerusalem. From the tribe of Levi came the remaining Levites (Levi'yim in Hebrew), divided into three groups (the descendants of Gershon, or Gershonites, the descendants of Kohath, or Kohathites, and the descendants of Merari, or Merarites) each filled different roles in the Tabernacle and later in the Temple services.

Levites' principal roles in the Temple included singing Psalms during Temple services, performing construction and maintenance for the Temple, serving as guards, and performing other services. Levites also served as teachers and judges, maintaining cities of refuge in Biblical times. The Book of Ezra reports that the Levites were responsible for the construction of the Second Temple and also translated and explained the Torah when it was publicly read.

In Egypt the Levites were the only tribe that remained committed to God. During the Exodus the Levite tribe were particularly zealous in protecting the Mosaic law in the face of those worshipping the Golden Calf, which may have been a reason for their priestly status.

Of God's chosen people, the priests and the Levites were the top tier. They were Holy men.

On the bottom tier for the Jews were the Samaritans. The story of the Samaritans is a fascinating one that deserve a blog entry all to themselves. The Bible says that they were conquered and taken away to Assyria and their lands occupied by foreigners. When these Jews returned, they found these foreigners in their lands and intermarried with them and their faith became a blend of their Jewish faith and these foreign religions. So for the Jews, the Samaritans were tainted and their faith was not pure. That is why Samaritans were so often used by Jesus as a shocking contrast to his audience. I talk a little about that in my "What Have You Done?" post.

The Samaritans tell a different story but that is a different story too.

For now, let's go with the Biblical version and go with the Jewish understanding of the Samaritans - they were worse then foreigners. They were once people that belonged and now were cast out - they were untouchables.

What could be the greater contrast? The holiest of men and the worst of men. And they behave in exactly the opposite way that we would expect.

I bet you could come up with some examples of your own that would apply today. People that we would expect to do the right thing - police, priests, scout leaders, our folks in uniform - people that we trust, that we would expect to go to the aid of someone who was hurt.

And what of the Samaritans? Look deep in your heart and you will see the Samaritan there too. We don't want to be prejudiced - but we are. The guy who looks like he belongs to a biker gang. That teenager that is dressed like a hood. That girl who dresses like she is a hooker. The folks that cause us to stiffen up the moment they enter the room. We don't want to know them. We've already judged them and know that they would not help someone who was hurt. They would only help themselves to what was left after the robbers were finished with him.

That was the picture that Jesus painted - and that was why it was such a shocker because it was so unexpected.

But to me, the bigger shocker was the expert in the law's response when Jesus asked,

"Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?"

The expert in the law replied, "The one who had mercy on him."

Wow. That took guts.

How many of us would have the courage to face our prejudices so bluntly and answer so truly? We're human. We don't like it when our shortcomings are brought up so plainly and publicly. We get embarrassed and we make excuses. And this guy was a Levite who was sent to trap Jesus and found himself in his own trap. But he didn't wiggle - he answered plainly. You gotta respect that.

And Jesus was as equally plain.

Jesus told him, "Go and do likewise."

Jesus is telling us to do the unexpected and do the right thing. Look past our prejudices and the rules that we have placed to make order in our lives.

Look past the mask of Marilyn Manson and see the injured son. Whose real name is Brian Hugh Warner, was born on January 5, 1969 in Canton, Ohio, to the parents of Hugh and Barb Warner and who was raised Episcopalian. Brian who was molested several times by his neighbor and who attended the religious private Heritage Christian School where he was lost and became consumed with hate towards Christianity.

Marilyn Manson who has become rich and infamous with his attacks on Christianity and friendship with Satanists.

Marilyn Manson offends us - and he wants to. He wants us to turn away and shield our eyes and our children. He wants us to hate him so that he can hate us back.

He doesn't want us to see that Brian is still in there. Brian who was hurt and couldn't understand why Jesus didn't come to help him. Why God let these terrible things happen to him. So Brian blamed God - and made him the enemy. Brian became seduced by the Devil and became Marilyn Manson. But Brian is still in there if we are willing to look.

And God wants Brian back.

That's why he died on the cross. Not just for you and me but for the least of us - the worst of us. Even for those that hate him - like Marilyn Manson.

So what does our God expect from us as a neighbor?

To have mercy on our fellow man. Unconstrained by class, or distance, or language or culture or anything that means so much in this world but means nothing to God. God demands that we love equally. To even embrace those that hate us.

That does not make sense in the world that we live in. We are taught differently. That's why so many people cannot understand when someone on TV says they forgive the person that killed their son, or daughter, etc. Forgiveness for someone that hurt you so deeply is so unexpected - it doesn't make sense in this world.

But God reminds us that his kingdom is not of this world. We are only pilgrims in this world. Our home is in heaven with God.

The greatest expression of our faith is love. To have mercy on our fellow man.

Re-read the end of the passage. Jesus does not ask a question - he gives an order.

Jesus told him, "Go and do likewise."

That's an order for you and me. "Go and love your neighbor."

And if you ever meet Marilyn Manson - tell Brian that I am praying for him.


  1. Phil,
    Something that has made it easier for me to forgive others is considering how many times God forgives me. I don't deserve His mercy, yet God sent Jesus to die on the cross for ME! If God can cover me with a grace so fine, surely I can find it in myself to forgive my neighbor.

  2. right on, Tami . . .

    in the movie The Passion, when Jesus is being scouraged, he turns his head to the side and looks straight at me, adusting his grip on the chains. His eyes pierce me, saying, "Again. I do it again for you. Why do you keep sinning?" It is very convicting. He loves us SO much.