Monday, July 15, 2013

How to Be a Neighbor

The pilot of the spaceship is playing with toy dinosaurs on the ship's console. He has the stegosaurus talking of what they will call the new land they have discovered. The Tyrannosaurus says, “Let's call it your grave,” and he is made to pounce on the neck of the other dino. The stegosaurus cries out, “Curse your sudden but inevitable betrayal.” This is not only our introduction to Wash, one of the most beloved characters of the scifi show Firefly and the movie Serenity, but it is also a wink by creator Joss Whedon to the kind of TV tropes he loves to subvert. Not only does the murderer in a TV show turn out to be the least likely suspect but the surprise traitor in most shows is someone you thought was a good guy. It's getting to where you expect this sort of plot twist in any show or movie that includes a group of good guys up against a conspiracy of bad guys.

Less common is the plot in which an apparent enemy turns out to be a ally. Oddly enough this troupe is used quite commonly in the James Bond films, where someone 007 and the audience perceives to be a threat turns out to be an friend. This is how Felix Leiter, Bond's oldest ally, is introduced in the very first film Dr. No. Variations of this occur in most 007 films. Less surprising is Bond's preternatural ability to convert any female working for the enemy.

One could argue that the good Samaritan is one of the earliest examples of the unexpected ally. More than that, this reversal is the whole point of the parable.

The set up is a bit of a twist, too. In Matthew 12, Jesus is asked what the greatest commandment is and he answers with these two quotes from Deuteronomy 6:4 and Leviticus 19:18. Here in Luke 10 an expert in Jewish law asks Jesus what must he do to gain eternal life. Jesus answers the question with a question, asking the man how does he read the scriptures on the matter. And what the law expert answers is hardly surprising. The first commandment is one of the written pieces of the Torah he would have in his frontlet, the little wooden box he would bind to his head when saying his prayers. And rabbis often quoted the second commandment as a complement to the first. For one thing, the two commandments summarize the two categories of ethical duties we find in the 10 commandments. The first 4 concern our duty to God and the last 6 concern our duty to other human beings. So Jesus was not the first to link the 2.

But the expert, who was trying to test Jesus, has a follow up question: “And who is my neighbor?” It's not as simple a question as it first appears. Is it literally the person next door or who lives near me or a coworker or just any fellow Jew. The context of the passage in Leviticus would seem to indicate it was just your countrymen.

So Jesus illustrates the scope of being a neighbor by telling a story.

Jerusalem is 2300 feet above sea level. 17 miles away, at 740 feet below sea level, is Jericho, the world's oldest continuously occupied city. The road between the two not only drops more than 3000 feet but twists and turns among narrow rocky gorges. When I was on a study trip in Israel we stopped in the middle of this road to hike into one of the ravines, only to find a 1000 year old Russian Orthodox monastery tucked away and clinging to the side of the canyon wall. You never would have suspected it was there. So in Jesus' day the area provided great hiding places for bandits and only a fool would travel the road alone, rather than as part of a caravan. Apparently, our victim is not the sharpest knife in the drawer.

And Jesus' audience would not be surprised at what happens next. This dimwit gets robbed, stripped, beaten and left for dead. He's lucky he's not completely dead.

The first person to come across him is a priest. He walks over to the other side of the road and keeps on going. Why? Jesus doesn't say but the usual explanation is that the priest can't be sure if the guy is dead or not and he knows that touching a dead body will make him ritually unclean for a week. He wouldn't be able to serve at the temple. But notice that he is going “down the road,” in other words, from high Jerusalem to low Jericho. His rotation as priest has ended and he is going home. Yes, he would be unclean but, no, it won't affect his service. Plus he doesn't even check to see if the guy is actually dead! He could at least, say, poke him with a stick to see if he flinches or watch his chest and sides to see if he's breathing. This guy is playing it safe—for himself!

The Levite, who was kind of like a deacon, similarly sees the guy and crosses the road. He also doesn't check to see if the victim is in fact dead. Barclay's commentary said that the Levite may have been concerned that the man was a decoy, a robber pretending to be hurt to trap anyone who stops to help. The decoy would grab and hold the helper while his band comes out of hiding to rob him. Again the Levite is thinking only of himself and his own possible harm.

Now Jesus' audience would not necessarily have seen this as unusual. The average Jew would know that the priestly class collaborated with the Romans to keep their power and would see them as morally compromised. The idea that priests and Levites would be more concerned with ceremonial cleanness than compassion would not be news to the listerners.

But here comes the plot twist. The next guy down the road is not a righteous Jewish layman but a Samaritan. Remember: Jews thought Samaritans were half-breeds and heretics, neither racially or religiously pure. To understand their attitude, imagine Jesus told a modern audience that he was an illegal alien who was also a member of the Westboro Baptist Church. The audience is pretty sure this guy is going to be the real villain of the piece. But surprise! The Samaritan doesn't worry about himself but the victim. He's the hero!

The Samaritan doesn't just show concern; he springs into action. He gives the victim first aid, using olive oil and wine to clean his wounds. He bandages him. He puts him on his pack-animal and brings him to an inn. He himself nurses this trauma victim. And when he leaves in the morning, he pays for the man's continuing care. And promises the innkeeper that if the care costs more than what he's left, he will repay the additional costs when he returns.

Now granted that healthcare then was not what it is today. The guy wasn't going to pay for MRIs or antibiotics or a home-health nurse. Still his feeding and care is going to require a lot of time on the part of the innkeeper or his staff. And the Samaritan is going to bear those costs. Being a neighbor to the victim goes way beyond inconvenience; it's taking money out of the Samaritan's purse.

Jesus then turns the tables on the expert in the law. He asks which of the 3 men who saw the robbery victim was a neighbor to him. In other words, instead of answering the question “Who is my neighbor?” he changes the question to “What does being a neighbor mean in practical terms?” He doesn't make the victim Samaritan; he makes the hero Samaritan. The guy with the different version of the Torah and a different version of the Ten Commandments understands neighbor in a wider sense than most Jews. In fact in answering Jesus' question of who acted as a neighbor, the law expert can't bring himself to say “The Samaritan” but says instead “The one who showed him mercy.” To which Jesus says, “Go and do likewise.”

To Jesus it is not a matter of how you define your neighbor. The fact is that YOU are the neighbor of anyone God puts in your path and the real question is "how will you treat them?" The priest and Levite fail to be neighbors. The Samaritan acted as a neighbor should. As Martin Luther King pointed out, the first 2 guys were worried about what might happen to them if they stopped to help the victim; the Samaritan was worried about what might happen to the victim if he didn't stop and help him. A good neighbor helps whoever needs help.

And that idea doesn't originate with Jesus. The quote about loving your neighbor is Leviticus 19:18. And just a few verses down in that same chapter we come across this: When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.” The Samaritan with his slightly odd Torah knew that. The expert in the law must have blanked on that one.

The fact is we all pick and choose the bits of the Bible we pay attention to and the bits we ignore. A lot of the time the reason good Christians have different opinions on certain issues boils down to which verses of the Bible they emphasize and which ones they neglect or explain away.

But this parable has a command that is not the usual “Let he who has ears, hear.” Jesus says at the end of this parable “Go and do likewise.” And unlike negative commands which forbid just one thing in the spectrum of actions, positive commands lock us into a specific behavior. The command not to commit adultery leaves you with a whole range of sexual activity you can enjoy with your spouse. Paul's command for husbands to love their wives as Christ loves the church commits the Christian man to love his wife self-sacrificially and excludes the whole range of selfish and unloving actions a husband might otherwise indulge in. When Jesus says “Go and do likewise” it means we are required to treat any person in need that we encounter the way the Samaritan would. It means not just saying, “I'll pray for you” but taking whatever practical steps you can to help the person in need.

This is strengthened by what Jesus says in Matthew 5:42: “Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.” I don't think Jesus was thinking primarily of lending your neighbor your lawnmower so much as giving to the person in need. And that includes lending money, which according to the Bible cannot be done with interest. The important thing is to help the person out and to do so to the full extent that one can.

And the inclusiveness of who is our neighbor is there as well. Because just after the verse I quoted, in Matthew 5:43 and 44, Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, 'You must love your neighbor as yourself' but you must hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies. Bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who abuse you and persecute you.” Which would obviously include Samaritans, Gentiles, and non-Christians. Jesus' parable of the good Samaritan could be seen as an illustration of this very teaching.

Today government and the healthcare system have taken over a lot of what the Samaritan does for the robbery victim. I have on various occasions rendered first aid at accidents when I witnessed them or was at the scene before the first responders. But as soon as the EMTs arrive and I can tell them what I've found and what I've done, I hand the patient off to them. They are equipped to do what I can't, such as stabilize a broken bone or neck injury, monitor the vitals continuously, give lifesaving drugs and transport the patient safely to the ER all the while being in contact with the doctors and nurses who will receive him. Jesus would have to modify his parable were he telling it today.

But his point remains. The Samaritan's concern for the victim and his actions to help him did not end at the inn. He continued to help and provide for the man. Even when he could not longer personally take care of the man, he paid for someone else to do so. He paid the whole cost. My recent surgery which ended a decade of pain and suffering cost over $140,000—so far. My co-pay and deductible are still thousands of dollars. I couldn't have managed it at all if I didn't have insurance. Instead it was covered by me and a lot of other people paying premiums that are a fraction of that. Jesus would have you pay all. The government and insurance companies don't, something to think about when complaining about healthcare costs for other people.

In the West, we enshrine the concept of rugged individualism, forgetting that no one accomplishes anything of note without help. Out of curiosity, I recently watched an episode of the new survival show Naked and Afraid. 2 people well versed in survival are dropped off in a wilderness location, naked, to see if they can survive for 21 days. (Don't worry: they blur the "naughty bits.") The episode I watched featured a 25 year veteran of the military who teaches survival to soldiers. He and his survival partner were dropped off on an African plain. As good as he was, he was nearly defeated by stepping on a thorn. His partner pulled it out but it got infected and eventually the show's crew had to intervene to keep him from getting septic. Had he been truly alone, he would have died. As it was the show allowed each person to take 1 survival item. In his case it was a very well-made heavy-duty knife, manufactured and shipped over paved roads, thanks to factories and transportation and interstate highway systems consisting of lots of other people. They could have had him make everything, which really would have reduced his probability of survival. There are whole industries who manufacture tools, dehydrated foods, manuals, entire underground shelters and the like for people who think they can survive world-wide catastrophes on their own. There is no comparing these high-tech-equipped survivalists with our ancestors who made do with a lot less and their own ingenuity. And the support of their communities.

The Bible tells us we are all one big family and science has backed that up, finding in our DNA evidence that we are all descended from one specific woman and one specific man. Some scientists argue that humanity can be viewed as one vast organism. You find that in the Bible as well. C. S. Lewis picked up on that in using his metaphor of "the good infection" to illustrate how what one person, Jesus, does can save all of humanity. Paul uses the metaphor of the Body of Christ to illustrate how all Christians are connected. The point is we are interdependent. We are born helpless infants; we are cared for and educated by others; we succeed largely due to getting breaks and support from others. Our daily lives are only possible due to many people providing services and goods, including food, and protecting us from disease and crime. But many fall through the cracks. Jesus tells us that whoever we encounter is our neighbor, whom we must help regardless of our personal feelings about the person.

Recently at the Lutheran Synod Assembly, I asked one of the candidates for bishop what one thing could a little church do to grow. And she said to ask ourselves “Who is my neighbor?” Then figure out what need our neighbor has that we could meet. And do so. That's basic, heart of the matter Christianity. It's what we should be doing anyway.

A lot of people came to Jesus just to be healed or to be fed. Then they heard him preach the gospel and decided to follow him. Loving our neighbor and bringing him to Jesus should not be totally separate activities. As the psychologist Abraham Maslow pointed out, people's most basic needs have to be taken care of before they have the ability to think of their spiritual needs. And, yes, some of those needs are taken care of by the government, albeit imperfectly and impersonally. But anyone who thinks there is nothing else to be done has his head in the sand.

I'm convinced that God is calling us to step up our game in loving our neighbors as ourselves. So I'm challenging each of you to think about these questions: Who are our neighbors? What are their needs? How can we meet some or one of those needs?  

No comments:

Post a Comment