2020 Trinity XIII – Please won’t you be my neighbor?

Postulant Ken Kubo
6 September 2020

“But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was: and when he saw him, he had compassion on him”St. Luke 10:33

The Gospel of Luke records Our Lord’s parable as the answer to the query of a certain lawyer, “And who is my neighbor?” Like the lawyer, people of faith throughout the years have wrestled with this. Even as Christianity grew to pre-eminence throughout the Western world, hindsight reveals that our neighborly behavior was frequently limited to those of a certain region or country or class. So, to take a page from Fred Roger’s book, let us take a look at who are the people in our neighborhood.

First, we have the victim, only described as “a certain man.” Given His audience, we can assume that this would have been interpreted as being a Jew. He is making his way down the road from Jerusalem to Jericho – a treacherous and steep pathway. Jericho lies over 3000 feet below Jerusalem, and the road was so prone to robbers that it was sometimes referred to as the Way of Blood. Traveling alone down this road was probably not the wisest decision, but it would not be as interesting a parable if he was surrounded with armed guards.

Then, we have the robbers who fall upon him, stripping and injuring him, and going their way out of our tale. We do not know their fate, though we would guess that they got their comeuppance either in this life or the next – “As for sinners, they shall be consumed out of the earth, * and the ungodly shall come to an end.” (Ps. 104).

And then we have the townsfolk – first a priest and then a descendant of the Tribe of Levi, typically tasked to support the Temple. These are people sworn to holy service, representing the prayers of the people to the Almighty and supporting the services of the Temple. Both of them see the fallen victim and, after a cursory look, cross to the other side of the road to pass. As you may recall, touching a corpse was unclean, so they do this in part to protect their jobs. Rather than checking to see if the victim was in fact alive and in need of care, they avoid the risk of finding him dead and incurring ritual defilement.

Enter the Samaritan who, with no particular job limitation, is free to check on the victim, dress his wounds, and take him somewhere safe to recover at his own expense. In this day and age, the word Samaritan does not carry the stigma it likely would have in Our Lord’s time. The Samaritans and Jews had been at odds for centuries. History records that in the 2nd Century BC religious tensions peaked and the Jews destroyed the Samaritan temple on Mt. Gerizim on what we now call the West Bank. Yes, troubles there are nothing new. The Samaritans believed that Mt. Gerizim should have been the real Temple Mount, and their temple was built on the actual site of Solomon’s Temple (destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar), so this was sacrilege of the highest degree. In the early 1st Century AD, stories record that Samaritans had apparently brought human bones into the Temple at Jerusalem during Passover, bringing on that dreaded ritual defilement during the holiest of days. While both groups were descendants of Abraham and Isaac, there was no love lost between these branches of the family, and while Mt. Gerizim and the Temple Mount are near to each other, the folk of those mountains certainly would not have considered each other neighbors. Like our own country’s Hatfields and McCoys, these mountain folk had an ongoing feud.

We hear this parable and easily identify the Samaritan as the good neighbor who, like State Farm, is there for the unfortunate victim. Consider though that the Jewish audience would be wrestling with the idea that a Samaritan could show any virtuous qualities. Note that Scripture records the lawyer responding: “He that showed mercy” rather than even using the name “the Samaritan.” Our Lord’s parable, simple enough for us, seems designed to be contentious and memorable and to make his audience think. Now consider – who are we in this neighborhood? Are we the Samaritan, able to help someone in need even though they are from an opposing or hostile group? Are we the victim – and if so, would we welcome the help of an unclean Samaritan? Are we the robbers, willing to take advantage of others for our own gain? Are we the priest and Levite, concerned with our convenience and avoiding the risk of getting our hands dirty – remember the lyrics of Bob Dylan in another age of protest, “Yes, ‘n’ how many times can a man turn his head/ and pretend that he just doesn’t see?” (“Blowing in the Wind”).

In the aftermath of an even earlier war, Clifford Bax wrote:

“Earth shall be fair, and all her people one: Nor ‘til that hour shall God’s whole will be done.”

God’s will is the redemption of His Creation and the joining together of races and clans and peoples in a bond of faith and charity. That hour is still being born, until the day when we all help and accept help. The reality is that our neighborhood contains the whole motley cast of characters, and we fear that the Adversary loves to trick us into believing we are playing the hero role when in fact we are foolishly deceived from following what, on the face of it, seems like a simple story.

In the recent movie “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” Floyd Vogel is a journalist interviewing Fred Rogers. Surprising absolutely no one, Floyd’s assignment is to try to pry a bit to find the dark, seamy underside of the television star. I don’t think I’ll spoil the movie for anyone by saying that Floyd fails. Understand that Fred Rogers was no saint (although, truthfully, he lived a more consistently moral life than some who were termed so). His wife painted him as someone who laughed at dirty jokes and, even more than putting on his pants one leg at a time, would lounge around in comfy, baggy underwear. He was an ordained Presbyterian minister who strictly avoided any mention of religion in his “Neighborhood.” On the other hand, while few of us would seek out sainthood, it’s quite possible that we would follow the path of a good and decent man. Fred Rogers modeled his beliefs. He’s an obvious pick for playing the Samaritan – but consider the even more powerful thought of him being the Levite and, showing compassion, stopping to help. The whole neighborhood is a better place for every person who doesn’t turn their head and cross the street.

Consider the struggles of Disney’s Mulan, seeking to do the right thing by her family and her country, yet doing so by becoming something she’s not. Imagine someone like a Floyd Vogel trying to ferret out her secret in order to drag her down, to reveal that deep inside, she doesn’t match the heroic face she displays to her comrades. In the recent live action remake, Mulan doesn’t come into her full power as a warrior until she resolves the conflict – unifying the reflection and the reality by coming clean to her commander. The truth doesn’t set her free, but being true gives her the power to save her people once they are willing to accept her as well.

Our Lord gave us the commandment that we love our neighbor as ourselves – not just that we give generously or work for good causes or act kindly one to another, but that our external good works are just the demonstration of our love. The tenets of our faith tell us that salvation does not come through works; good works are the evidence that we are saved. Our Lord tells us to change the inside and the rest will follow. We are asked to take a harder path, with the goal that we can stand before our Judge with the confidence knowing that the face of Christian charity that we show to the world mirrors what’s in our hearts. We can be loyal, brave, and true to our calling throughout and, by doing so, act to help heal the division, separation, and isolation that beset our neighborhoods as fiercely as any attacking army. Fred Rogers showed us that a minister need not even invoke Christ’s name to be effective, as long as Christ’s love was consistently modeled in every action. So let us take heart from his example. “Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” (St. Matthew 25:40) It does not take superhuman spirit to make a difference, just the willingness to see and reach out with caritas to those in need and, rather than staying silent, to ask “please – won’t you be my neighbor?”

Almighty God, wellspring of all charity, inspire us with courage, that we may fearlessly be your people and live in your ways, that by our labors, your love my shine into this darkened world. We beseech you to clear our eyes that we may truly see the needs of our fellow people, strengthen our hands that we may act to help, and ennoble our hearts that we may honestly love our neighbors even as we do ourselves. All this we humbly ask in the name of Him who came among us not to be served but to serve, even your Son our Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.