One of the few positive developments in our lives over the last two plus years is that Corrie and I have gotten to know some of our neighbors much better. It began with little things as a couple of our neighbors would reach out to us when they were going to the grocery store. Over time, we began mail-ordering certain exotic gourmet products together and have impromptu gatherings on the sidewalk. We have a chat group that discusses food, wine, restaurant recommendations, and waxes nostalgic over Boston in the 80s. We’ve gathered for drinks and helped out during illness.
Of course, it’s fairly easy for us. We live in a neighborhood where everyone pretty much looks like us—a few African-American families and singles live nearby but the overwhelming majority are white and well-off and were not terribly inconvenienced by lock-downs or unemployment. And the relationships we’ve forged over the last few years cannot mask the reality of the deep divisions in our city, state, and nation
Grace’s anti-racism group, Creating More Just Community, will be discussing articles this coming week that point out cities like Madison, with large universities, have deeper racial inequities than other cities of the same size. That group started in response to learning about the deep inequities in Madison and Dane County, now almost a decade ago, and in that time, in spite of the work and advocacy of many in our community, little has changed.
On Thursday as I was walking around the square, I encountered an old friend for the first time since the beginning of the pandemic. Joe is my shoe-shine guy. He’s an African-American who sets up on the square when he can, shining shoes out of a little box he carries around. Over the years, I’ll arrange with him a time when he can come by the church and shine all of my shoes. We’ve gotten to know each other a bit. I’ve helped him out from time to time, especially buying bus tickets so he can go to Chicago and visit family or attend family reunions.
I’d been wondering about him and was delighted to see him again and to catch up and yes, I promised to buy him a bus ticket so he could go down for his first family reunion since the pandemic. He’s a neighbor in more ways than one—he lives in the Allied Drive neighborhood, which I often bike through on my way out the Badger State or Military Ridge trails.
Who is my neighbor? This week I’ve also been working on land acknowledgement for both the diocese and for Grace Church. Our neighbors are also our displaced or invisible neighbors; those whose land was seized and who were forced to relocate as white settlers advanced. They are among us, but often invisible, or noticeable only for the traces left behind—here the effigy mounds, for example. Their erasure, from our history, from our consciousness helps us claim innocence of the great evils perpetrated on them in the past and present, and the generational trauma that they continue to suffer.
Who is my neighbor? This is the question the young lawyer asks of Jesus in the course of their conversation.
Jesus tells the parable in the context of a conversation, a debate really with a lawyer who approaches him to ask “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Now Luke tells us that he asked this to “test” Jesus, but we should be a bit skeptical about thinking that he is trying to trap or outdo Jesus. He addresses him respectfully, calling him “Teacher,” Rabbi, which offers a clue that this is the sort of conversation that could take place among devout Jews throughout the first-century world. It was conversations like this, over interpretation of Torah, that would be later compiled beginning in the second century, into the Talmud. And of the they were conversations very much like this one about the meaning and application law, the Torah.
While many commentators begin their criticism of the lawyer with the question he asked, it seems not to have bothered Jesus. His response was, “What does Torah say?” The lawyer responds “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your strength, with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus praises his answer, “Do this and you will live.” It’s one of the few times in any of the gospels where Jesus praises the words of a member of the religious establishment.
But let’s be honest, there’s at least one ambiguous term here, neighbor, and the lawyer, being a lawyer, probes for clarification, “And who is my neighbor?”
That’s the question, isn’t it? We have an inkling what it might mean to love the Lord our God with all our heart and all our soul and all our mind, even if we know we cannot, in this life, ever really do it. And loving our neighbor as ourself. To love others as much as we love ourselves? Well, our family members perhaps, but our next door neighbors? Does that extend to the guys across the street or the ones over in the next block who are inclined to sit outside well into the night and play loud music? Let’s be frank, in my neighborhood, we pretty much all look the same, all come from the same socio-economic background, I hope I can at least tolerate them, but love them? And it only takes something like the controversy over the Edgewood stadium to show how fragile our community and sense of neighborliness are.
So the lawyer asks, “Who is my neighbor?” Only now does Jesus tell the story, and if you think carefully about it, it doesn’t really answer the lawyer’s question. Even Jesus’ question to the lawyer at the end, seems somewhat off-topic, “Which of these three was neighbor to the man who fell among robbers?” Off-topic, because it requires an imaginative leap. The lawyer was hoping that Jesus would define the limits of the category “neighbor.” Instead, Jesus’ story exploded those limits and the category.
You know that Samaritans were reviled by first-century Jews and that the feeling was at least somewhat reciprocated. There was a set of complicated reasons for this, partly religious, partly ethnic. Samaritans regarded only Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, as authoritative, the Word of God. They had a built a temple on Mt. Gerazim, outside of Jerusalem, in competition with the Temple in Jerusalem. They were suspected to be the result of intermarriage between Jews and non-Jewish populations. Jews regarded them as impure and unclean, as heretics. Interaction with them made Jews ritually impure.
But the story is not about a Samaritan falling into a ditch and being helped by a good Jew. The story is about a man (whose religious and ethnic identity is not specified) who is robbed, beaten, and thrown in a ditch. He lies there suffering while two representatives of the Jewish religious establishment pass by. He lies there suffering. Does he even hear them as they walk by? Has he abandoned hope? Can he cry for help, even moan in pain? He lies there and a Samaritan comes to his aid, binds his wounds, takes him to an inn, and pays for his care. We can be certain that he welcomed the Samaritan’s actions; we can’t be certain how he would have perceived the Samaritan had they encountered each other in different circumstances.
The lawyer, too, gets the point of the story. Who was neighbor to the man who fell among thieves? The one who showed mercy. The priest and levite walked by. They saw the man and did nothing. The Samaritan came by and he sees, too. But he also takes action. He is moved with pity, a phrase that’s used only two other times in the Gospel of Luke, once of Jesus when he meets the woman grieving the death of her son, and once in the parable of the Prodigal Son, to describe the father’s response on seeing his son return.
Where do we locate ourselves in this parable? We want to be the Good Samaritan, moved with pity, who shows mercy. Too often, of course, we are the priest or levite, to busy going about our business to take notice of someone in need. Perhaps even more, especially now, in the face of all the injustice, hate, and evil that unfolds before us, we feel impotent or perhaps have grown callous, averting our eyes to the suffering and dehumanization of others.
But what if, sometimes, we are the one in the ditch, stripped, robbed, and left for dead? And what if, at that moment, Jesus comes to us in the guise of someone we hate because of the color of their skin, their sexuality, their ethnic or national background, immigration status?
Jesus, the victim, lies in the ditch. He lies alongside homeless people, refugees, victims of gun violence. Jesus is also walking down the road to Jericho. Jesus the physician is moved with pity and offers mercy. Jesus reaches out his hand and breaks down every barrier that divides us—barriers of ethnicity and nationality, barriers of gender and sexuality, and yes, even political difference. He breaks down those barriers, reaches his arms across those walls, and brings us together into one fellowship. May we have the strength and courage to join him, in the ditch, alongside the victims, and on the road, moved with pity, and offering mercy.