Luke 10:25-37; Leviticus 19:18
The Rev. Tom Herbek
September 11, 2016
The Hebrew law in Leviticus only pertained to other members of the tribe, the Hebrew people, and so it was very limited in the definition of neighbor, referring only to people of the tribe who lived near you. In his book, God Is Not a Christian, Desmond Tutu not only calls on us to expand our understanding of who God is, but also to broaden our view of who our neighbor is:
Isn’t it noteworthy in the parable of the Good Samaritan that Jesus does not give a straightforward answer to the question “Who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29). Surely he could have provided a catalogue of those whom the scribe could love as himself as the law required. He does not. Instead, he tells a story. It is as if Jesus wanted among other things to point out that life is a bit more complex; it has too many ambivalences and ambiguities to allow always for a straightforward and simplistic answer.
This is a great mercy, because in times such as our own – times of change when many familiar landmarks have shifted or disappeared – people are bewildered; they hanker after unambiguous, straightforward answers. We appear to be scared of diversity in ethnicities, in religious faiths, in political and ideological points of view. We have an impatience with anything and anyone that suggests there might just be another perspective, another way of looking at the same thing, another answer worth exploring. There is a nostalgia for the security in the womb of a safe sameness, and so we shut out the stranger and the alien; we look for security in those who can provide answers that must be unassailable because no one is permitted to dissent, to question. There is a longing for the homogeneous and an allergy against the different, the other.
Now Jesus seems to say to the scribe, “Hey, life is more exhilarating as you try to work out the implications of your faith rather than living by rote, with ready-made second-hand answers, fitting an unchanging paradigm to a shifting, changing, perplexing, and yet fascinating world.” Our faith, our knowledge that God is in charge, must make us ready to take risks, to be venturesome and innovative; yes, to dare to walk where angels might fear to tread.
Today, if Jesus were telling this story, the neighbor could be anyone that we would be completely surprised by. For Jesus’ hearers in that day, to have a Samaritan be the neighbor, the hero of the story, was shocking, and probably- to his hearers- it was also heretical, showing to everyone how uncouth Jesus was. It would be like having the neighbor, the hero, be a Middle Eastern Muslim in our time, especially on the anniversary of 9/11. Perhaps the message to us is that we all need to expand our definition of neighbor, even to people that seem beyond that definition in our minds, at least. Perhaps Desmond Tutu is right, that we are each called to walk where angels fear to tread.
In her book, Becoming Wise, NPR reporter Krista Tippett describes an interview with activist Shane Claiborne. Tippett describes how- for most people- the needs of the world are so huge, the challenges are so complex, that we feel completely overwhelmed and believe we really can’t make any real difference. She says that- for most of our attempts- we just touch one person here, one there, one small group of people here, one there, and she asks Shane Claiborne how he responds to people who say to him, “You’re not going to really change the world.” Claiborne replies:
Well I’d say if we looked a little closer at history, we see that that’s the only way it’s ever been done. These groups of people begin to come together and ripple new imagination and ideas that are very contagious. In the south, where I’m from, you know, we have a saying that you’re “the spittin’ image” of somebody. You know, I got told I’m the spittin’ image of my grandfather all the time, and it’s shorthand for “the spirit and image,” you know. And it doesn’t just mean you look like them but that you have the character of them.
In a lot of ways, I guess what I hope is that we are seeing Christians who are beginning to be, again, the spitting image of Christ, you know, that are starting to look like and do the things that Jesus did and not be totally distracted by those which have proclaimed the name of Christ and done so many other things. You have folks that I think are asking great questions, not just about what they’re going to do when they grow up, but about who they are becoming. And I think that’s a much more important question.
I think Shane Claiborne is right. I once read the following: “It’s not our job to toughen our children up to face a cruel and heartless world. It’s our job to raise children who will make the world a little less cruel and heartless.” Claiborne goes on to describe some ordinary people who are trying to be a good neighbor in their own way:
Boy, there’s so many different communities that give me a lot of hope. I met a suburban family that said, “We’re trying to figure out what it means to love our neighbor as our self. And for us, it means that for every biological child that we send to college, we’re creating a scholarship fund and making sure that an at-risk youth can go to college. And we get to know their family and interact with them and help make that happen.” Then I met a bunch of kids that said, “You know, we’re trying to figure out how to find the Calcutta around us.” As Mother Teresa said, “Calcuttas are everywhere, if we only have eyes to see.” And they said, “So we started looking around and we found this old folks’ home and we went in.” I should say, they’re kind of preppy teenage girls, cheerleaders and stuff. They tell me, “We went in and we asked for all of the women who don’t have any visitors or family. And so we go and we visit them and we paint their fingernails and toenails and we just listen to their story.”
There are all kinds of expressions of people who are beginning to experience life outside of the detached nuclear family, and who are seeing that experience bring themselves to life. There was a married couple I stayed with who told me they were unable to have children. “But then we were walking through our neighborhood, and we met this woman who had found herself homeless and she was six months pregnant.” They brought her back to their house and said, we’ll figure this out as we go. And they really hit it off together. She had her kid there, living in their home. It was so amazing that they continued to live together and raise the child. I just went back to visit them and they’ve lived together for over 10 years. The woman who’s formerly homeless is a nurse. That little girl that she had is almost a teenager now. And the amazing thing is that the woman of that married couple now has a terminal illness and she’s dying, but she’s got a nurse living in her home with her, taking care of her as she dies. Those expressions are all over the place.
We hear so much about what is wrong in our world that we may not realize how vibrant and alive neighborliness still is in 2016.
When Krista Tippett interviewed Rachel Naomi Remen, Dr. Remen described how important stories are, how important it is that we tell our stories. It is one of the ways that leads us to truly become neighbors to each other. Dr. Remen tells the story her grandfather, a rabbi, told her entitled, “The Birthday of the World”:
This was my fourth birthday present, this story. In the beginning there was only the holy darkness, the Ein Sof, the source of life. In the course of history, at a moment in time, this world, the world of a thousand thousand things, emerged from the heart of the holy darkness as a great ray of light.
And then, perhaps because this is a Jewish story, there was an accident, and the vessels containing the light of the world, the wholeness of the world, broke. The wholeness of the world, the light of the world, was scattered into a thousand thousand fragments of light. And they fell into all events and all people, where they remain deeply hidden until this very day.
Now, according to my grandfather, the whole human race is a response to this accident. We are here because we are born with the capacity to find the hidden light in all events and all people, to lift it up and make it visible once again and thereby to restore the innate wholeness of the world. It’s a very important story for our times. This task is called tikkun olam in Hebrew. It’s the restoration of the world.
And this is, of course, a collective task. It involves all people who have ever been born, all people presently alive, all people yet to be born. We are all healers of the world. That story opens a sense of possibility. It’s not about healing the world by making a huge difference. It’s about healing the world that touches you, that’s around you.
It’s a very old story, comes from the 14th century, and it’s a different way of looking at our power. I suspect it has a key for us in our present situation, a very important key. I’m not a person who is political in the usual sense of that word, but I think that we all feel that we’re not enough to make a difference, that we need to be more somehow, wealthier or more educated or otherwise different than the people we are. And according to this story, we are exactly what’s needed. And to just wonder about that a little: what if we were exactly what’s needed? What then? How would I live if I was exactly what’s needed to heal the world?
Tippett comments to Rachel Remen that facts and stories go together, but the stories are what are most important:
Well, the facts are the bones of the story, if you want to think of it that way. I mean, the facts are, for example, that I have had Crohn’s disease for 52 years. I’ve had eight major surgeries. But that doesn’t tell you about my journey and what’s happened to me because of that, and what it means to live with an illness like this and discover the power of being a human being. And whenever there’s a crisis, like 9/11, do you notice how the whole of the United States turned towards the stories?
Where I was, what happened, what happened in those buildings, what happened to the people who were connected to the people in those buildings. Because that is the only way we can make sense out of life, through the stories. The facts are a certain number of people died there. The stories are about the greatness of being a human being and the vulnerability of being a human being.
In the midst of so many stories that call us to become less than we have been created to be, let us tell stories about the greatness of being a human, and stories about the vulnerability of being a human- stories about who we are, and stories about who we can be, stories that enable us to define who we are and who is our neighbor in ways that help us to know that- indeed- we are exactly what the world needs for healing to expand, for compassion to reveal itself in this community and in our world.
May we answer the question, “And so,…who is my neighbor?” in ways that surprise us, and empower us to make a difference, in order for healing to occur in this community and in our world!