Who is my neighbor?
That is perhaps the central question raised in today’s Gospel story. And that issue was complicated in Jesus’ day, as it is in our own. In Hebrew tradition, the original meaning of neighbor was “associate,” and connoted a fellow Hebrew within the community of Hebrews. Israelites were to treat such persons fairly and kindly and were not to cheat or rob them (Lev 19:18). The same level of courtesy was to be extended to aliens (gentiles) living within a community of Hebrews: We read in Leviticus, “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” (19:33). Failure to love one’s neighbor as oneself was sure to lead to civil strife… and invited God’s judgment (cf. Isa 3:5-6, Jer 9:4-9, Mic 7:5-7). Of course, Hebrew tradition stopped short of extending neighborly courtesies to outright enemies. Enemies you could hate… and treat in ways you would never treat a neighbor. And boy-oh-boy, did the Jews hate the Samaritans. And, in the interest of full-disclosure, the Samaritans hated the Jews right back.
You see, the Jews and Samaritans were parties to a “bad divorce” that began around 930 BC when Solomon divided his Kingdom between his two sons, Jeroboam and Rehoboam. Ten of the original twelve tribes of Israel constituted the Northern Kingdom, which retained the name of Israel, and the remaining two tribes formed the Southern Kingdom of Judah. The relationship between the estranged kingdoms was “not cordial” during the succeeding three centuries… the books of the Prophets are rife with stories of intrigue and backstabbing, perpetrated tit-for-tat, by the “former lovers,” each against the other. It wasn’t pretty, and the distance between the two kingdoms continued to widen… it seemed that the only thing they shared in common was a propensity for idolatry. All of this unpleasantness ended in around 709 BC, however, when the Assyrians swept in and snapped up the struggling Northern Kingdom, scattering most of its inhabitants to the four corners of the known world. Judah was to suffer the same fate at the hands of the Babylonians around a hundred and twenty-three years later. You know what they say about a house divided….
But wait, wait Fr. Kemper… you’ve talked about the Northern Kingdom and the Southern Kingdom and the Assyrians and the Babylonians… where do the Samaritans come in? I’m glad you asked. When the inhabitants of the Southern Kingdom were overrun by the Babylonians, they were marched off to exile in Babylon en masse. Pretty much no one was left behind. When they returned to Jerusalem around fifty years later, they found that some of their estranged northern kin had managed to remain in their former homeland (the former Kingdom of Israel), living more-or-less “under the radar,” while the Jews from Judah had been suffering together through their long exile in Babylon. To make matters worse, they had interbred with local Assyrians and Elamites and had adapted their religion to their new circumstances, modifying Hebrew tradition to suit their new reality, and had even built their own temple on Mount Gerizim, about 32 miles north of Jerusalem near the present-day city of Nablus in the West Bank. So there you have it: not only had there been a nasty divorce, but one of the parties had remarried. There was no longer any chance of reconciliation. The nations of Judah and Samaria were now irrevocably estranged. They were now the worst of enemies.
The lawyer who stood up to “test” Jesus provided a rather glib response to Jesus’ initial question, quickly reciting the summary of the Ten Commandments that constituted the foundation of Hebrew Law: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” Law was his specialty, after all. But then, to “justify” himself, he followed-up with another question that he hoped would cause Jesus to stumble: “Who is my neighbor?” he asked. And in true form, Jesus refrained from lecturing listeners on the legal definition of who was and was not considered to be a neighbor under Hebrew Law, instead relating a story about the true meaning of neighborliness. It was a good story about a good man who happened to be, shut my mouth, a Samaritan! The scandal of it all! Luke doesn’t tell us about the reaction of the lawyer… or the crowd… but likely there was a collective gasp: Surely, we needn’t treat Samaritans as our neighbors! Perish the thought! But Matthew’s Gospel provides us with some amplifying language in this regard. During the “Sermon on the Mount,” Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor, and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…” (Matt 5:43-44). It was no accident that Jesus leveraged the enmity between the man beaten and left for dead on the side of the road (who was presumably a Jew) and his Samaritan benefactor in the parable in today’s Gospel story. Jesus was giving his listeners and us a “worst case scenario” about who about who are to love. And if you believe what Jesus is saying, as far as God is concerned, we are to love everyone… even our worst enemies, as we love ourselves. Are we good with that? We’d better be.
Back in the day, I taught an introductory-level course in Criminal Justice at Kennesaw State University. Most of my students were young and had just finished completing their core curriculum… though they had yet to declare a major. The course was designed to provide a broad overview of the Criminal Justice System: some history… a discussion of the various components of the System: law enforcement, the courts, and prisons… some of the societal problems that the Criminal Justice System was created to address, and various strategies undertaken by police, judges and corrections professionals to promote public order. There are whole fields of study dedicated to each of these topics so, in the course of a semester, we could only really “scratch the surface” of any of them. Towards the end of the semester, after students’ heads were filled to bursting with various theories about crime and punishment, past and present, organizational diagrams, flow charts and statistics, I’d ask them this question: “What do you think is the most urgent threat confronting society and the Criminal Justice System today? There was usually an initial silence… they knew all of the easy answers… and they knew that I probably wasn’t asking an easy question. So, I’d let them “dangle” a bit. Slowly, hands would come up… was it drugs? or the break-down of families? or the creeping secularization of society? Perhaps society’s ills were the result of all the hatred and bias people carried around inside of themselves, hatred and bias that would occasionally explode into acts of unrestrained violence and carnage. When the flow of ideas slowed to a trickle, I’d acknowledge that all of these things were certainly threats to the peace and stability of society. And that while they were outgrowths of the real threat, they were not the threat itself. The real threat, I told them, was anomie: the breakdown of social bonds between an individual and the community. 19th century French sociologist Émile Durkheim popularized the term anomie in his book Suicide in 1897. He had a lot to say on the topic… you can read up on it if you want to… but for our purposes here today, the breakdown between an individual, or group of individuals, and the wider community, or anomie, is the inevitable result of our failure to treat every member of society with the kindness and love due a neighbor. Anomie is a sickness… both individual and societal, and we are all culpable for its spread. Anytime we turn a blind eye to injustice… anytime we fail to offer solace and comfort to brothers and sisters in need… anytime we fail to love our neighbor as ourselves… we are contributing to anomie, the inexorable breakdown of our society, just as surely as did the warring kingdoms of a divided Israel. Apply that logic to all of the “hot button” issues of the day: you and I may not be the ones selling or abusing illegal drugs, we may not be having babies without the means to support them or abandoning our families when times get tough. I’m pretty sure none of us here has ever gunned down a brother or a sister in cold blood on the street, or set off a bomb in the middle of a crowd of innocents. And yet… and yet… whenever we fail to look at and really see a neighbor in need… and respond to that need, whenever we hold those whom Jesus commanded us to love at arms-length because they don’t look like us, or act like us, or smell like us, or believe as we do… whenever we fail to love others as Jesus loves us… we are walking the path to exile and perdition.
Jesus offers us a better way… the path of life. Never. Stop. Loving! We live into our roles as kingdom-bringers when we live each day of our lives to love like Jesus. Doing that won’t always be comfortable or convenient, and there will be times when we question whether or not we’re even making a difference. But we must leave the end result in God’s hands. Our only job is to oppose the trajectory of anomie and social breakdown endemic in our world today by loving God… and all of our neighbors… each day, and every day… without fail. And remember, love is an action verb! “Do this,” says Jesus, “and you will live.”
Please pray with me the prayer attributed to St. Francis of Assisi found on page 833 of the Book of Common Prayer:
Lord, make us instruments of your peace. Where there is hatred, let us sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy. Grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.