A Homily for the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
Grace to you and peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus our Lord, who sends us out to love our neighbor. Amen.
As the camera pans over a model of a small town, complete with a little red trolley, the familiar tune plays, and we zoom in on a single house. Fred Rogers enters the door, changing from his suit jacket into that ubiquitous cardigan and, with just a hint of flash, tosses off his dress shoes and replaces them with sneakers. All the while, he cheerfully sings:
It’ s a beautiful day in this neighborhood,
A beautiful day for a neighbor,
Would you be mine? Could you be mine?
It’s a neighborly day in this beautywood,
A neighborly day for a beauty,
Would you be mine? Could you be mine?
I have always wanted to have a neighbor just like you,
I’ve always wanted to live in a neighborhood with you.
And he finishes, “Please won’t you be my neighbor?”
For decades, we welcomed Mr. Rogers into our homes, but he made it feel as though he were welcoming us. For thirty minutes at a time, he talked to generations of kids about feelings, letting us know that it was important to love ourselves and to be kind to others, that it was ok to be scared or sad sometimes, teaching us about the world – but it was almost as though he was learning with us. At his core, Mr. Rogers believed that children should be treated with respect and dignity, just as any adult, and it shows in his work – he was never condescending but instead reached children on their level. For those of us in the audience, he treated us like neighbors.
And for many of us, Mr. Rogers is the very definition of a neighbor; indeed, he taught us how to be neighborly – kind, helpful, civil, and warm. When we read in Scripture that we ought to love our neighbors as ourselves, and when the young religious lawyer asks, “Who is my neighbor?” it’s tempting to point to that beloved and talented Presbyterian minister in the cardigan. It’s tempting to read the Parable of the Good Samaritan as a story of kindly helpfulness to those in need next door.
To be sure, the morals Mr. Rogers taught are important lessons in this and every age. But that’s not what Christ is talking about in today’s text. Our Lord’s message is far more radical than acting neighborly.
In Vacation Bible School, we often heard this story presented as an example of kindness. If the teacher wanted to get really out there, they mentioned how the religious leaders – those expected to be the most helpful – failed to be neighborly but the Samaritan – an outcast – was kind enough to stop and lend a hand. But that still barely scratches the surface of what’s going on.
The Samaritans weren’t merely unpopular outcasts; they were hated. In the book of Sirach – which would have been read as Scripture during Jesus’ lifetime and by the Church for most of its history – the author writes of the Samaritans, “My whole being loathes” them, that “they are not a people.”
Why such animosity? Centuries earlier, the Assyrian Empire conquered the northern kingdom of Israel, killing and capturing the Israelite royalty and priests, sending the inhabitants of the land into far-flung reaches of the empire and resettling foreigners in the Land of Promise. These new settlers intermarried with the survivors and began worshiping God – but on Mount Gerizim in Samaria, not at the Temple in Jerusalem. These Samaritans were viewed as aliens, colonizers, and heretics, despite their close ancestral relationship, and pious Jews would steadfastly avoid any interaction with Samaritans. As Saint John wrote in his Gospel, “Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.”
A loathed and detested outsider is travelling along a road when he stumbles upon a man, beaten, naked, half-dead. This is clearly still a dangerous situation – are the robbers still near-by? In this rugged and isolated stretch of country, are they waiting close at hand to attack whoever stops to aide their previous victim?
For those standing around listening to Jesus tell this story in first century Judaea, for that young religious scholar who posed the question in the first place, the expectation is clear: if the priest and the Levite don’t stop and help, why would this much-despised Samaritan risk his life and cross ethnic boundaries to help a stranger? Imagine the crowd’s surprise, then, when the Samaritan not only stops to care for the wounded Jewish man, but also pays for his recovery at the inn. Imagine the young lawyer’s face as the implications seep in: that even a Samaritan, one of his enemies, could be his neighbor.
This is precisely the point: in the Kingdom of God, love for neighbor is so radical that it breaks down walls, ethnic division, and national borders. When we reduce Christ’s teaching about love for neighbor to Sunday school lessons of mere affection and niceties, we miss the entire point. Ethicist and preacher Ted Smith put it this way when he addressed seminary graduates this past May:
I worry that our…goals are too small, too attached to middle class ideals…. I worry that they are insufficiently hopeful, insufficiently utopian, insufficiently radical, insufficiently bound to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
The Parable of the Good Samaritan is not a story of acting “neighborly,” of simply being nice or kind, of stopping to help your next-door neighbor patch up a flat tire. No, this is a story about a radical, life-risking, self-giving love – even for enemies. It’s not about being a kind neighbor like Mr. Rogers but of loving our neighbors and our enemies as Christ first loved us. It’s the story of feeding the homeless person on the street corner – even though you’re a bit frightened of them. It’s the story of fighting for human rights and racial justice – even though you were raised during the height of segregation. It’s the story of standing up for the rights of detained immigrants at the border – even though they lack documentation. It is, at its heart, a story of seeing the image of God in all people, and seeking to serve our Lord Jesus Christ when he comes to you in the form of your enemy, your homeless neighbor, or your undocumented sister.
When the people of Israel received this Law, they asked the question that is ever on our minds: how can we live up to this standard? It seems so far removed from us. They demanded, “Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?”
Because we are still captive to sin and cannot free ourselves, because we sin in thought, word, and deed, by what we do and what we have left undone, such radical and self-giving love for our neighbors seems so very far away. I confess to you, my sisters and brothers, and before the whole company of heaven, that I have sinned by my fault, by my fault, by my own most grievous fault: for I am quick to lock my car doors when driving through downtown Atlanta, and slow to offer even scant aide to my homeless kin when they ask for help. I confess that I am quick to look away when I see pictures of caged children at the border and slow to demand that our government do better. Out of fear, I am hesitant to preach on love for our migrant neighbors. How paralyzed we become when confronted by the powers of sin and death! How captive we are to the principalities of this world! How far away God’s Law seems, across the face of the deep or removed to the highest heavens!
But take heart! The saints on earth from across the age have held us up in prayer and indeed have “not ceased praying for [us] and asking that [we] may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will… so that [we] may lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as [we] bear fruit in every good work and…grow in the knowledge of God.”
This divine commandment is not too far away; it is near to us, in our mouths and in our hearts for us to observe. We have the perfect example of God’s will, the fulfillment of God’s Law, here at the Altar: the very Body of Christ given for us. Here is forgiveness, here is the very incarnation of self-giving love poured out in the Cup of Salvation. Here, in this Feast, is the strength to go and do likewise.