[Listen to Audio] The bell marking the end of recess had rung ten minutes earlier. Most of our Fourth-Grade classmates had already clambered up the old metal fire escape that gave access from the playground to our second-story classroom.
A few of us routinely lagged behind. We squeezed every microsecond of play we could from the school day. This time we had lingered too long, and we knew it. We bolted up those rusty steps. But as I got to the landing by our doorway, I heard other kids on the playground.
Turning around, I spotted boys and girls who seemed to belong to several different grade levels. There were grammar school kids and middle schoolers mixed in with high-schoolers. Some moved awkwardly. Others stood idly watching nothing in particular. There was lots of laughter and running about, much the same as you would have seen watching my class.
I said to the guy behind me, “Who are those kids?”
“Those are the retards,” he said.
I didn’t know what a retard was. And yet, I realized that my classmate had hurled that word like an insult. This was decades before I came to understand how disrespectful and offensive this word is. But even then I gathered that nobody wanted to be one and that we should consider ourselves better than those people. They were the outcasts. The underclass.
That’s when I saw Tony playing with those people.
Three years earlier, on my first day of First Grade, my mother had brought me into the classroom. We were late. All the other kids were seated at their places in wooden chairs along the sides of wooden tables. I didn’t know a soul, and the teacher honestly looked like the Wicked Witch of the West.
Despite every effort to keep it together, I broke into uncontrollable sobs.
From somewhere toward the back of the room, another boy got up and walked to the front. He put his arm around me. “I’ll be your friend. Come sit next to me.” That was Tony.
Midway through Second Grade, I spotted Tony cheating on our weekly spelling test. Our teacher had noticed as well. She swept down the aisle, grabbed him by the hand, and disappeared with him for some time.
She returned alone with no explanation. I didn’t see Tony again until that day on the fire escape two years later. Now he was no longer one of us. He was one of those people. They belonged over there. We belonged over here with our kind of people.
If you mixed with those people, your friends might start to think that you’re one of them. Best to keep them at a distance.
Jesus talked a lot about those people. Or, more accurately, Jesus taught again and again that our tendency to divide people into us and them, higher and lower, insider and outsider bore absolutely no resemblance to the Kingdom of God.
The last will be first and the first will be last. Those who exalt themselves will be humbled and the humble will be exalted. The meek shall inherit the earth.
We see those people. We see losers, outsiders, the clueless, and the tacky. God doesn’t see things that way. And that’s a problem. So Jesus uses one of those people to teach us a lesson about being one of his people. He tells the parable of the Good Samaritan.
To get your head around Jesus’ meaning, you have to understand that a Good Samaritan was like a healthy leper. In the Jewish mind of the day, there was no such thing.
Samaritans were no-good half-breeds. After the Assyrians had conquered the Northern Kingdom, they pursued a policy of cultural annihilation. They scattered the Northern Kingdom’s inhabitants into foreign lands and forced intermarriage with non-Jews. The Samaritans were the product. For Southern Kingdom folk, the Samaritans were tainted. Inferior stock.
So it’s no accident that Jesus chooses a Samaritan to teach a pious Talmud lawyer a lesson in what it means to love your neighbor as yourself.
To catch Jesus in blasphemy or some other form of heresy, the lawyer had asked, “How do I get eternal life?”
Quick on his feet, Jesus responded with a question that a self-proclaimed Bible expert couldn’t resist. “What does Scripture say?”
Forgetting that the whole point of asking Jesus a question in the first place was to catch Jesus saying something incriminating, the lawyer blurted out the summary of the law. His desire to be the the guy who knew the right answer got the best of him. “Love God right down to your gizzard and love your neighbor like your life depended on it.”
That’s when one of those moment-of-clarity things happened. The lawyer realized that he loved Jesus—and probably a long list of what he considered those people—slightly less than an ear ache. So, he quickly justified himself with another question. “Who is my neighbor?”
In other words, “Who really counts as my neighbor? Who do I have to love and who can I count as those people?”
And so Jesus tells this parable about a Samaritan who comes across a wounded Jew in a ditch. The Jew represented a whole class of people who had been condescending to and discriminating against the Samaritan for his whole life.
The Jew was no friend to the Samaritan. And yet the Samaritan showed him friendship. Instead of seeing one of those people, the Samaritan saw an equal.
Please hear how I said that. He saw an equal. He did not condescend to someone less than himself. That’s what it means to see someone as one of those people.
Instead, the Samaritan showed compassion. In compassion, we stand in solidarity with someone in their weakness and need. We can do that only when we recognize ourselves as weak and needy, and then listen to the stories that others have to tell.
Given what Jesus teaches about being a neighbor, I want each of us to take an honest look at how our congregation relates to the people in our surrounding community. Do we know who lives in the houses and works in the businesses in the three to five miles surrounding the church property? Do we know what their hopes and fears and needs are?
Each of our congregations defines itself as a friendly congregation. But consider what Mary Parmer has asked. Are you a friendly congregation or just a congregation of friends?
Being a neighbor means to listen. Not just to people like us. But to the people God has literally placed around us. If, because of their social class or race, we see them as those people and keep a safe distance from them, we are refusing to be a neighbor.
Jesus doesn’t instruct us to wait and see who qualifies as our neighbor. With the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus sends us into the world to be neighbors to everyone we meet.
That’s what Tony did with me. He wouldn’t allow me to remain a stranger, to be one of those people. He didn’t worry about my race or my social class or my country of origin.
Tony saw my fear and my loneliness. He knew what that was like. So, he put his arm around me. And he said, “I’ll be your friend.” He treated me as his neighbor.