"Who is my Neighbor?"#89-02
Presented on The Lutheran Hour on September 12, 2021
By Rev. Dr. Michael Zeigler, Lutheran Hour Speaker
Copyright 2021 Lutheran Hour Ministries
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Text: Luke 10:25-37
When she saw the moving van pull up at the house across the street, and later she started hearing music blaring at odd hours of the night, and she caught glimpses of a disheveled man in an old army coat out in his front yard sometimes randomly digging holes, other times shouting obscenities into his cell phone. Rosaria knew that this wasn't the neighbor that she'd been praying for. Later, they found out his name was Hank and his 100-pound pit bull, whom he rarely kept on his leash, his name was Tank. Hank and his dog Tank became the topic of many sidebar conversations in the subdivision, but most of the neighbors when they passed by the house, they crossed over on the other side of the street.
At one point, Rosaria and her family mustered up the courage to cross the street, go up the driveway, and ring the doorbell to introduce themselves and welcome him to the neighborhood. Hank reciprocated by dismantling the ringer on the doorbell so that no one else would bother him. One day, Hank's dog Tank got lost, and they saw Hank out in the street calling for him, and since it seemed like the dog was the man's only friend in the world, Rosaria and her family offered to help him find him. They canvassed the streets, and Mary, Rosario's 10-year-old daughter, she cried herself to sleep every night praying that God would bring Tank home safe.
A week later, when they found Tank, Mary told Mr. Hank all about her prayers and about how good God is. Since then, Mr. Hank and Tank the dog have become family friends. They weren't the neighbor that they had been praying for, but they became the neighbors for whom they pray. Rosaria Butterfield tells this story in her book, The Gospel Comes with a House Key, and as I'm reading it, I'm trying to picture Hank, and I'm thinking to myself, "Who is this guy?" And no doubt at some point Rosaria was asking the same question, "Who is my neighbor?" That's an old question: "Who is my neighbor?" In fact, a lawyer once put that question to a famous Jewish Rabbi a long, long time ago.
From one perspective the question is asking, "Who is my neighbor?" That is, "Where's he from? What's his story? Why is he digging ditches in his front yard?" Seeking answers to these questions would help you get to know that person, would lead you into a relationship with them, for better or for worse. There's another way to take the question, and that's the way the lawyer that I mentioned was asking it, "Who is my neighbor?" The question isn't leading into a relationship. It's an excuse to avoid one. I'll decide whom I will regard as a neighbor. So what if some creepy dude moves in across the street from me? Why should an accident in similar physical addresses force me to deal with him? Not my neighbor.
I'm sitting in eighth grade religion class, and my classroom neighbor on the right, David, raises his hand with a question. And I can tell by the look on his face that he's not asking the question because he wants to get an answer, he's asking the question because he already knows the answer and he's trying to get the teacher, and he's trying to get himself off the hook. "So if I'm supposed to love my neighbor as myself, then does that mean I only have to love the people who live next to me?" "No, David," the teacher says, "your neighbor isn't just the person who lives next door. Everybody is your neighbor. You have to love everybody." If you've ever been in a religion class, you know that that's the standard answer to this question, "Who is my neighbor?" Everybody, everybody's your neighbor. You've got to love everyone. And there's some truth to that answer. But to give David some credit and every other eighth-grader who's asked this question, God actually doesn't say, "Here, love everyone." He says, "Love your neighbor."
Because loving everyone, loving the whole world all at once, that's a big job; that's a God-sized job. And so God maybe wants to start us off with something smaller. Just love your neighbor. Love the person who's near you. It's a smaller job, but that doesn't make it an easier job. You might have someone like Hank move in next door with his 100-pound pit bull. So here's the problem with saying, "Love your neighbor," actually means love everyone. It lets us think of love as an idea or a feeling rather than a concrete crossing of the street, knocking on a real door, knocking because the doorbell has been dismantled, knocking and welcoming an unwelcome person into your neighborhood. If all God said was, "Just love everyone," we might think that means have one warm feelings toward everyone as you imagine them virtually from a distance, and then telling myself, "I love everyone." It makes it easier for me to be someplace else, mentally and emotionally when there are difficult people with real issues right in front of me.
And much of our car-driving, air-conditioned, on-demand, streaming lifestyle encourages us to do just that: to be someplace else rather than being all in with the people who share the places we inhabit. But Christians, we've come to learn that God loves everyone not in theory but in practice. God in Jesus concretely crossed the street, knocked on our door, and became our neighbor. And so God gives us a smaller pool of people with whom to practice love: neighbors, the people who are near us. And that's probably how our eighth-grade religion teacher tried to explain it, but by then David and I we're already mentally someplace else. So there's some truth to this answer to the question, "Who is my neighbor?" that everyone is your neighbor in theory, and yet God chooses some people to be your neighbors in practice. God wants us to start there, with the people in proximity to us.
And this brings us to the lawyer and the Rabbi that I mentioned earlier. Now, we don't know the name of the lawyer, but we know that the Rabbi was Jesus of Nazareth. Both men in the conversation are devout first-century Jews, and both men know that most Jews at that time and at that place went out their way to avoid a certain class of neighbors, Samaritans. Samaritans were regional neighbors to the Jews at that time. Samaritans were a racially mixed people and Samaritans to the Jews were at best religiously confused and at worst irredeemable sinners, and most Jews went out of their way to avoid them. In doing so, the Jewish people back then show us that they're a lot like we are now. We have this tendency to make life easier by avoiding people who make our lives more difficult. That's the thrust behind the lawyer's question when he asks, "Who is my neighbor?" He's not looking for an answer. He's not looking for a relationship. He's looking to defend his excuse for excluding people who might make his life difficult.
Listen to how this scene goes as it's recorded in the ancient biography of Jesus known as the Gospel of Luke 10. Now a lawyer, an expert in the Torah, the Jewish law, stood up to test Jesus saying, "Teacher, what must I do so that I will inherit eternal life?" Jesus said to him, "What is written in the law in the Torah? How do you read it?" In response he said, "Love the Lord Your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind and love your neighbor as yourself." Jesus said to him, "You have answered correctly. Do this and you will live." But he, the lawyer, wishing to justify himself said, "And who is my neighbor?" Jesus in response says, "A certain man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho when some robbers jumped him, stripped him of his clothing, beat him up, and left him half-dead. By chance, a priest was going down that road and when he saw the man he passed by on the other side. Likewise, a Levi, a fellow Jew, when he came to the place where the man was and he saw him, he passed by on the other side. Then a Samaritan, as he was journeying, came to where the man was, and when he saw him, he was moved with deep compassion. He went to the man, bound up his wounds, pouring on olive oil and wine. He put him on his own animal and brought him to an inn where he cared for him. The next day, he took out two denarii, two silver coins, two day's wages and gave them to the innkeeper and said, 'Care for him and whatever more you spend I will repay you when I return.' Which of those three do you think became a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?" Jesus asked the lawyer. And he said, "The one who did the merciful thing for him." And Jesus said, "You go and do likewise."
I just love how Jesus answers this question. And if you don't know Jesus, if you haven't gotten to know His personality, you've got to go read these ancient accounts of Him. Read Matthew and Mark and Luke and John. He is the most amazing person you'll ever meet, and this little conversation is a window into His entire personality. It's a window into the whole story of the Bible. Now, Jesus knows that the lawyer's asking the question so that he can justify himself, and so he doesn't give a straightforward answer. Instead, He tells a story. And in this story, He introduces some characters. He introduces two classes of people, good people, that the lawyer is sure to love and admire: a priest and a Levite. And then He parades them past as models of unloving, cold-hearted, indifference, as people, not on the way to life, but on the way to eternal death. And then Jesus chooses the hero of the story to be someone that the lawyer would be sure to despise and hate: a Samaritan. And Jesus is just getting started.
See, the lawyer was looking for reasons to exclude certain people from his love. And when Jesus tells this story, it's not simply to show him—or us—how bad that is and how we should strive to include everyone, even those who are like Samaritans to us. If that were the only point, Jesus could have made the Samaritan be the man who got beat up by the robbers and left half dead on the side of the road, and then some noble heroic Jew could come along and help him and be a good example. But that's not how Jesus tells the story. It's the despised sinner who sets the example. Let that set in a bit. It would be like you going into a room full of conservative, rifle-toting Christian nationalists and telling a story in which a Birkenstock wearing lesbian feminist Marxist is the hero. Or it would be like you going into a room full of young Bernie Sanders-loving socialists, and telling a story in which a judgmental, suburban-dwelling, homeschooling mom is the hero of the story.
That's the move that Jesus makes. And the point is this: the story is not designed to merely leave you with a moral lesson. As Arthur Just observes, Jesus' story is designed to leave us shocked, deflated, challenged, and maybe a little angry. As He did with the lawyer, in love Jesus wants to show us something about ourselves. We tend to avoid people who make our lives difficult, especially when those people live in close proximity to us. We become like the lawyer; we use bits of our moral code, whatever that code is, we use bits of it to exclude others from our love and our concern and then we tell ourselves that this is the easy street that leads to the good life. That's the bigger question behind the lawyer's question, "Who is my neighbor?" It's the question, "How do I get a good life? How do I get eternal life?" Conventional wisdom says that we should avoid certain people to get a good life, but Jesus shows us His path to life.
He says it's in God's Torah, the law in a broad sense. The Torah, the first five books of the Bible, isn't just law in the sense of long lists of commandments. The Torah is the answer to our question, "Who's my neighbor?" The Torah is the story; it's the account of how God would become your neighbor and my neighbor: a compassionate, merciful, generous neighbor, a welcoming neighbor for unwelcoming people, people who find themselves half dead, halfway down the path toward eternal death. In God's compassion, He sent Jesus, God's Word, God's Torah in the flesh. And Jesus, moved by God's compassion, came to share an address with us. He comes to bind up your wounds, to care you, and to pay for your care with His life, and then He rose from the dead to save you from the dead-end, half-life of avoiding neighbors. Conventional wisdom tells us to say, "Whom should I avoid to have a good life?"
Jesus says, "I am the life. I've come to be a neighbor for all those people you're killing yourself trying to avoid. But I will still cross the street for you. I will revive you. I will heal you. I will shelter you. I'll be a neighbor to you so you can be a neighbor for them."
One day, Hank asks Rosaria, "Why are we friends?" Rosaria and her children are walking their dog with Hank and his pit bull Tank. Hank's using a leash this time. It's the clothesline from the backyard. Hank, somewhat light-sensitive, twitches his eyes to adjust to the noonday sun. He looks like he's just woken up. "I mean, why don't you think I'm an eyesore and an oddball like my other neighbors did?" "Because God never gets the address wrong," Rosaria replied. Rosaria, by the way, is a former lesbian feminist Marxist. Now, a suburb-dwelling, homeschooling mom, who's trying to be a less judgmental Christian while still wearing her Birkenstocks.
And in this story, the one that she tells in the book, The Gospel Comes With A House Key, she's not the hero. Jesus is the Hero on every page. Rosaria, she's just a neighbor. She's Hank's neighbor. "I've never heard that before, about God not getting the address wrong," Hank says to her. "You really believe that."
"I sure do."
"Is that another Christian thing?"
"It sure is, Hank. It sure is."
Would you pray with me? Lord Jesus, Word of the living God, You put on human flesh and You pitched Your tent in the neighborhood. Would You live in me, Jesus, so that I would not be someplace else, but all in with the people who share the place where I dwell? Because You live and You reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, One God, now and forever. Amen.
Reflections for September 12, 2021
Title: Who Is My Neighbor?
Mark Eischer: You're listening to The Lutheran Hour. For FREE online resources, archived audio, our mobile app, and more go to Lutheranhour.org. Once again, here's Dr. Michael Zeigler.
Michael Zeigler: I'm visiting with Don Everts, a writer with Lutheran Hour Ministries, the author of the book, The Hopeful Neighborhood. Welcome, Don.
Don Everts: Great to be with you, as always.
Michael Zeigler: Also joining us is Jennifer Prophete, director of community programming with Lutheran Hour Ministries. Welcome, Jennifer.
Jennifer Prophete: Thank you.
Michael Zeigler: Don and Jennifer, there is a proverb that has been provoking me. I've been thinking about it. It's a biblical proverb. It's Proverbs 27:10, and it says, "In the day of disaster, don't go to your brother's house. Better is a neighbor who is near than a brother who is far away." What is your reaction to that bit of biblical wisdom?
Don Everts: One of our bloggers for The Hopeful Neighborhood Project does a lot of work in her neighborhood up in Minneapolis, and it's interesting how many of her stories are around disasters. She tells all these stories and how these neighbors, and in her case, it's like a multi-ethnic, kind of diverse neighborhood, how they are there for each other. Because when something happens in the middle of the night, who's there? It's the neighbors, right? The etymology of the word means the "near farmer," or something like that.
Michael Zeigler: What's your reaction, Jennifer?
Jennifer Prophete: I grew up in rural America, and our family motto was kind of, "If anything happens in the world, everyone would come back to the farm."
Don Everts: That's cool.
Jennifer Prophete: So that's everybody's disaster plan, is come back to the farm. The day my dad realized that I had moved so far away, I couldn't get back on one tank of gas, was a actually really sobering day for us all. I can't necessarily rely on that family connection. It's the neighborhood connection. I've got to invest in my own neighbors because they're the ones who are going to help me if something goes wrong, because we live here together.
Michael Zeigler: You've both been a part of processing the research that we've done with the Barna Group on this. What were some of the insights that you remember that echo this biblical insight that the neighbor who is near, the person who's close by, has a special importance or maybe special trust in a time of need?
Don Everts: It was pretty sobering, the responses we got, because the people they don't trust, low on the list, are churches and Christian organizations. That's near the bottom of the list. In fact, people trust charities, businesses, and the government more than they trust churches and Christian organizations.
Jennifer Prophete: Well, the good thing is they trust people in their community. They trust their neighbors to know what's good for the neighborhood. And so you can take good news from that, because while they might not trust an institution that you're connected to, they would trust you.
Michael Zeigler: You have a great insight in the book, The Hopeful Neighborhood, Don, that if the prior generation was the time of the trusted Christian institution, and we often lament the lack of trust in institutions, both Christian and otherwise. But then you say, what if this next time or season is the era of the trusted Christian neighbor? This is really a hopeful way to look at this, rather than just bemoaning what's lost, looking to what might be.
Jennifer Prophete: What we do have and what we can control, which I think is so great, you can control how you love your neighbor. You can't necessarily control what other people do, but you can live out God's calling in your life and your vocation as a neighbor. So that if I moved away, I want people in my neighborhood to feel it an absence, like I've made it better just because I lived there. It really is an opportunity to live into that future.
Don Everts: One of the things our research on spiritual conversations taught us is that trust is a huge, huge thing. It's not enough to memorize some words arguing for the validity of the Christian faith and kind of burp those out into conversation. Even really good words alone aren't convincing. There has to be a level of trust.
Michael Zeigler: What are some resources? You're part of this project that we've helped launch through Lutheran Hour Ministries, The Hopeful Neighborhood Project. What are some simple resources that The Hopeful Neighborhood Project has that could help someone get to know their neighborhood, get to know their neighbors?
Jennifer Prophete: One of the fun resources we developed as a first step in getting to know your neighbors is Neighborhood Bingo. So you can go to lhm.org/together and get these neighborhood bingo cards, which have different ideas for how to get to know your neighbors. There are different levels. If you know them by name pretty well, but you're wondering, "I really don't know them. I just know that's Cindy with the big brown dog," then we have something called the EveryGift Inventory.
And so you could take this yourself, but you could also share it with a neighbor that you know reasonably well saying, "Hey, I'd really like to know more about the things you're good at. Would you like to take this gift inventory?" And then you could find out more about ... maybe you didn't know that Cindy actually is an artist, or she's an entrepreneur, or she has some financial gifts, or maybe she just loves working in her backyard. And so you could really get to know your neighbors even more deeply with that resource.
Michael Zeigler: Sounds like building trust, and kind of fun.
Jennifer Prophete: Yeah, exactly. And in the end, you'll have a better place to live, and so there's a win right there.
Michael Zeigler: Lhm.org/together.
Jennifer Prophete: Yes. That's where you get the bingo cards.
Michael Zeigler: And then there's also Don's book. Give it a read. It's very inspiring, encouraging. The Hopeful Neighborhood by Don Everts, E-V-E-R-T-S. Thanks for joining us, Don and Jennifer.
Jennifer Prophete: It's been a pleasure.
Don Everts: Yeah, great to talk to you guys.
Music Selections for this program:
"A Mighty Fortress" arranged by Chris Bergmann. Used by permission.
"Praise the One Who Breaks the Darkness" From The Concordia Organist (© 2009 Concordia Publishing House)