How to Love Your Neighbor

Chai gave this touching and insightful sermon on the weekend of Martin Luther King Day and challenged us to love our neighbor and gave us three solid ways to do that.

Luke 10: 25-37

The Parable of the Good Samaritan

25 Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 26 He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” 27 He answered, “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.” 28 And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”

29 But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” 30 Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32 So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ 36 Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” 37 He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

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One of the dangers of familiar passages or stories is that we think we know everything about them. The story of the Good Samaritan is one such story. We might have read or heard it many times in our lives, and if you have you know what happens; but I wonder if we have fully grasped the meaning. What we’ll do is to look at the story with fresh eyes. Even as we do that, I will share with you the aspects that have startled me or led me to think as I was re-reading it. And in the process, we will glean a few lessons for life from this famous parable.

Firstly, the context: When Jesus was walking on this planet as a human person, many people came to him and asked him all sorts of questions. Some people were genuinely interested in knowing what Jesus thought about something, whereas others merely wanted to test him. In this story we see a lawyer, an expert in the law of Moses or Torah, comes to Jesus with a seemingly genuine question to test him: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” In other words, the lawyer was asking what Jesus thinks about resurrection. And, as a Son of Abraham, the lawyer wants to know how he could possibly lose his inheritance.  Secretly, the lawyer wants to see if Jesus would add or subtract something from the law and get himself into trouble.

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Unlucky for the lawyer, Jesus didn’t fall for that, and at the same time, he didn’t discard that important existential question that the lawyer posed. Instead of answering, however, Jesus asks the lawyer what he thinks. As if he were prepared for this turn of events, the lawyer immediately responds: “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.” Jesus was pleased with the response and he commends the lawyer for the response. And he adds that the lawyer just needs to follow what he already knew so as to inherit eternal life. The lawyer wasn’t satisfied. He wants to justify himself, says the Scripture, so poses a further question: “Who is my neighbor?”

“Who is my neighbor?” This question stumped me. Why on earth would the lawyer ask such a question? Why not ask how he could love God with all his heart, soul, strength and mind? Or he could have asked how it is even possible to love one’s neighbor as oneself? Instead, he asks this rather intriguing question: “Who is my neighbor?” Let’s think about it: There seems to be certain logic to his question. The lawyer seems to realize that it is hard to love everyone who comes our way as we love ourselves; so he’s asking whom he could skip loving and yet inherit eternal life. In other words, the lawyer is asking who deserves his love? Could he skip loving evil and annoying people? He wants to find a loophole in the law and know whom he could eliminate from the category of neighbors. If there is such a category of people that he can avoid loving, then maybe it is possible for him to follow the law.

In response to that question, Jesus tells this famous parable of the Good Samaritan. The story is so simple and profound that it invokes a response in everyone that listens to it. A man was going down from the temple city of Jerusalem to Jericho. It is an eighteen-mile stretch of road between the two cities and the journey is arduous because of the altitude of the two cities. Jerusalem is 2,500 feet above sea level and Jericho is 825 feet below sea level. This dramatic change in altitude is exhausting to travellers and the terrain itself allowed for an ideal place for robbers to rob people. The traveller in Jesus’ story falls prey to some evil men on his way. These men rob him and then beat him until he was unrecognizable. As a final insult they strip him bare and leave him by the side of the road.

After some time, a man of God was going down the same road from the temple city toward Jericho. Perhaps he heard the faint moaning of the man who was lying by the roadside, or maybe he smelt the strange odor of blood. Whatever may be the case, when he saw the half-dead man he drew himself away in fear and disgust. Not long after that, a servant of God’s temple came upon the same sight, he too felt nothing toward the dying man and also chose to do nothing for him. They were only concerned about their reputation or perhaps they were just trying to keep their appointments or wanted to avoid any kind of nuisance in their lives.

A third man, a Samaritan, was going down the same road and came to the exact spot. Despite the stench and filth, he saw the beaten man and was moved with compassion. He came down from his donkey and cleaned the wounds of the man and covered them with oil and wine. I am sure, he clothed him with whatever clothes he could spare – even some of his own clothes. He did not stop there! He lifted the man onto his own donkey and led him to the nearest town. Remember, this was at a considerable risk to his own safety, because it slowed down his journey through dangerous territory. Yet he didn’t shy away from doing it. He went further in showing compassion. He took him to an inn and paid two denarii for the man’s stay at the inn and any care that’s given him. Then he promised to come back to pay any outstanding expenses. That’s the generosity of that Good Samaritan.

Now Jesus asks the same question that the lawyer asked him: “Who do you think is the neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” The lawyer answered correctly again: “The one who showed compassion.” To this Jesus replies: “Go and do likewise.” Funny, I thought, the conclusion of the story is not: “Go and find your neighbor.” Or, “now you know who your neighbor is!” Instead, Jesus concludes the story by saying: “Go and do likewise.”

As important as it is to delve on the question of who our neighbor is, I feel that we need to focus on what Jesus is asking us to do. I think as Jesus is telling this parable, he is not only answering the question of who our neighbor is, but he is also showing us we can love our neighbors. We can in fact see hints of what love towards our neighbor may look like. Based on that hunch, I will draw at least three lessons that we can learn from this story.

Lesson # 1: Showing Compassion is a Way of Loving:

As you all know we are celebrating the life and achievements of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Remembering his legacy and leadership, I am going to borrow one of his insights on this parable. On a personal note: Dr. King has this beautiful way of inspiring people and his sermons have rekindled my spirit when I was in the lowest point during my graduate studies. There was a time when I felt that my life was useless as I was just stuck in a library reading books and not being useful to the society. During that period, the book of sermons that has lifted me up was The Strength to Love. If you haven’t read his sermons, I would highly recommend it.

Going back to the parable, in his final speech called “I’ve been to the mountaintop,” he includes a stunning commentary on the Good Samaritan. We will listen to a part of the clip from that speech now (from 3:20 until the end):

The Priest and the Levite asked: “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?” The Samaritan asked: “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?” That’s the question to all of us this morning. When we feel the pain of those who are struggling, then we can ask the question that the Good Samaritan asked. The Good Samaritan put himself in the shoes of the man who was dying by the roadside and couldn’t help but ask what would happen to him if he doesn’t help. He was moved with compassion because he put himself in the shoes of the dying man.

In the gospels, many times we read that Jesus was moved with compassion and he does the healings and teaches folks because of that compassion. At our church too, we have been reminded time and again of the saying of Jesus: “Be compassionate as I am compassionate.” The world is hurting all around us and there in as immense need for us to be compassionate. Showing compassion is a way of loving. Being compassionate is not an end in itself; it’s just the beginning. Through that compassion flows acts of kindness.

Lesson # 2: Doing Acts of Kindness/Selfless Service is a Way of Loving.

Think about it: The Good Samaritan is on a journey, and just like the priest and the temple helper, he has his own plans. Yet, when he saw the half-dead man on the side of the road, without worrying about his own life or his own plans, he chose to serve. I note that he is considering the interruption in his plans as an opportunity to serve. It is considered a divine appointment to reach out to the one who needed his help.

First he dresses the wounds, and then he clothes him, and then he lets the man sit on his donkey, and further he pays for the inn, and finally he promises to pay any outstanding expenses. Through his acts of kindness, he is certainly going that extra mile that Jesus talks about. How can I love my neighbor? Through our acts of kindness – those are those acts of kindness that we do without any expectation. I am sure many of you might have experienced in your lives where people have gone out of their way to help. I have such a story.

It was the year 2011 and I was going to a summer institute in Philadelphia. One of my closest friends, Makito Nagasawa, and I took a train from New York City. As we reached Philadelphia, we took the local train as planned to go to our destination. We traveled happily for almost 40 minutes before the ticket collector asked us where we were supposed to go. We told him the name of the station where we thought we will be getting off. But he stopped us by saying that the train doesn’t go there. That was not the right train! We were very sure that we were on the right train, but the train conductor was right. There were three people listening to our conversation and all of them confirmed that we were indeed on the wrong train. We were confused and we didn’t know what to do. So, at the next train station, we got off the train.

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Local public transit trains in Philadelphia

The three people, who were in the train also got off the train, and chatting about us, went on their way. Soon the train also left the station and Makito and I were super confused about what to do next. Then came a stranger, actually an angel – a middle-aged African-American woman, who overheard the conversation of the three people that were in our car and came to help us. She told us we had two options: one is to go back to the station where we first boarded the train and take the right train, which would have taken approximately one and half hours. Or two: to take her offer of a ride. Without any hint of hesitation we chose the second option. It took around 30 minutes to reach our destination. Our hearts were filled with immense gratitude and except for a sincere ‘thank you’ we couldn’t do much. In fact, she didn’t expect anything in return; it was a sheer act of kindness. She didn’t care for the disruption in her plans because of the unnecessary ride that she had to give us. I don’t even know her name but still I remember her kindness. The point is: another way of loving those in need is by doing acts of kindness to them.

Lesson # 3: Striving for Holistic Healing is a Way of Loving:

There is a third way in which we can show our love to our neighbors in need. It is by striving for their holistic healing. One of the most fascinating parts of the story for me is the part where the Good Samaritan promises to come back and take care of the outstanding expenses. He did his part by nursing the wounds of the man and by putting him up at an inn for healing and paying for it. But he goes beyond and he wants to bear the extra burden to take care of the extra cost for the complete healing of the wounded man.

Holistic healing for the wounded man would mean that he’d gain his strength and would continue on his journey. Holistic healing could have many faces in our current society. I would think it would be fine to replace the word justice to holistic healing in the context of the issues in our society. Striving for justice then is a way of loving. Let me give you one example and conclude.

00 homeOne of the activities that our youth are so fond of doing is to feed the homeless people. They loving prepare the meals and we go and give those meals to those who are unsheltered. That’s a fascinating thing that our youth do and we all are proud of them. We need to remember however that homelessness has many consequences: people who are homeless have difficulty recuperating from illnesses, they are exposed to gratuitous violence, they are vulnerable to have their possessions being stolen, they experience severe social isolation and malnutrition, they are exposed to extremes of weather, they suffer from low self-esteem, and many suffer from mental illness – from distress to disorders. If we want to strive for holistic healing for homelessness, then it would require us to work on the areas that I have mentioned. (The saddest part is this: According to 2018 HUDA numbers, around 554,000 people are considered homeless in the U.S. of which 193,000 are considered “unsheltered.” While that is the case, there are 17 million vacant homes around the country. That means, for every homeless person in the U.S. there are approximately 30 vacant homes.) Feeding the homeless is indeed a way of loving our neighbors, but it’s the first step; and depending of our abilities, we need to strive to go beyond.

In conclusion, I have pointed out three ways in which we can love our neighbors: 1) Showing compassion is a way of loving; 2) Doing acts of kindness is a way of loving; and 3) Striving for holistic healing is a way of loving. Let us not be overwhelmed by the immense needs in our society, let’s start with what we can to reach out and share our love in whatever ways we can. May God help us in our endeavors to love our neighbors, Amen!

 

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