Who Is My Neighbor
Amos 7:7-17;Psalm 82; Colossians 1:1-14; Luke 10:25-37
Bigfork Community United Methodist Church
July 14, 2019 –Fifth Sunday After Pentecost
The Good Samaritan…this parable is rightly one of the most famous and most powerful in all of our Judeo-Christian scriptures. Why is this Samaritan good? What is so surprising about a Samaritan being good? Aren’t all of our neighbors good? How can we be good?
Let’s start with our reading from Amos. I have been asked more than once why we read the Hebrew Bible scriptures. Why don’t we just read the “New” Testament? Isn’t it all there is about Jesus? What else do we need to know?
Well, why don’t I just talk about my family’s history in Montana? Didn’t the world begin in 1900 with my Grandma Addy’s birth in Belt? What is there to know about my history before that?
What does your winter have to do with how you enter into this beautiful summer under way now? Isn’t it all about the sunrise this morning? What is there to know besides where and how we woke up this today?
We bring yesterday with us…as individuals…as a community…as a state…a region…a nation…a culture…a world.Unless we know who we are speaking to we cannot know what we are saying.
But I digress. Amos was a shepherd in the Southern Kingdom of Judah when the Assyrians had overrun the Northern Kingdom of Israel. During David’s day and into Solomon’s, the two kingdoms had been united and Israel…the two kingdoms…had been the wonder of the world in the Middle East.
The Queen of Sheba had heard of all the splendors of God’s people, had come and seen the great Temple Solomon had built, and we read her words from 1 Kings 10:
“I didn’t believe it until I came and saw it with my own eyes. In fact, the half of it wasn’t even told to me! You have far more wisdom and wealth than I was told. Your people and these servants who continually serve you and get to listen to your wisdom are truly happy! Bless the Lord your God because he was pleased to place you on Israel’s throne. Because the Lord loved Israel with an eternal love, the Lord made you king to uphold justice and righteousness.”
But now, Amos can see clearly that that day has passed. The golden age of Israel is a distant memory. The Northern Kingdom and the Southern Kingdom have broken apart. Now the Assyrians have occupied the North.
We read last week about Naaman’s great victories that solidified these conquests for the King of Aram. The Assyrians have moved the leaders of the Northern Kingdom out and they have moved their own people in.
If you want to know how that kind of history plays out, just ask our Native American brothers and sisters. The dominant culture overwhelms the colonies and the indigenous people struggle to hang onto their old ways.
The people of Judah…the Southern Kingdom… have witnessed all of this and they see their Samaritan cousins in the North…Israel… being corrupted by foreign influences.
Globalization brings a richness of understanding with it, but it also calls upon us to question…or reaffirm…our long-held beliefs. This was happening in Jesus’ day…in Amos’ day…and it is happening in our day.
So when the lawyer comes to cross-examine Jesus in our reading from Luke, he comes into a setting that is fraught with conflict. The Northern Kingdom has fallen and the Southern Kingdom is threatened by what they have seen. The symbol of the threat against them are their Samaritan cousins…fallen away Jews… backsliders.
The lawyer asks Jesus to reaffirm the teachings of their forefathers. Just as Amos came from Judah to condemn the Northern Kingdom …to proclaim that he had been called to declare that God was setting a plumb line in his people… this lawyer probes this hill country rabbi…this would-be prophet.... “What must I do to gain eternal life?”
Jesus answers the question with a question. “What is written in the law?”…the law that you and I as Jews of the Southern Kingdom hold precious…we who are faithful…as the Samaritans in the North are no more? What does it say to you?
We find the burning passion of God’s chosen people from Mathew and Mark in the answer the lawyer gives Jesus in Luke. “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.”
Jesus agrees. “You have answered rightly.”
The lawyer…mindful of the apostasy of the Samaritans…then follows up. “Who is my neighbor?”
Jesus teaches with a story…because people learn by stories…we understand the world as a story …and he begins in Jerusalem about a man who was going down to Jericho…a familiar journey to the Judeans of his day.
A man was going down from Jerusalem…elevation 3800 feet (we are at about 3,000 feet here) to Jericho (848 feet below sea level)…about the difference in altitude from Logan Pass to Lake McDonald, but about half the distance…18 miles instead of 30.
It is a winding road, like Going to the Sun Road, along a cliff face, tucking in and out, with many places for people to hide if they want to, and it is far less traveled than our poor trampled Sun Road is today.
Thieves wait for a chance to overpower their prey and another innocent victim falls into their hands. There he is, a faithful Jew… lying in the road, beaten and bleeding. He will live or die and there is nothing he can do about it.
A priest…like the Amaziah who confronts Amos in our Hebrew Bible reading today…passes by. If he touches the injured man he will take the victim’s burden upon himself…he will have to be ritually cleansed before he can perform his duties again…and he has important things to do…he is too busy…too important…so he passes by on his way.
A Levite passes by…a churchman of genealogical heritage…one who knows the scriptures and what the Lord requires of him…but he has more important things to do, too, and he alsopasses on the other side.
The good people go on their way because there is something more important to them than another person’s misfortune. We hear a call that is more compelling than this wounded and bleeding soul by the side of the road.
He is too much of a burden and we have done our part…we are tired and entitled to pick and choose our battles.
As I prepared for this time of reflection. a time long ago kept coming back to me. My brother and I hiked across Glacier in the first half of the 1980s.
The park was a different place then …the world was a different place. Mike and I could go to the Marias Fair in Shelby…where we would see friends and our parents’ and grandparents’ friends. Then we would drive up to Rising Sun and pick out our campgrounds for the next two nights…and pick up our 60-pound packs and trek into the back country.
We would leave our car at one end of the trail and come out at another…most often…at Goat Haunt. Then we would have to hitchhike back to the car.
There are many things my brother and I don’t agree about, but there is one thing we do agree on, and it is this: It was always the poor people who would stop to give us a ride. Sometimes they would go many miles out of their way to get us where we needed to go. They always offered us food. They would never accept gas money.
They were people we probably wouldn’t sit down next to…at a hotel…or in a restaurant…or anywhere. We were not cultural cousins.
But because we stood at the side of the road after three days and two nights in the wild…dirty and thirsty …hungry and in need…sunburned and disheveled…they knew who we were and they knew what we needed…and they knew they had it.
And they knew that if they did not give it to us they would not be worthy of it themselves…and they would be in greater need some day than we were that day. I hope I never lose sight of them.
I am grateful that I remembered them this week. I cannot forget them. They are with me now and I know that I keep them deep in my heart. I give thanks for that.
There are many people like this we never see…there are many blessings we receive without a prayer or a flicker of recognition. We do not deserve these blessings any more than my brother and I deserved a ride back to our car.
But we need to be grateful for them, too…and we need to give thanks for them.
One of these blessings came to Lewis and Clark. They do not appear in their journals, but Stephen Ambrose, author of Undaunted Courage, learned that they live in the oral traditions of the Nez Perce people who lived on the west side of the mountains in Idaho that the Corps of Discovery crossed in the late summer and early fall of 1805.
The explorers were in pretty bad shape by then, but like those poor people who gave a ride to my brother and me, they took them in. But as their guests slept the Indians held a meeting.
If they killed these strangers …which they could have done without fear of any reprisal…and took their weapons, they would be the most powerful tribe in the Pacific Northwest. There was every reason to do this. There was no reason not to. It was a no-brainer.
But there was an old woman who spoke. She had been captured and taken by the Bloods when she was young. They took her to what is now Canada and treated her as a beast of burden…a slave…and she had no hope of anything better.
But a white man came to the village one day and saw what had happened to her. He took pity on her and purchased her freedom. He returned her to her country…her people…her life.
Because this one white man had been good to her when she was young, she told her people, you cannot betray these white men now that I am old. That one sentimental counsel carried the day in the midst of every rational argument to let the white men suffer the fate they had brought upon themselves.
She was their neighbor. She saved their lives. Poor people with questionable vehicles made it possible for Mike and me to see the most beautiful country in all the world…from one end to the other…back in the day when we were almost always the only people in camp…and get back to a place where we could complete our journey and go on with our lives.
There are so many people who have been kinder to us…every one of us …than we deserved…and God help us all if we begin to pray for what we deserve…or when we choose to hang onto what we have because someone more needy does not deserve it…did not earn it…like we did.
May we pray this week not with any asking in our hearts…but with a question heavy on our hearts.
Who is my neighbor? Who is our neighbor? Who is it who saved me when I was lost…even at time I did not know I was lost…even when I did not deserve to be saved from the peril I had brought upon myself?
Whose neighbor am I called to be?
Won’t you be my neighbor?
O Lord, what is it that you want to accomplish in the world… through us…through me…this day? Amen.