Sermon: Nov. 29 - who is my neighbor?
Sunday sermon on the Gospel lesson from Luke 10:25-37
The parable of the Good Samaritan
In the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
“And who is my neighbor?”
This is such a loaded question. English language is somewhat limited here because when we think of a neighbor, we often imagine those who live next door to us or on the same street or on the same block. But that’s not what the word ‘neighbor’ means here.
The expert in the Law, who asked Jesus this question, was a religious teacher, he already knew the answer. We are told that he came to test Christ; he wanted to see how well the Lord knew His own Law.
In response, Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan. It’s such a popular parable that you can hear even the secular people, who have nothing to do with Christ and His Church, refer to it. The Good Samaritan is a person who helps those in need simply because that’s the right thing to do, no strings attached.
Today, I would like to focus on two characters from the parable and discuss what their actions tell us about the nature of the Law with its commandments, and how we can properly apply the Law to understand who our neighbor is.
In the parable we have five different characters – the man who was beaten and robbed, the robbers, a priest, a Levite, and a Samaritan man.
I want to look at the priest and the Levite. They are often glossed over because they do not help the man, and then we focus on the Samaritan. But let’s take a closer look at who they are and why they did what they did.
The priest was someone who offered sacrifices in the Temple in Jerusalem. There were thousands of priests in the Temple, and they would take turns serving, usually a week or two at a time. Levites also served in the Temple, but they did not offer sacrifices. You can think of them as today’s deacons – they served, but more as helpers to the priest.
Both the priest and the Levite, separately, walked down the same road where the beaten and robbed man lay half dead. Both saw him. And both “passed by on the other side,” as we are told. In other words, they wanted to have nothing to do with the man, even if he was alive.
On the surface of things, they seem to be completely justified by the Jewish Law. Some of the commandments clearly state that coming into contact with blood of another person or a corpse made a person unclean. And remember, the man is described as half dead, so it was hard to tell whether he was dead or alive.
Becoming unclean meant that you had to separate yourself from others, essentially you had to go under self-imposed quarantine, which lasted a week or two. While in this quarantine, the person had to bathe, wash their garments, and pray.
In the times when there was no hand sanitizer, this kind of precaution is understandable. We can also understand why the priest and the Levite would be extra cautious – if this was their turn to serve in the Temple, they couldn’t afford to become unclean because their next turn could come in a year, if not two.
As the lawyer, this expert in the Law, was listening to Jesus tell the parable, in his mind both the priest and the Levite followed the Law to the last dot by keeping themselves clean. They did exactly what they were supposed to do.
The lawyer came to test Christ, but the Lord turned the situation back onto the lawyer by testing his knowledge of the Law. I may have mentioned in the past that we never see Jesus in the Gospels answer stupid questions, He simply does not engage with nonsense. But He does entertain stupid, if they are important questions. One such question, coming from a guy who already knew the answer, is “who is my neighbor?”
Let’s get back to the priest and the Levite. They did everything correct according to the Law … Or did they? When the Jews were given commandments about cleanness and uncleanness, and rituals of purification, God did not tell them to make sure to avoid unclean things. Rather, in case they became unclean, here were ways of getting clean again.
Adults are like kids sometimes – we get ourselves into messy situations from time to time. God, knowing how we are, gave these commandments to the Jews, so that they would clean themselves and prevent the spread of a disease, in case there is one.
Therefore, by passing by the half dead man, both the priest and the Levite chose to focus on the unimportant part of the Law – avoid the contact with blood or a corpse. Technically, they followed the Law, but they chose the easy way out. However, when it comes to our relationship with others, there is no easy way out.
The commandments about cleanness were not made to stop the priest and the Levite from helping those in need. The purpose of the laws was – after you help the man and get covered in his blood – go and clean yourself. So by trying to follow the wrong details of the Law, the priest and the Levite actually invalidated the whole point of the Law.
God’s Law is meant to guide us towards the worship of the One True God and the love of our neighbor. And this love includes taking care of someone who is beaten, half dead, or dead.
When the lawyer asked about who is his neighbor, he wanted to know what group of people qualified as such, and who did not. Who did he have to love and whom could he disregard as non-essential. Was it based on their social status, nationality, skin color, physical appearance, gender, or some other criterion?
At the end of the parable, Christ asked the lawyer, “So which of these three was the neighbor to the man?” He uses the word ‘neighbor’ in a fundamentally different way here. The lawyer wanted to know who is a neighbor to him. Jesus says, “Who are you a neighbor to?”
Meaning, I can choose to be a neighbor to you or choose not to be a neighbor. It’s not how you relate to me; it’s how I relate to you. We can live under the same roof and not be neighbors. Likewise, we can live two hours apart, and be neighbors.
Today is already the second day of the Nativity fast, how are we doing in terms of being loving neighbors towards others?
That’s ok, we still have 38 days of this fast and then the rest of our lives to be good neighbors. The main thing to remember is not to focus on the unimportant part of the fast. Do not overemphasize the dietary restrictions, while abandoning love, charity, and prayer.
During the fasting periods, we are called to eat slightly less and simpler foods, so that we can spend less time thinking about food and preparing food, and have more time to practice neighborly love.
To Christ’s question, “Which of these three was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” The lawyer answered, “The one who showed mercy on him.” To which Jesus replied, “Go and do likewise.”
I can’t say it better than the Lord. So, let us go and find someone to show mercy on.
And always give glory, honor, and worship to the One Who shows us mercy, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
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