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The Hospitality of a Neighbor

A sermon by Michael Cheuk, Pastor, University Baptist Church, Charlottesville, Va., on July 14, 2013.

Luke 10:25-37

The parable of the Good Samaritan is probably the most famous and familiar of Jesus’ parables.  We usually hear it as the story of a big-hearted person who helps an injured stranger in distress and goes the extra mile by writing a blank check to make sure that the injured receives proper lodging, food and care.  For centuries, preachers have used this text to encourage and admonish members of their congregations be like the Samaritan and to “go and do likewise.”  That is the tried and true way to understand this parable.  Today, however, I would like to approach this passage along a road less traveled.  Today, I’d like to explore this parable not just from the perspective of the Samaritan, but also from the perspective of the victim. 

This parable takes place in the context of a conversation between a Jewish expert on the law of Moses and Jesus regarding what is required to inherit eternal life.  When asked by Jesus, “What is written in the Law?” this Jewish scholar answered, “‘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, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”  Jesus responded approvingly, “You have answered correctly.  Do this and you will live.” 

This expert in the law however, goes further to ask , “Who is my neighbor?”  Now, we may shake our heads and think, “Typical lawyer!”  But let’s not be too harsh here.  “Neighbor” is a broad and ambiguous category, and it would helpful to get a good definition.  Is my neighbor only one who lives in close proximity to me?  Is my neighbor only one who shares my beliefs and values?  Especially in an age when the world is often described as a global village, the question “Who is my neighbor?” may not be as pedantic as it seems. 

Jesus answered this question not with definitions and distinctions, but with a story.  A certain man, presumably Jewish, journeys from Jerusalem to Jericho and is ambushed by robbers, stripped, beaten up, and left for dead.  A priest and a Levite, both officials in the Jewish religious establishment come walking down the same road . . . and they both walk by on the other side after seeing the man in the ditch.  That’s a bit surprising.  We would assume these two would stop and help this man, but they move right along.  And so does Jesus in telling this parable.

Along comes a Samaritan.  Now wait a minute!  What’s a Samaritan doing in this story?  Samaritans were the distant cousins that good Jews never mentioned in polite company.  They were seen as the black sheep from a cut-off branch of the Jewish family tree.  When Jerusalem was invaded and destroyed by the Babylonians, the best and brightest Jews were exiled to Babylon, while those left behind intermarried with foreigners and some practiced a mixture of Judaism and paganism.  To respectable Jews, Samaritans were mongrels who did not have pure Jewish blood, nor did they practice pure Jewish religion. 

When the exiled Jews were allowed to return back to Jerusalem, they found Samaritans living in their old neighborhood.  When the Samaritans heard that the exiles were rebuilding the temple, they came to the Jewish leader Zerubbabel and the heads of the Jewish families and offered to help in the rebuilding effort.  Ezra 4 records this exchange: “Let us help you build because, like you, we seek your God and have been sacrificing to him since the time of Esarhaddon king of Assyria, who brought us here.”  But Zerubbabel and the rest of the Israelites responded: “You have no part with us in building a temple to our God.  We alone will build it for the LORD, the God of Israel, as King Cyrus, the king of Persia, commanded us.”  The returning Jews saw the Samaritans as enemies, and firmly rejected their help.  Now, it is very possible that the Samaritans had evil intentions from the get-go, but I can also imagine the Samaritans were at first glad to see their distant relatives returning home, and perhaps they were genuinely eager to help in partnering with the returning Jews to rebuild Jerusalem from its rubble.   In other words, it’s at least possible to believe that the Samaritans wanted to be neighborly.

It is hard to have an offer of hospitality rejected.  Years ago, Beth and I moved into a home and we wanted to introduce ourselves to some of our neighbors.  On a snowy day, Beth made some cookies and called one neighbor to see if we could stop by to say hello.  The man on the other line said, “No, we’re OK.  We’ll meet you another time.”

The Jews rejected the Samaritans, and the Samaritans returned the favor by disrupting the rebuilding of both the temple and the walls of Jerusalem.  That sealed their hostility for one another, and their enmity passed on from one generation to another.  In Jesus’ day, one of the worst insults you could inflict on a Jew was to call him a Samaritan.  Earlier in Luke chapter 9, the disciples wanted to rain down fire from heaven to destroy a Samaritan village because the villagers refused to offer hospitality to Jesus.

So when Jesus described in this parable a Samaritan coming down the road, this wasn’t just one stranger helping another stranger stranded on the side of the road.  This was the potentially explosive encounter between two people with contentious back stories finding themselves in unfamiliar territory.  Here was a Jew born and raised to look down on Samaritans, finding himself physically battered in a ditch looking up at a Samaritan and at his mercy.  Here was a Samaritan burdened with centuries of rejection and oppression from Jews, having an upper hand and a rare opportunity to kick a hated Jew while he’s down. 

At this point in the parable, Jesus’ hearers would be bracing for impact between these two characters, but Jesus pulls a fast one and delivers the unexpected surprise.   When the Samaritan saw the Jew, he took pity on him, and displayed the hospitality of a neighbor to a presumably hated enemy.  It is hard for us to feel the surprising impact of Jesus’ parable today for we don’t see Samaritans as evil; rather, we most often hear about “good” Samaritans.  However, what groups of people would be the modern equivalent of Samaritans today?  Might they be Muslims, Tea Party candidates, undocumented immigrants, members of the Westboro Baptist Church or members of our own family whom we’ve cut off?  If we found ourselves in a scrape, would we accept help from a member of any of these groups?  Jewish scholar Amy-Jill Levine once asked this question in relation to this parable: “Is there anyone, from any group, about whom we’d rather die than acknowledge, ‘She offered help’ or ‘He showed compassion’?”  Is there any group whose members might rather die than help us?”   In this parable, Jesus is saying that those people are our neighbors, too. 

A neighbor is an individual whom we see not as a stereotype, but as a human being uniquely created and loved by God.  We can’t love our neighbor as ourselves if we only see our neighbor as a stereotype.  We may love the stereotype, but not the person.  We certainly would not want others to typecast us solely based their assumptions and projections of who they think we are based on our skin color, our jobs, our religion, our socio-economic status, our voting patterns.  So many times, we do not really see the person in front of us, whether they are strangers, or our spouse, our children, or our parents.  We only see our projection of them.  Our presuppositions and assumptions affect what we see, hear and believe. 

A lady sees a young man and says, “Henry, how you’ve changed!  You were so tall and you’ve grown so short.  You were so well built and you’ve grown so thin.  You were so fair and you’ve become so dark.  What happened to you, Henry?”  The young man replies, “I’m not Henry.  I’m John.”  “Oh!” replied the lady, “You changed your name, too!”[1] 

Remember our neighbor who wouldn’t let us bring cookies to his house?  We discovered later that he was wary of religious people.  So imagine him finding out that a Baptist minister moved into the neighborhood and wanting to knock on his door!  It would have been easy for him to assume that alongside the cookies, I was also bringing a big King James Bible!  It took a while for him to get to know us, and he was finally able to see me not as a Bible-thumping Baptist, but as a relatively friendly guy who wasn’t going to ram religion down his throat.

The Samaritan was able to see the Jew not as an oppressor, but as a hurting, broken individual.  Scripture says, “When he saw him, he took pity on him.”  In other words, the Samaritan had to change how he saw the Jew.  Likewise, the Jew would also have had to change how he saw the Samaritan.  The Samaritan was no longer beneath him, but someone from whom the Jew could accept help, rescue and care.  Hospitality does not mean always being the host and always helping others.  When you’re hosting, you always have the upper hand and home turf.  When you’re helping others, there’s always the temptation to look down on them.  But hospitality also means a willingness to be the guest and let others be in control, and to allow others to help us so that we’re in their debt.   Hospitality is the relationship between the guest and the host.  True hospitality occurs when we not only welcome homeless men into our fellowship hall and feed them meals during PACEM, but when we also receive their stories so that at the very least, we see them not as “homeless” but as individuals with unique experiences.  That’s when they become neighbors to us.  True hospitality occurs not only when you invite a new neighbor or colleague into your home, but when you accept an invitation to go into their home.

Finally, in early Church history, interpreters of this parable have seen the Samaritan as a Christ figure.  In the words of Isaiah 53:3, this Samaritan was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.  Like one from whom people hide their faces, he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.  In this telling, we all are the person in the ditch, and Jesus the Samaritan comes to us.  Pastor Eugene Peterson puts it this way, “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood” (John 1:14).  John also said that Jesus came to his own, but his own did not receive him, because they could not see Jesus beyond their stereotype and assumptions of what a Messiah ought to be.  But Jesus comes to us anyway, bringing oil and wine, and by his wounds, we are healed.  Jesus takes us to a place where we are fed and sheltered, and he pays for all the cost.  Jesus comes to us and offers the hospitality of a neighbor.  We are a community that receives this hospitality with thanksgiving so that we can go and do likewise for others. 

As we prepare for the service of communion, Jesus comes both as host and guest.  He comes offering the hospitality of a neighbor, offering bread and wine.  Will we receive him as honored guest and divine Lord?  Amen.

[1] Anthony de Mello, Awareness, p. 28.