When I was four-years old, I ran away from home!
Modeling a TV character, Hobo Kelly, I tried to pack all my worldly possessions in a bandanna and tie it to the end of a stick. They didn’t fit. So I made some choices, tied what I had and set out.
To my surprise, no one tried to stop me. Mom even said goodbye. My older self would have been suspicious, either she was up to something, or she didn’t mind me leaving. We lived about six houses down from a busy boulevard. I knew crossing that would be a challenge, but once across, well, the world awaited my four-year old self.
Three houses from the boulevard a screen door swung open. Nanny Emma waved, said hi and asked me where I was headed. I told her I was running away from home. She told me she had just made some cookies and wanted to know if I would like to have some. Such are the dilemmas of four-year olds, fresh cookies or runaway from home!
As I ate my cookies and drank some milk, mom stopped by to say hi to Nanny Emma. She was “surprised” I was there. Before long, the plate of cookies was gone, and I was headed home with mom. Years later she confessed to calling our neighbor and asking her to head me off. Two neighbors had teamed up to save me from the “brigands” of the boulevard.
It is appropriate that our word for the week of Independence is “Neighbor.” It is fitting as we gather at the table in worship, and commemorate our nation’s birthday that we consider the question Jesus asks: “Who is neighbor?” It is a reminder that our national independence is not about being alone, rather we celebrate a joint effort, the collaboration it took to bring about Independence, for without neighbors working together, it could not have happened.
When Jesus used God’s words to Moses about loving your neighbor, a lawyer asked him to clarify. Just who is a neighbor? The lawyer wanted a legal definition he could refer to in case the question ever came up in court. Perhaps something along the lines of: “A neighbor, (hereinafter referred to as the party of the first part) is to be construed as meaning a person of Jewish descent whose legal residence is within a radius of no more than three statute miles from one’s own legal residence unless there is another person of Jewish descent (hereinafter to be referred to as the party of the second part) living closer to the party of the first part than one is oneself, in which case the party of the second part is to be construed as neighbor to the party of the first and one is oneself relieved of all responsibility of any sort or kind whatsoever.”
Instead Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan. “Love your neighbor.” The point is this: your neighbor is anybody who needs you! Anybody, who needs you.
Easy to affirm – hard to do. The challenge is moving from principle to deeds, from command to concrete. Our human foible is to want that Lawyer’s pristine definition. Too often we draw a tight circle around our “neighborhood,” our tribe, the folks just like us. Those we define as neighbors. It is easy for a young mother to call the kindly neighbor down the street to corral a petulant four-year old with a plate of cookies. It is another thing when the need is outside what we consider our “neighborhood.” When it is “over there” and involves “others.”
So Jesus tells his story. Samaritans and Jews were enemies; two tribes caught in an ancient argument about birthright and ethnicity living in segregated neighborhoods. Forbidden to have contact with one another, when they did, violence could erupt. They were not good neighbors!
Still, Jesus turns the ancient Jewish command to love your neighbor into a story about these two hostile groups. The man in the ditch is left to rot by his supposed “neighbors,” those closest to him, his tribe. Instead he is rescued by one of those despised Samaritans.
And there is the rub for us. Where we tend to narrowly define “neighborhood,” or our “tribe,” Jesus enlarges the sphere of neighborhood to include those we deem objectionable. Anybody who needs you, is neighbor! Anybody.
And it is not just Jesus that recognizes God’s direction to Moses was for all humanity. In the Quran, the Prophet Muhammad also recognized our human tendency to shrink the size of our neighborhood. In his teachings he insisted that different kinds of people are actually neighbors in a wide circle of relationships: “…do good to parents, kinsfolk, orphans, the poor, the neighbor who is near of kin, the neighbor who is a stranger, the companion by your side, the wayfarer you meet.” And note this, he also warned: “Let him not harm or annoy his neighbor.” Muslims believe it is a sin merely to “annoy” your neighbor!
The point is this, all Abrahamic faiths push the boundary of neighborhood outward, envisioning the world as a large neighborhood. However the practice of the religions that sprang from such grand visions are far narrower, often defining neighbors as “people like us,” or “those who agree with us.”
It is a scary idea, to expand the neighborhood. During the 1990’s Bosnia-Serbian conflict a Croatian Serb and devout Christian was managing refugee resettlement in Croatia. As he worked on plans to rebuild a Muslim village destroyed by the war, he was surprised that the plans did not include a mosque for the village. When he asked the Muslim mayor of the town about it, the man told him he had assumed that Christian organizations would not be willing to help fund the rebuilding of a mosque.
The relief worker replied that it was because they were followers of Jesus Christ that they would help rebuild it. He said: “Jesus told a story about a good Samaritan who helped his neighbor without asking him about his theology.”
Read history, read newspapers, check your internet feed. There will always be some in the world who want their holy wars, who will discriminate, vilify, and even kill in the name of God. They will always shrink the concept of neighbor to include only those like themselves, in caste, race, or sex.
So we ask: Who is my neighbor? Jesus answered that question with the story of the Good Samaritan. My neighbor is anybody who needs me. Right know, someone needs you. Will you be their neighbor?