Listening & Understanding Your Neighbor - Luke 10:25-37
The Parable of the Good Samaritan is one of the most famous parables in the Bible. It’s only in Luke’s Gospel and it comes up in the lectionary once every three years. It’s a brilliant story with both an obvious message and a deeper meaning that becomes apparent the more you contemplate it. The more obvious message is to do good for others like the Samaritan does good for the man who fell victim to robbers. A little deeper down is the meaning behind why Jesus chose to tell this story as his answer to the question “Who is my neighbor?” It's not just a parable about someone doing something kind for another person. It’s a parable about the WRONG person doing something kind. The person you’d least expect. And it’s a parable that Jesus tells to teach people that those who are different from us are our neighbors just as much as our best friend who lives next door. This parable is meant to change the way we see things, to change the way who we understand our neighbor to be.
For both of these reasons this scripture is a text that tends to get preachers in trouble. There’s a simple reason for that. It happens when you tie together the theme of caring for others with the theme of recognizing our own prejudices that lead us to dismiss the needs of our neighbor. This is a parable that simultaneously calls us to change our minds and to change our actions. Now it’s easy for us to hear that in Jesus’ time Jews didn’t like Samaritans, and so that’s why he chose a Samaritan as the hero here. We might think how backward they were in Jesus’ day for hating someone because of their religion or ethnicity, and then we can’t see the same sinful pattern in ourselves. And so it’s a preacher’s job to raise up real world examples to get us as close as possible to how shocking and audacious and personally challenging this parable would have been to those who first heard it. To help us see how we do the same thing and refuse to acknowledge our neighbor bruised and beaten on the roadside.
Three years ago I preached on this text and I felt called by God to use the real world example of our nation’s border crisis—our border camps and family separation policy that was in place at the time. Three years before that, when I was serving my first call in Pennsylvania I felt God calling me to begin my sermon on the Good Samaritan with the words “Black Lives Matter” and use the real world example of two Black men who had recently been killed by excessive police force. Both times I tried to raise up situations in which the church could stand up for our neighbors who look different from us. Both times there were some people who really appreciated the message and others who were really bothered by it.
The Parable of the Good Samaritan is supposed to be a challenging story. It’s supposed to challenge us to see differently. And it’s supposed to challenge us to act differently. It’s not just a critique of the sinful mindset that caused hostility between first century Jews and Samaritans. It’s also a critique of that same sinful mindset present in us, whether we recognize it or not, calling us to wake up to how our own prejudices lead us to refuse to acknowledge our neighbor.
There’s another controversial topic in the news lately that I think can help us identify our unwillingness to listen and understand our neighbor. Recently, one of you asked me if I felt the church could help our nation address all the current division and nastiness in our culture. And I said yes absolutely! And this week, after telling God there was no way I would bring this up in a sermon, I felt the Holy Spirit’s persistent nudging to address this uncomfortable topic in light of this parable’s call to see our neighbor. It’s the topic of abortion and the overturning of Roe vs. Wade. I’m not going to give my own opinion on it, and I’m not going to call us to any kind of action besides simply listening to each other.
But it’s precisely because this is the most divisive topic in the news today that it’s the most appropriate illustration to use when exploring the meaning of the Parable of the Good Samaritan.
How does this topic serve as a real world example of refusing to see our neighbor? The feelings between people who identify as strongly pro-life and strongly pro-choice might resemble the hostility with which first century Jews and Samaritans viewed each other. On this issue and on so many others, there’s a refusal to listen to people we perceive as our opponents. I’ve noticed this sinful pattern in myself in the past as well. For example, when I hear people say “Being against abortion isn’t about caring for children, it’s about wanting to control women.” That may be how it feels when someone claims to be pro-life but opposes gun control, universal healthcare, publicly funded preschool, and making maternity leave a law rather than just a job perk. But if we’re ever going to get anywhere in dialogue, we need to take people at their word. And acknowledge what people are saying their concern is and not project our own assumptions thinking we know the real reason behind their stance.
Likewise, those on the other side of the issue assume, “If you’re willing to abort a baby the day after conception it’s no different from killing a baby the day after it’s born.” But nobody who’s pro-choice sees it that way. Again, it’s a projection of assumptions and if we’re ever going to get anywhere in dialogue, we need to acknowledge and try to understand where the other position is coming from. Ask them sincerely about their knowledge of reproductive biology and be open to learning from them.
A lot of the time it feels like we’re speaking different languages. When one side emphasizes the right of the fetus to life and the other side emphasizes the right of the woman to bodily autonomy, it sounds like they're talking about two completely different things. Neither side even seems to want to acknowledge the concern of the other. They don’t seem to hear each other. Or even want to.
My point is that on this issue and so many others, it is our refusal to listen to our neighbor that divides us. Jesus told this story to point out the prejudice between Jews and Samaritans. And I’m using this example to try and do the same for us. St. Francis talked about seeking to understand rather than to be understood. This seeking to understand our neighbor is what this parable calls us to.
To do this takes a contemplative mindset, a non-dualistic way of seeing. It takes a mature mind with humility and empathy that can only come from being grounded in our Source, rooted in God. That’s why I think this way of seeing—which is generally only taught by religion and spirituality and is very much ignored in the realm of politics—this mindset is the key to transforming our world. To growing humanity up into a new consciousness. A new way of being. Mystics sometimes call it “both/and” thinking as opposed to “either/or” thinking. This new way of understanding is what Jesus was trying to teach in this parable and in so many of his teachings.
Truly understanding where the other is coming from may not change our political positions, or our religious beliefs, but it will likely change the way we feel about our opponents—or should I say our neighbors. Trying to understand someone may not get us all on the same page with every single issue, but it will make us more accepting of their opinions when we actually try to understand where they’re coming from. Seeing them as neighbors working for the same good. Players on the same team who just have a different game plan.
The reason for Jesus’ telling of this parable was to shock his listeners into a new understanding about Samaritans. He told the parable to challenge the judgements and assumptions of his audience. And hearing this parable should invite us to challenge our judgments and assumptions too.
Scripture tells us God is at work healing our prejudices, judgements, and assumptions, redeeming our sinful patterns, and transforming our minds to be united in the will of God. That doesn’t necessarily mean we all have the same opinion about everything, but that we each approach reality with honesty, humility, and a desire for truth and let whatever our opinions are flow from that. And also that we respect and honor our neighbor’s opinion as expressing their own honest and humble search.
A good practice to start with is to ask ourselves: When was the last time I changed my opinion about something? When was the last time I let new information change my feelings or beliefs? Enter into that with honesty and humility. And if you’ve never changed your opinion about anything, ask yourself why. And be open to God transforming your mind. It might be scary but that’s where growth happens. In listening, in understanding, in humbly exploring our own mindset and God’s call to us.
That type of listening and that type of humility is rare in our country these days. But it is cultivating that contemplative mindset that we are called to as Christians. As Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan to reveal a truth about his people’s prejudices, so are Christians of all times and places challenged by this parable to understand our neighbor in new ways. To become aware of the sinful patterns of division in our own minds, and to prayerfully dismantle and transform them with the help of God. Whatever action is necessary, will flow from there. Just like the Good Samaritan on the road to Jericho, we will respond to reality in a way that honors God’s will when we take this calling to heart. We may not always respond perfectly, but by living into this way of understanding and this way of acting—this mind of Christ—we will be salt for the earth, leaven in the bread, a model for the world of how to be children of the light, how to be neighbors to one another.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Pastor Brian, 7/10/22