Neighbors

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Listen to “Neighbors” by Fred Smith

 

Like most of us, I’ve heard the Parable of the Good Samaritan since childhood and one thing has remained constant: the Samaritan has always been presented as a second-class citizen to the Jews. The Samaritan is always the underdog and the object of scorn, derision and even persecution.

So naturally, I’ve been trained to think of them as victims who did little to deserve the injustice they suffered. Isn’t the point of the story that it is the people we least expect to be compassionate who reveal our hypocrisy? Isn’t it those who have been demeaned who show us up for who we are?

But the Samaritans were not victims. They had betrayed their own family by giving up their identity and adhering to a rival and false religion when the Jews returned from Babylonia. They resisted the return and made it difficult for them to rebuild. For hundreds of years both of them believed they were right and the other wrong about everything. Both of them read with skepticism into the motives of everything the other did. They never missed a chance to hurt each other. While the Jews destroyed their place of worship the Samaritans desecrated the Temple by spreading human bones. I don’t think we have any better illustration of that particular kind of venom and mistrust than in our politics today. There is no foreign enemy we hate with as much intensity and suspicion as our other half.

As Jesus gradually exposes the hypocrisy of the Pharisee and Levite the crowd was no doubt delighted that the lawyer asking the question was about to be skewered. Shaming him would be good sport. But then Jesus turns the story upside down. He suddenly makes a hero out of one hated by everyone in the audience. Jesus intentionally uses a Samaritan when he could have used a prostitute or a publican and not caused such a visceral reaction. He always goes too far. Why alienate and intimidate all your listeners? Why not just make the lawyer squirm? But Jesus is never satisfied with our little categories and disputes. He is not going to align with one side of the aisle or the other. He is going to offend us now as he did then. But why?

Undeserving Heroes

Because the point has to be shocking – almost revolting – if we are to understand the nature of nearly everything Christ teaches – including kindness. Flannery O’Connor said, “To the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.” Jesus is dealing with the deaf and the almost blind – then and now. The point of the story is not the mere empathy of a stranger but something deeper and far more difficult. 

We never know what God will do with our enemies and those who are dug in against us. Many in Jesus’ audience would likely have stopped listening and walked away in disgust the moment he said “Samaritan,” and we are tempted to do the same. 

So what do you do when someone who betrays your most treasured values and beliefs – not merely an underdog – becomes the very symbol of what Jesus says it means to be a neighbor? What do we do with those who do not deserve to be heroes?

This week I have been thinking about the verse in Acts that reads “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” I have always read that to refer to geography but it is more than that. Our gospel has to have the power to go through our own versions of Samaria to reach the world. It has to go through our own notions about who is in and out and who is for and against us. It has to go through our own enemy’s territory before getting to the ends of the earth.  Otherwise, our gospel will just remain in Jerusalem and Judaea. It will be a gospel for us but it will never have the power to reach the ends of the earth unless it has the power to go through Samaria first. We would rather not. We would prefer going around Samaria and not have to deal with them but that is not what Jesus said. You must deal with Samaria. You must love your neighbors – even those you despise and, just as important, allow yourself to be loved by them. It is only in the power of the Holy Spirit that we will do that. It is only when we forgive each other as neighbors that our good news will make any sense to the uttermost parts of the earth.

 

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  • Avatar
    Nancy Crawford
    Reply

    Well said, my friend.

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Thank you, Nancy. So, what is the “retired life” like for you?

  • Avatar
    Jack Modesett
    Reply

    So I have to love Baptists from Tyler before I get to Mormons from Salt Lake? Nah…

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      If you fly Delta you have to go through Atlanta to get to Hell. Remember that one?

  • Avatar
    Trey
    Reply

    Fred, truly powerful insight. Maybe “far-reaching” a better adjective. However, your message would truly leave me in despair, but for one sentence that for me is the most important one: “It is only in the power of the Holy Spirit that we will do that.” But for Christ living in me, no way. Not possible. Far more difficult than trying to squeeze a camel through the eye of a needle. “Not I, but Christ who lives me” gives me a glimmer of hope that this wonderful message is more than something just to admire.

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Yes. The Christian life was always intended to be impossible – not just difficult.

  • Avatar
    Joe Wu
    Reply

    Thanks, Fred. Again, a powerful prod to get me beyond my comfort zone and to be with and actually love my neighbors. Yet it seems there are so many powerful forces around us today telling us it’s OK for our gospel to just “remain in our Jerusalem and Judaea.” We are encouraged to ditch our tents and build permanent shelters/fortresses so as to not be like those outside. It feels safe; it’s comfortable; and we take care of ourselves. We watch what we want to watch; we listen to what we want to listen to; and we act out what we believe in our own echo chamber to make sure we are not like those outside. Yet this is never the whole gospel, and what we need today is what you shared last week about forgiveness and this week about love and engagement with our true neighbors. Please keep sharing Fred and plant seeds. They are growing … with the power of the Holy Spirit!

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Thank you! This is so encouraging to me. Yes, it is not easy work, is it?

      • Avatar
        Rick Rogers
        Reply

        Thank you Fred, for a fresh and convicting perspective on this parable. It IS sometimes easier to go to Africa and love people there.

        • Fred Smith
          Fred Smith
          Reply

          Thank you, Rick. Yes, and we have encouraged that in so many ways. Living with our Samaritans is so, so hard!

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