Being a Neighbor

I grew up in a Christian home in the 90’s and early 00’s, so it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to anyone that I grew up on Veggie Tales. I have seen every single episode, sung along to every weird song, and learned about biblical and social issues as they were played out by animated, goofy fruits and vegetables.

One of my favorite episodes was “Are You My Neighbor?” which retold the parable of the Good Samaritan. This may have something to do with the fact that the “Silly Songs with Larry” song was about Larry looking for his hairbrush, but I watched the entire episode enough times that it left an impression. For those of you who haven’t seen the episode, or haven’t seen it recently enough to remember, I’ll give you the abridged version:

Larry lives in Flibber-o-loo and Junior lives in Jibberty-lot. The residents of each of these towns wear a signature head piece (a shoe and a pot, respectively) and, because they think the other town’s choice in headwear is ridiculous, want nothing to do with each other. One day, Larry goes out on a road and gets robbed, with his attackers leaving him upside down in a hole, unable to get out. Two of his townsmen pass by, refusing to help him because they are otherwise engaged in their own lists of things to do. Finally, Junior discovers him, and even though neither town gets along or wants anything to do with the other, Junior recognizes that Larry needs help, and he helps him. He takes him to safety and pays for his lodging and medical bills. (And then the infamous “Oh where is my hairbrush?” song comes on, which I still sing when I can’t find things, and the episode goes on to its next part.)

When Jesus initially tells this parable, He is asked by a religious scholar what one needs to do to get into Heaven. Jesus asks him what Mosaic law said he had to do and the man recites teachings he had meditated on for most of his life, saying, “‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your strength, and all your mind.’ And, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.'” Jesus agrees and says that if the man does this, he will live. But the scholar wanted a more precise definition of who he was supposed to be caring for, so he asks, “And who is my neighbor?” He wanted a loophole that let him love the people that looked and thought like him, and could readily be classified as “his people”. He wanted to love the people within his own political party, and within his own religion – and he was hoping that Jesus would give him a palatable answer.

Instead, Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan. He concludes His story by asking, “Now which of these three would you say was a neighbor to the man who was attacked by bandits?'”

I want to pause here for a second. Because the correct answer to Jesus’s question, at first glance, is all three of them. Regardless of city of origin or belief system – every single person who came across the man on that road was, at least passively, his neighbor. You could argue that the Levite and the Priest were more obviously his neighbor. They were all Jews, after all, while the Samaritan was not. It seems like the obvious choice that these two Jews would take care of their own. If anything, the scholar who Jesus is telling this story to has just outlined the reason why they should – eternal life at that point hinged upon loving God with everything and loving their neighbors selflessly.

And yet these two men hurried past him, choosing to ignore his need.

Jesus was not asking which of the three of them was inherently, religiously, or geographically his neighbor. He is asking which of the three men acted like a neighbor to the robbed man. Which of them, given the fact that the robbed man needed help, actively chose to be what a neighbor was supposed to be?

He was, by every definition, the two Jewish men’s neighbor, but they did not choose to be a neighbor to him. It was not convenient to come to his aid, nor did it benefit them in any tangible way, so they didn’t.

The one who acted like, who chose to be, a neighbor to him had every justifiable right to pass by the man. If you read the history of the Samaritans and the Jews – they were two groups that hated each other and treated the other poorly, if they even acknowledged the other at all. There were centuries of feuds and disagreements between the two peoples and it could have provided plenty of ammunition for the Samaritan man to walk by and let the Jewish man die. But he didn’t. He rescued him, tending to his wounds, placing him upon his own donkey and took him to an inn to recuperate, paying for the room upfront for as long as it took for the Jewish man to heal.

The scholar answers Jesus’s question by saying, “[His neighbor was] The one who showed him mercy.”

You all are my neighbors. You the republican, you the democrat, you the pro-lifer, you the pro-choicer, you the libertarian, you the atheist, you the agnostic, you the LGTBQ community member, you the immigrant, you the foreigner, you the Christian, you the Muslim – you are all, by right of being my fellow human beings, my neighbor. But am I being a neighbor to you? Am I the one that shows you mercy?

I want to be. I feel an ache in my spirit to be. I believe that the only way that I know to genuinely love you like Jesus loves you is to be a neighbor to you. And that means that I have to fight past my pride, my tendency to want to hoard my own money and resources, my need to not rock the boat and not step out of my comfort zone – to care for you in a way that is merciful. That is selfless.

I don’t have to agree with you, I don’t have to end up looking just like you – we are working towards unity, not uniformity. But when you need my help, how can I withhold it from you? How can I look at you and not do that which is within my means to help you? How can I say that I love you and not let that love move me to action?

The parable in Luke ends with the scholar having admitted to Jesus that the one who is a neighbor is the one who shows mercy and Jesus’s response to him. Jesus could have gloated that He outsmarted the scholar. He could have further embarrassed the scholar by pointing out all of the ways that the he had been failing to meet the mandate for eternal life. He could have, but He didn’t. He instead reiterated the same commandment that the scholar already knew, that he was already practicing, and coaxed him to be inclusive. To expand the perimeter around those he considered to be his people. To be, in both name and action, neighborly to those who had always been his neighbors.

Now which of these three would you say was a neighbor to the man who was attacked by bandits?” Jesus asked. The man replied, “The one who showed him mercy.” Then Jesus said, “Yes, now go and do the same.” }

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