Good Neighbors: It’s Not a Matter of Fences

Good Neighbors:  It’s Not a Matter of Fences

A Sermon Preached by the Rev. Susan Allison-Hatch

“And who is my neighbor?” the young lawyer asks Jesus.

Is there a soul in Christendom who does not know at least in rough outline the gist of the story Jesus tells in response to that question?  Even if you don’t know the story, even if you don’t have any knowledge of the Bible, if you were raised in America—and I suspect other cultures as well—you probably understand the meaning of the term, “Good Samaritan.”  It’s hard to avoid that term.  There are Good Samaritan hospitals.  Good Samaritan Counseling Centers.  Good Samaritan homes.  Good Samaritan laws.  Good Samaritan Veterinary clinics. And, the Jesuit theologian John Donahue reports, even Good Samaritan Healing Ointment.  “Good Samaritan”—the term has come to mean a person who comes to the aid of another.  A person who helps a stranger in need.

“Good Samaritan”—I suppose we should be grateful the term is so widely known, so often used.  And yet it troubles me when I hear that word Samaritan so easily tossed around. Its ubiquitousnesss drains the story of its power.  Taming it.  Limiting its scope.  Making it safe.

As the story goes, a man was going down the road from Jerusalem to Jericho.  A road rarely traveled alone.  A dangerous road.  A road plagued by bandits and thugs and thieves.  He was ambushed—robbed, stripped, beaten and left for dead.  A naked bloody mass on the side of the road.  Two people pass by, see him lying there, avert their eyes and cross the road.  A third passes by—a Samaritan.  As you well know, there was no love lost between Samaritans and Jews.  That bitter feud went way back into the mists of history.   In those days the words “good” and “Samaritan” were not linked together.

And yet as Jesus tells the story, it’s the Samaritan who stops and lends a hand.  A Samaritan—imagine that.  Samaritans were mistrusted and despised.  And yet it’s the Samaritan who cleans and binds that fellow’s wounds.  It’s the Samaritan who gently lays him on his own donkey.  It’s the Samaritan who takes him to an inn and spends the night tending to his wounds.  It’s the Samaritan who makes provisions for his long-term care.

I can imagine that word—Samaritan—grating on the ears of those who first heard this story.  I can imagine them saying to themselves, “Get on with it, Jesus.”   “Enough with this Samaritan business.”  “Just tell us who our neighbors are.  Just tell us whom we should treat with mercy and respect.”

Jesus asks,  “Which of these three…was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”  The answer is obvious.  The Samaritan—the stranger, the one folks fear—is the neighbor.    The lawyer can’t even bring himself to spit out the word “Samaritan”.

And yet it is that word, it is that thought, on which this story hinges.  It’s the word “Samaritan” and the notion of the hated other being not stranger but neighbor that gives this story so much power.  Jesus is reminding that young lawyer and all who hear this parable that our neighbors—those we are commanded to love as we love God—include the people we most fear, the people we try to  avoid, the people we are prone to despise.  What a radical thought. What a dangerous idea. No wonder the tides of history have worked to tame this parable.

And yet at the core of Jesus’ teaching, at the base of the kingdom—the kindom—of God is this notion that we are all God’s children and that we all share and participate in God’s limitless love.   In the words of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly” (Letter From a Birmingham Jail).

We are kin to one another.  That’s a radical notion.  Samaritans and Jews.  Kin to one another.  Hutus and Tutsis.  Kin to one another.  Shia and Sunni.  Kin to one another.  Israelites and Palestinians.  Kin to one another.  Hamas and Likkud.  Kin to one another.  People of Oakland and people of San Francisco.  Kin to one another.  Friends and family of Oscar Grant and friends and family of Johannes Mehserle.  Kin to one another.

Kin to one another.  That means our very survival depends on how we respond to one another’s needs.

Neighbor.  Kin.  In the reign of God the terms are interchangeable.

This week, as the Bay Area has waited on tenterhooks for the verdict in the Johannes Mehserle trial, I’ve found myself returning again and again to this notion of neighbor and kin.  I’ve found myself wondering, “What does it mean to be neighbor and kin to those who deeply mourn the death of Oscar Grant?”  “What does it mean to be neighbor and kin to those who care deeply for Johannes Mehserle?”  “What does it mean to be neighbor and kin to those demonstrate peacefully in front of Oakland’s City Hall?”  Harder still, “What does it mean to be neighbor and kin to those who rioted on the streets of Oakland?”  Finally, “What does it mean to be neighbor and kin to the people of Oakland?”

This week, I’ve found myself remembering something Bishop Gene Robinson said recently when talking about discipleship.    Rounding out his sermon, Bishop Robinson said, “Being a Christian means not only pulling a drowning person out of the water, but walking far enough upstream to find out who threw him in in the first place and then doing something about it.”  (

We followers of Jesus are called to walk upstream.  We’re called to take the time and make the effort to understand what makes our neighbors tick.  What wounds they bear.  What hurts they nurse.  What joys they cherish.  We are called, you and I, not only to love but also to know our neighbors as ourselves.

As I watched the pain on Oscar Grant’s mother’s face, I thought about the horror that now lies upstream in her life.  As I witnessed the trepidation many people felt as they waited for the verdict in that trial, I wondered, “What’s upstream?  What’s the history here?”   As I saw the look on the faces of Johannes Mehserle’s family, I wondered, “What is the ground of their fear?  What’s shaping their response?”

Neighbors and kin know one another’s history.

Neighbors and kin bear witness to one another’s joys and pains.

Neighbors and kin take the time to go upstream with one another.

At the end of the story Jesus says to the young lawyer, “Go and do likewise.”

You and I, we are called to be neighbors to those we know and to those we only know about, to those we trust and to those we fear.  We are called to be kin to one another.  And we are called to go upstream.

We who follow Jesus are called to be kin to all.

I’m reminded of a hymn I love to sing.  Perhaps you know it.

Jesu, Jesu,  fill us with your love,

Show us how to serve the neighbors we have from you.

Neighbors are rich and poor,

Neighbors are black and white,

Neighbors are nearby and far away.

These are the ones we should serve,

These are the ones we should love.

All are neighbors to us and you.

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