Our gospel reading is one of the most familiar stories from the Bible. And it asks some very important questions. Who is our neighbor? What does it mean to act like a neighbor? Jesus taught that the two most important commandments are to love God and to love our neighbor as God loves us. But they were not new ideas; they had been taught in Jewish scripture for centuries. The people who made up Jesus’ audience as he told this story would have learned those basic teachings from early childhood. The lawyer who asked Jesus the question “Who is my neighbor?” and the people listening to Jesus would have been familiar with these words from the nineteenth chapter of Leviticus: “… you shall love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD… When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” And from the tenth chapter of Deuteronomy, God “loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.
In spite of this central teaching, the people of Jesus’ time and place were very tribal in their relationships. Their first loyalty was to immediate family and then to extended family who were the members of their particular tribe, then to the Jewish nation as a whole. Even though Samaritans were descendants of the tribe of Joseph, the rest of the Jewish tribes considered them to be outsiders. The Samaritans considered themselves to be Jewish, but their center of worship was on Mount Gerizim rather than the temple in Jerusalem. The orthodox Jews considered Samaritans to be not only heretics but also as ceremonially unclean. Relationships between the Jews of Judea and Galilee and the Samaritans varied from uneasy to downright hostile.
People who lived in rural America often had few opportunities to interact with people who were different from themselves until well into the twentieth century. Commentator Michael Rogness references his father, who grew up in a small town in North Dakota. The only people he knew were Norwegian Lutherans. He never even met a Roman Catholic until he was a teenager! Yet each succeeding generation of their family has had their world expanded to include many diverse people. His father’s great-grandchildren count African-Americans, Hispanics and Muslims as well as new immigrants to this country among their friends at school.
In spite of our multi-ethnic world, we cannot deny that we can sometimes still be very tribal in our relationships. For the most part, we tend to show loyalty to family and friends who we consider to be “like us.” Of course, modern “tribes” are not necessarily based on religion or ethnic background. A tribe can be made up of people who share a common occupation, for example, those who serve as police or fire fighters. Our tribes tend to be the people with whom we spend the most time. Exceptions often occur in extraordinary circumstances, when people from different walks of life will join together and help one another.
Whenever this story comes up in the lectionary we always hope to find modern illustrations of what Jesus was trying to teach in the first century. Recently there was an article in the New York Times about people acting as good Samaritans to families who are refugees from the civil war in Syria. The article explained that in Canada, giving aid to refugees who have been vetted and given permission to immigrate is not limited to the government. Although just over half of the new immigrants are helped by the government, the rest are helped by groups of private citizens who band together and raise enough money to subsidize a family for a year, as well as help them integrate into Canadian society. They find a suitable apartment for the family, furnish it, help them enroll their children in school, and assist the adults in finding jobs and learning English, as well as providing other support.
The groups are formed through friends, co-workers and other affiliations. The members of the groups are Christian, Jewish, Muslim or not religious at all, as well as being from varying ethnic backgrounds. Some of the hosts are descendants of refugees from Viet Nam and Cambodia who were helped to integrate into Canadian life over 40 years ago. They see this as an opportunity to pay back the help they were given. The refugee families arrive tired, confused and usually leery of what kind of welcome they will receive. They have usually spent months if not years in a refugee camp. Most of these families are middle class people like us who had to flee from their homes, leaving their community, their customs, and most of their possessions behind. They are so surprised and relieved when they are greeted at the airport by a group of people who welcome them and take them to a safe place, sometimes in their own homes, until a suitable apartment is found for them.
The members of the groups use their individual skills and talents to help the families integrate into society. They might help in the job search, tutor adults in English and children in school work. One family arrived expecting a new baby. Tragically they had lost a child born in the refugee camp. On the day the mother suddenly went into labor, they could not find the father. It was his day off from work and he had gone with some friends to play soccer. Two of the women accompanied the mother to the hospital and acted as her labor coaches until others brought the dad to the hospital so he could join his wife for the birth. After their little girl was safely delivered, as is their custom, he called his father to ask what they should name her. The father said “Julia” because she is a Canadian and she should have a name from her new country.
Although it is difficult and often bewildering for these families to integrate into Canadian society, they work hard at it. The men who don’t speak English try to learn so they can get jobs that reflect the level of responsibility they had in Syria. It feels demeaning for a man who owned his own store or worked in a hospital or as a teacher to stock shelves in a grocery store. So they study hard in order to regain their status. The freedom and level of education is usually a far greater contrast for the women, yet most of the men encourage their wives not only to learn English but to better themselves with advanced education. In Syria that would have been a source of derision for them, but they are willing to support this new role for their wives because their previous status was not due to a lack of love or respect but to following cultural norms.
The immigrants often feel uneasy about being on the receiving end of so much generosity. As their status improves, they usually try to do things for their host group. They invite them for meals and celebrate birthdays and other milestones. Recently one of the women who initially formed her host group was diagnosed with breast cancer. She says that for the past year she was so involved helping their new immigrant family, now they, along with the rest of their host group, are supporting her.
The lawyer in the story asks Jesus “Who is my neighbor?” That answer is deceptively simple – Jesus illustrates that our neighbor is not just the person we might identify as a neighbor, but in reality is anyone in need of our help. At the end of the story, Jesus asks his own question of the lawyer. Not, “who is the neighbor?” but rather “who acted like the neighbor to the man in need?” The lawyer responds correctly and Jesus advises him to “go and do likewise.” That ending of the story encourages us to focus on acting as neighbor to others.
As a faith community we can be a little tribal – we stick together and help one another, but we also help the stranger who needs us. May we always be open to recognizing opportunities to help those who are different from us, so that, like the host groups in Canada and their refugee families, our lives may be changed together, forever. Amen.