The title of this week’s blog comes from a song I learned watching Sesame Street 30 plus years ago. I’m sure most of you know it, sing with me…
Oh, who are the people in your neighbourhood?
In your neighbourhood?
In your neighbourhood?
Say, who are the people in your neighbourhood?
The people that you meet each day.
The sketch that goes along with this song pits a human adult with various Muppet Characters explaining that people you see everyday doing routine tasks are valued members of society, even heroes because the jobs they do are what keep our neighbourhoods alive, safe and thriving. The song has evolved over the years and the list has grown to include; Postmen, Firefighters, Bakers, Teachers, Barbers, Bus Drivers, Dentists, Grocers, Cleaners and Garbage Collectors, all getting their turn to play the hero. The message is simple; every job has value, treat people with respect because these are the people in your neighbourhood, the people that you meet each day.
Thinking of this reminds me of something Jesus said a while back. Jesus was once asked what it took to inherit eternal life and his response was to point out the greatest commandment of all.
Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind; and, Love your neighbour as yourself. [Luke 10:27]
But wanting some clarification (some people call it justification but I think that’s a bit self righteous, I think if we are being honest we all want some clarification on this point) the expert asked him a follow up question that on the surface seems pretty logical to me. He asked “but who is my neighbour?” [Luke 10:29]
Much to the disappointment of my inner four year old Jesus did not respond with a quaint little song about Firefighters and Bus Drivers, or talk about people who act like me, think like me or look like me. He responded with perhaps the harshest critique of society ever recorded, and little has changed in the past two thousand years to soften the blow.
In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’
“Which of these three do you think was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” [Luke 10:30-36]
This familiar story was and is a harsh critique of society for at least three reasons.
First off it exposes the dangers of going it alone. The road from Jerusalem to Jericho was notoriously dangerous, it was a rocky path that descended several thousand feet in elevation over a fairly short distance as the crow flies, as a result it took the better part of a day to travel as anyone who has tried to walk down a steep hillside knows, you can’t go very fast on a path like that. Out running an attacker would have been difficult. As a mountain pass it also provided quite a bit of cover for someone wishing to set an ambush. For that reason it was a favourite of highway men and bandits and very few people would attempt the journey alone. Although most commentators don’t talk much about this it’s worth noting, had the traveller been in a group he would have been a lot less likely to be attacked in the first place.
Second, and the most commonly sighted message of this story, it exposes religious hypocrisy. First a priest, then a Levite, the traditional temple assistants, fail to provide aid to a dying man on the side of the road. Maybe they too were travelling alone and were afraid they would be attacked if they stopped, maybe they were more concerned about ceremonial purity because Jewish law makes it clear that to touch a dead body means you need to go through an elaborate cleansing ritual before you can re-enter the temple and maybe they were just in a hurry and decided that their agenda was more important than a man’s life. The point is, if you truly believe that there is no greater commandment then to “love your neighbour as yourself”, then there is no excuse for not demonstrating that kind of love every chance you get. A priest and a Levite of all people should have known better.
Lastly, and the point that I believe is the most profound in the whole story and the one that get’s glossed over far too often by most commentators is this; the very question “who is my neighbour” assumes that there is a line between who God wants us to love and those who just don’t matter as much. This point is alluded to in the fact that the real hero of the story is a Samaritan, someone who the first listeners would have considered an outsider and someone even the victim would refuse the help of if he could. This last point is really driven home by the question Jesus poses back on his inquisitor when he’s finished telling the story. “Who do you suppose was a neighbour to the man?”[Luke 10:36]. Jesus turns the original question on its head and makes it clear that we shouldn’t be thinking in terms of who is my neighbour but who can I be a neighbour to?
On facebook I follow a group that calls themselves The Christian Left. The self stated purpose of the group is to expose and shame the hypocrisy of the Christian Right and their hijacking of the political discourse of the United States away from a more socially responsible understanding of traditional Christian values. The Christian Left is a volunteer organization that sustains itself and covers some its costs through the sale of merchandise. It’s most popular t-shirt says on the front simply “Love Thy Neighbour” on the back it says, “Love Thy Neighbour: thy homeless neighbour, thy Muslim neighbour, thy black neighbour, thy gay neighbour, thy immigrant neighbour, thy Jewish neighbour, thy Christian neighbour, thy atheist neighbour, thy disabled neighbour, thy addicted neighbour”. While I like the sentiment of the list and the fact that it casts a broad net, it’s still a net and it still assumes that there are people who can fall outside of God’s love.
I’ve rattled on a bit too much on this and I’m sure most of you get the point by now but I just want to make one last personal clarification. I do not condone murder, follow or even agree with the tenants of Islam and I don’t sanction gay marriage. I don’t believe that the scriptural directive to love my neighbour necessitates that I do any of those things. The directive as explained in the story of the Good Samaritan is to BE a neighbour, provide comfort hope and shelter when needed and by doing so I am demonstrating God’s love in a tangible and profound way. Any opportunity to evangelize and speak the rest of my personal convictions into the situation will only be appropriate and accepted after I have shown that kind of other centred love.
To stretch the point of the Sesame Street song I learned when I was four; we are all people in our neighbourhoods and it’s high time we started acting like it.