Won't You Be My Neighbor?

Take care of him and I will repay thee.  (Luke 10:35)

On an exterior wall of a relatively modern building at the Pennsylvania Hospital, on Spruce Street between 8th and 9th, there is an artistically unremarkable stone engraving of the 35th verse of the 10th chapter of Saint Luke’s Gospel depicting the Good Samaritan delivering his charge to the innkeeper.  Beneath this uninspired work is the old King James Version caption of a portion of that verse: “Take care of him and I will repay thee.”

I used to think there was irony in the placement of that particular verse on the side of a hospital in this age of economic rationalism and sky-rocketing healthcare costs.  But I now see that the irony is even deeper than I first imagined since the latter-day hospital builders managed to find a scriptural warrant for the assurance that medical care is going to cost something and someone has got to pay for it.

I wonder if the same irony was at work in 1800 when that hospital’s Board of Governors commissioned Benjamin West to paint his large canvas of Christ Healing the Sick in the Temple, which still hangs in the hospital.  But that’s a sermon for another text and another day.  In our own day the assurance is carved right there into the stone, that healthcare is tied up with economics, as, apparently it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be.

Everyone knows the parable of the Good Samaritan, and even if you don’t know the details, you certainly know the gist of it.  Alongside the parable of the Prodigal Son, it may be one of the most familiar (and approved-of) passages in the New Testament.  And you don’t need me to explain its meaning to you.  We do sometimes forget the context in which Jesus told this parable, and specifically we sometimes forget that he told it as an answer to a question.  Both of these matters, despite their ancient setting, are thoroughly modern in tone.  The context is that Jesus is being questioned by a lawyer.  And the specific question for which the parable of the Good Samaritan is the answer is this: “And who is my neighbor?”

Jesus, of course, has just agreed with the lawyer’s summary of the whole of Jewish law in two commandments: Love God with everything you have and love your neighbor as yourself.  Then Luke tells us that the lawyer, “desiring to justify himself,” asks Jesus the question: “And who is my neighbor.”

We can assume that from Luke’s point of view, anyway, the lawyer was hoping for a rather narrow reading of the law on this point.  We can assume that the lawyer, although perhaps initially skeptical of Jesus, was happy to listen to the wandering rabbi of Nazareth as long as he got to leave feeling good about himself.  We can assume that the lawyer imagined that he was both good at keeping the law and a good neighbor.  Jesus assumes none of this.  We can assume that the lawyer (like any half-decent lawyer) thought he already knew the answer to his question when he asked it.  Jesus assumes nothing of the kind.

For our part, we have embraced the parable as a part of every decent Christian child’s learning, much like the importance of sharing.  This is the type of childhood learning that we are amazingly good at outgrowing.  But we have mostly ignored the importance of the question: And who is our neighbor?

If Wolf Blitzer and the other newscompoops (to coin a word) who conduct political debates wanted to ask a probing question about a candidate’s religious or faith perspective, rather than asking about his or her views on evolution, they might ask that simple question: And who is my neighbor?  Who is our neighbor?  It could be interesting to hear politicians discuss this question for the next fifteen months rather than the blather we will be subjected to.  I would be fascinated to sit in on a Bible study among the Democratic candidates, for instance, of this verse, Luke 10:35 – “Take care of him and I will repay thee.”  Where is the emphasis in that sentence?  Is it in the giving of care or the offering of payment?  And just who is who in the real-life pageant of this parable.  Can I simply choose to be the innkeeper and keep a running tally of the bills, or does the burden of the story require me to try on the Samaritan’s costume and to reach into my Samaritan’s wallet from time to time?  Who is my neighbor?  Who is your neighbor?  Who is our neighbor?

As I walked down Spruce Street the other day, glancing over again at the stone-carved cartoon of this scene on the wall, I thought about the question that prompted this scene, and a song started running through my head.  Not a whole song, just a phrase, over and over, in the most annoying way.  I pictured the singer, let’s call him Fred, slipping off is loafers, tying on his comfy shoes, sliding his arms into a well-worn cardigan and asking over and over again in his sing-song way: Won’t you be my neighbor?  And I realized how shockingly subversive was this song and its message; how baldly religious in its meaning and intent; how profoundly suggestive of the Gospel of love that Jesus taught, if only anyone ever thought about that question.  Who is my neighbor?

Fred Rogers with his puppets and his trains and his simple songs spent every working day of his life trying to get us, as children, to learn the question because he hoped it might lead to some good answer.  He hoped, I imagine, that it might lead to the parable of the Good Samaritan.  And I think he must have known that if we didn’t have the question drilled into our heads, we might forget it as easily as we forget how important it is to share.  When was the last time you really shared something?  I mean really shared?  And when was the last time it mattered who your neighbor was?

The Good Samaritan did more than pick up a bleeding man from the side of the road. He did more than bind his wounds; more than set him on his own beast and deliver him to the inn.  The Good Samaritan took two-days-worth of his own paycheck and paid the innkeeper in advance with the promise to pay more.   And Jesus said to the lawyer, “Go and do likewise.”

We all know something of the parable of the Good Samaritan, but if we haven’t learned the question – and why it matters – then what difference does it make if we know about the story?  And how could we ever go and do likewise if we have no interest in the radical explanation Jesus supplies to that question?  

I live in the middle of the fifth largest city in America.  I know a lot of people in need; every day I see a lot of people who are bleeding on the side of the road, so to speak.  And I have crossed the street more than once in the past week more than once to avoid someone I just couldn’t find the grace to help.  How can I preach on this text without seeking to justify myself?

I could rail against the failure of our government or our political parties to find the will or the way to provide universal healthcare.  (And I would like to!)  And we could argue about whether or not it is my job or yours as a Christian to advocate for policies like universal healthcare.

But a more helpful thing to do is to keep our eyes on the question.  To try not to forget that lawyer’s question: Who is my neighbor?

And we have to try not to forget the way Mr. Rogers insisted on hammering it into our heads: with the conviction that if we knew the question, at least we had a chance at reaching an answer.  Won’t you be my neighbor?  Won’t you go and do likewise?  Won’t you extend yourself and your resources for anyone but yourself and those you can’t avoid by crossing over to the other side of the road?  Won’t you be my neighbor?  Won't you be somebody's neighbor?

Much as I would like it to be, the parable of the Good Samaritan is not a rallying cry for universal healthcare.  Even in this well-known Sunday School story economics and healthcare are already mixed up together.  The parable of the Good Samaritan is a call to universal neighborliness, which means more than saying hello on the street or picking up after your dog.  It is an injunction to neighborliness.  

And have we been hoping for a narrow reading of the law on this question?  Have we been willing to listen to that wandering rabbi, Jesus, as long as we got to go home on Sunday mornings feeling good about ourselves?  Have we assumed that we are good at keeping Jesus’ two simple rules (love God; love your neighbor)?  And have we assumed that we already know the answer to the question?

Every time we hear this parable read to us, Jesus means for us to remember that we have not even begun to know who our neighbors are.  He does not presume that somehow the nexus of healthcare and economics is going to disappear.  He is not giving a policy seminar; he is teaching us about neighborliness.

A few weeks ago, Warren Buffet pointed out that he was taxed last year at an average rate of 17.7% on $46 million of earnings, while his secretary, who earned $60,000, was taxed at a rate of 30%.  You would think he would keep his mouth shut.  And you would think he would be advocating for tax policy that protects his remarkable, if perverse, privilege.

I can only assume that Mr. Buffet either remembered a lot from Sunday School or he watched a lot of Mr. Rogers, since he seems to be at least interested in the question of neighborliness.  Perhaps he realizes that he does not have to be a Good Samaritan every time he turns around, but he does have to be a good neighbor.  Perhaps with an estimated net worth of $52 billion, he is no longer worried about justifying himself.  And does he now feel free to ask the question, Who is my neighbor?  (As he demonstrated when he decided not long ago to give much of his money away.)

And when, in this country, we have decided to stuff the pockets of a tiny few (like Mr. Buffett, or like hedge fund managers, for instance) with enough wages to pay the workers of entire cities, do we think it would be a reasonable question to ask – Won’t you be my neighbor?  Won’t you be somebody’s neighbor?

It is an inescapable aspect of this simple, childhood lesson that being a good neighbor sometimes means reaching into your pockets and paying… and maybe even promising to pay more if it’s needed.  And so the test for Mr. Buffett – and for you and for me – will be just how willing we are to take that question seriously, just how willing we are to go and do likewise.

Is it harder or easier to reach down deep into your pocket if you have $52 billion in the bank?  We always think it must be easier, but studies tell us that it is harder – that the wealthy give away a smaller proportion of their wealth than the merely middle-class.  How hard it is to do it!  How hard it is to be a good neighbor!  How hard it is to live our lives governed by these two simple commandments: Love God with everything you have and love your neighbor as yourself.  How hard it is!

But Jesus knew then and knows now the wisdom that Moses had known all those centuries before, that “this commandment… is not too hard for you, neither is it far off.  It is not in heaven, that you should say, “’Who will go up for us to heaven, and bring it down to us, that we may hear it and do it?’  Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us, and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’  But the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it.”  

Mr. Rogers knew this all along.  It is not too hard to love God and to love our neighbors!  He knew how near the word was: as near as a simple, silly song.  And he was right: the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so that you can do it!  And it begins with a question: Who is my neighbor?  Won’t you be my neighbor?

Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
15 July 2007
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on July 16, 2007 .