But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem into Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers…” Luke 10: 29-30a

Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. – Deuteronomy 30:11

Who is my neighbor?

The man awoke to find that his nightmare had been reality.  He could barely move, although the gravel under his cheek was uncomfortable and the odor of the nearby trashcans was suffocating.  His friends had warned him never to walk home alone, at night, but then his car had broken down, and what other choice did he have?  He wasn’t even sure, thinking back, where the attackers had come from – just materialized out of the shadows, it had seemed, delivering a beating that probably should have killed him.  Certainly, they’d left him there as though he were dead, caring more for his wallet, keys and phone than for his life.  He tried not to think about what they were doing now – emptying his account, probably.  So much for rent, for bills this month… so much for being even a little bit ahead, it would be paycheck to paycheck for a while to come.  If he survived.

He thought about his family, how worried they would be.  Not now, he hoped; he’d told them not to wait up, that he’d be home later.  Would it be morning before they noticed?  Before someone came looking for him? Would he make it that long?

With as much strength as he could muster, he lifted his head.  He was close to the entrance to the alley, close to the street – perhaps someone would see him?  He blinked, sure he was seeing things, but sure enough – there was actually someone walking up his side of the street! A minister, he was sure of it – the white collar glowing slightly in the glare of the streetlamps.  He rested his head on the pavement again, exhausted from even that little bit of movement.  Surely the minister would see him, there in the alley?  Surely he would get help…

It was a long time before he could open his eyes again; long enough that he was sure the minister ought to have gotten to him by then.  What was taking so long?  For that matter, where had he gone?  The street was empty.  Wait: almost empty.  Was that an angel, under that streetlamp, dressed in white? He squinted; no, it was a doctor, or someone – the white was a lab coat.  He considered trying to drag himself closer to the street, where he could not be missed, but even the effort it was taking to keep his eyes open was too much.  He lay where he was, straining to hear footsteps; for a moment, he was certain that he could, but then the sound was gone without having come close, without having passed by the alley.  He raised his head and looked the other way up the street… but it couldn’t be…. wasn’t that the doctor, over there on the other side, walking away?  And a couple blocks further up, the minister?

He tried to understand.  They had to have seen him, but perhaps they were late – going to midnight mass, or going to surgery?  Perhaps they couldn’t stop and get messy right then… but the church and the hospital were both in the opposite direction…

His head fell again, and he felt a wave of drowsiness that had little to do with the late hour.  So this is it, he thought, this is how I will die.

Barely conscious, it took a moment to feel the arm that slipped around his shoulders, pulling him gently up.  It took less time to register the horrible smell – of stale alcohol, urine, and something else, indefinable and nauseating.  A low muttering reached his ears, apparently not directed at him at all.  He would have struggled, had he been able to – he was sure that this was another robber, picking over the remains like a vulture to see if anything had been missed.  But then he was scooped up and set upon something squishy but not comfortable… a gentle hand wiped blood and dirt from his face, and then they were moving, rattling along with a squeaking wheel.  The squeaking, the rattle, the low mumblings lulled him.

Bright lights and louder voices roused him somewhat, tho he still could not open his eyes.  He was lifted again, by sturdy, antiseptic-smelling arms; he could sense many people bustling about him but could not make sense of anything; he slipped again into unconsciousness.

When he woke, it was to the dim light of a hospital room, the beeping of monitors, the quiet presence of a nurse.  “How did I get here?” he asked.

“Old Joe,” she replied.  “You know, the homeless man who sleeps under the bridge? He wheeled you up here in his shopping cart…”

Who is my neighbor?

“Surely the commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away.” Like Naaman last week, who balked at the simple order to go wash himself in the Jordan, sometimes we’d rather get the complicated assignments.  Perhaps that’s why we enjoy the disciplines of Lent – we feel like we’re earning something, like we can prove to ourselves that we’re really up to the challenge of faith.

But the commandment that we have been given should be challenge enough, for all its simplicity.  Whether in Deuteronomy or in Luke, we are told simply to love God and to love our neighbor.  Every day.  Every moment.  Without ceasing.  And that is hard, actually, and there are certainly times when we wish it were farther away – there is truth in the old adage that “absence makes the heart grow fonder.” Like Naaman, we rail at something that seems too simple, that demands only that we leave behind our provincial biases, our human judgments, our comfortable assumptions.

Who is my neighbor?

We use the term “Good Samaritan” a lot in our culture, but mostly we don’t use it correctly.  Because the Samaritan is not someone who looks like us; it is not someone that we would expect to see coming to our rescue – or even that we might want to see, coming to our rescue.  Rather, the Samaritan is the person whom we would normally look down upon, or seek to avoid, or be disgusted by.  Most of us in this congregation will probably never be someone’s Samaritan, not really.

Yet this parable is still for us, in many ways.  It is for us because it is written from the perspective of the man in the ditch; the man who was beaten and left for dead; the one who was forced to see God in unexpected, unwanted places, and who might have preferred to push away the only hand that offered him help.

It is for us because we are the ones called to love our neighbors – even the Samaritans.  It is for us because love is not a one-way street; it is given but also received.  To be a neighbor, to have a neighbor, is necessarily to be in relationship with someone. Even when, at times, we’d rather not.

Who is my neighbor?

Old Joe was walking, simply walking.  Pushing his cart of belongings before him, debating with himself where he might sleep that night. Sometimes he noticed the looks people gave him as he passed, and he would realize that he’d been talking to himself, but mostly he had learned to ignore others.  It was easier than seeing their looks of disgust, or worse, watching their gaze just slide right over him, as though he didn’t exist.  They didn’t understand, and they didn’t want to, so Joe had no time for them.  Seems he had no time for a lot of people, recently.

He’d had a hard war, that’s what they’d said then.  What they hadn’t said was that war wasn’t nearly as hard as coming home. Drink had helped, but try telling that to any of the bosses that had fired him over the years – how much worse it would have been if he hadn’t been drinking!  No one ever saw it like that, though.  No one ever saw him like that, for that matter.

Old Joe couldn’t remember when he’d last had a home that wasn’t under a bridge… and even that was tough right now, with all the rain they’d had.  He was going to have to try to find someplace drier, he told himself, someplace where he and his things wouldn’t get washed downstream. But someplace where he wouldn’t have to wake up to the glares of his neighbors, the ones who considered him slightly less than a bag of garbage…

Suddenly, Joe was startled from his train of thought.  He’d been sure that both the doctor and the minister had been just ahead of him, going up the road… he looked around, momentarily confused, and saw that both had crossed to the other side of the street.  He frowned after them, uncertain what to make of this development, when out of the corner of his eye he caught sight of something in the alley.  Old Joe stepped closer, then knelt by the battered and bleeding figure.

He knew him.   Well, he knew many like him: well-dressed, even when casual – must be some sort of business man or something.  The kind who barely acknowledged Joe’s existence, except to glare at him for daring to live in the same town.  The kind who would never acknowledge a shared humanity, who considered Joe to be no more than a blot on the landscape, something that pulled the town’s economy down.  Something inconvenient and unwanted.

Why should he help this guy? If the situations were reversed, Joe was pretty sure that the guy wouldn’t have given him a second glance; that he would have crossed the street… Joe looked up at the retreating back of the doctor, just barely visible and already blocks away.  He sighed, looking again at the man in the alley.  Was he no better than they, that he’d consider leaving this guy to die?  If there was one thing Joe had learned in the war, it was that you didn’t ever leave a buddy.

As Joe hoisted the man into his arms, and laid him on the plastic bags of clothes in the shopping cart, he wondered aloud how the man would react if he were to wake up?  Would he be disgusted by Joe?  Push him away – the ultimate indignity from a man only half-alive? Joe paused: was he really willing to risk such rejection? Sighing, he turned the cart and pushed his way back to the hospital.

Who is my neighbor?

Am I his?

Surely this commandment is not too hard for you…