July 23, 2013

Neighbors to Networks


Text: Luke 10:29: “But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus,
‘And who is my neighbor?’”

I have been following a kind of discipline this summer of tying together the collect of the day and the reading from the Gospel to offer what I hope is a useful insight on the meaning, for us, of the Gospel story. But I am an Episcopalian, so I can only bear keeping my disciplines so long. Even Lent only last six days at a time.

So today I’m taking a momentary break from my discipline of the summer to take a very focused look at one small idea in this old and familiar story that I think just might have large significance for us today.

I take for my text this little pivot in the story, the question that Jesus answers by way of the parable of the Good Samaritan. So very quickly let’s just consider the part of the story before the pivot.

The scene is just after the disciples have returned from the first mission trip ever. They’ve reported in on their successes and adventures. That all happened last week. We don’t get a detailed picture of this gathering, but our sense of it is that it’s pretty celebratory, even maybe a little triumphant. Things went well. The disciples were perhaps a little nervous going out into the field, but they return filled with stories of things they never expected to be able to do.

It’s at this moment that someone steps forward, someone who’s not one of the movement, to ask Jesus a question. It’s the sort of question that is asked by someone pretty certain he already knows the answer. The text doesn’t describe him other than to say he’s a lawyer.

I’m not going to hang too much significance on that, not least because I’d like to be able to go home at the end of the day. So instead let me just say that the man who steps forward we are meant to understand is an educated man, even a learned man, a man that others would look to for answer to the question that he poses to Jesus.

And Jesus, being a good rabbi, answers the question with a question of his own. It becomes a sort of battle of wits, and the learned man gives the right answer. But then a little incautiously he asks for clarification. He wants Jesus to get specific. Just exactly who are these neighbors that the commandments are talking about?

The answer Jesus gives is one of the most familiar stories in all of Christian scripture. We all know that the story of the Good Samaritan is a story about the difference between talking about what a good idea it is to be merciful and the actual acts toward others that make compassion real.

We all know, as well, that the Samaritan himself is something of a confound in the story. Because a Samaritan is about the last person any good law-abiding, reputation-fearing person of the Jewish community would be seen with, let alone hold up as a moral example.

That’s all familiar to us, and perhaps just this one year, just this one retelling of the story, we can give our attention over to something else that’s important about the story—something we often overlook, or see as part of a single act.

Because in fact the Samaritan does two things, not one. Yes, he shows mercy to the wounded, vulnerable man. Yes, he does more than feel bad for him and walk on by, like the upright citizens way in the background of the window back in the children’s corner that illustrates this story.

No, there is something more that the Samaritan does. He takes the man in danger into the shelter of the local inn; and most important of all, he recruits another person into the task of caring for the wounded man.

To say it in other words, in acting on behalf of the wounded man, the Samaritan is both neighboring and networking. He is not only addressing his own acts toward another human in need; he is actively engaging other people in the work at hand.

There are a few details worth pointing out that add a little texture to the story. The Samaritan was most likely not someone welcome in that inn. Under normal circumstances he would likely not have been able to cross the threshold of the place, let alone stay there. After all, he was part of the outcast group, the group the community around Jesus mostly regarded as untrustworthy and harboring suspect motivations.

And think about this for a moment: Is there any more effective way of creating a connection between you and another person than by engaging their assistance in a matter of obviously urgent importance? Is there any more powerful way of asserting the essential equality between human beings than by engaging others in an act of compassion?

Neuroscientists have the idea that compassion is something that has the power to draw us beyond the usual shell of our desire to be protected and isolated from other people in away powerful enough to get us to reach beyond our usual comfort zone and do things we would not usually do.

It’s for exactly that reason that people I’ve worked with in the interfaith conversation see the idea of engaging college students from different faith communities in shared projects of community service as a way of breaking down barriers of suspicion and misunderstanding.

When you work alongside someone else to help tutor kids in trouble or rebuild hurricane-ravaged homes or repair broken-down schools, it becomes harder and harder to keep believing the prejudices you grew up with about them.


The Samaritan acts both to neighbor and to network on behalf of the man in danger. He sets for us the example of what discipleship involves. It is an example that emphasizes showing over telling, acting over talking, when it comes to showing forth the love of God to the people around us.

It is an example meant to teach us that we must always be looking to broaden our reach, to engage others in the work we do rather than keep it for ourselves. It is an example that holds up in front of us the idea that it is not enough to act on behalf of others; our work is truly reflective of God’s call when we bring others to see the needs we see, and invite them to serve alongside us.

And it is a story that reminds us why the church is not merely a series of bilateral relationships, but a network of human relationships. We know a lot about social networks, but those fall well short of the need to act when the suffering, the needy, the forgotten, are right at our feet. Following Christ calls us into genuine human relationships, with all of the difficulty they bring, all of the joy they make possible, all of the frustration they harbor, and all of the capability they unleash.

Disciples don’t just neighbor others. They build social capacity to address human needs. They weave together networks of actual people to help actual people—and move us all closer to fully realizing who it was God made us each to be. We do this only when we work together in community. Thanks be to God that we have received the gift of this community. Amen.