I remember when my daughter and son were young children, I would sometimes watch Sesame Street or Electric Company with them. Both were fast-paced and kept them, and sometimes me, entertained. I mean, who didn’t like Big Bird, or The Count (ah, ah, ah).
We also watched Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Who can forget the lovable Fred Rogers, a Presbyterian minister who died in 2003, opening the door, entering the set singing the theme song, taking off his jacket and putting on a sweater, sitting down and changing dress shoes to tennis shoes, and closing with a heartfelt, “Please, won’t you be my neighbor?”
Now, no offense to any of you, but I always thought that Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was television Ritalin for hyperactive children. I’m not sure the effect on my children, but it worked for me as I was usually asleep on the couch by the time the theme song ended! But, to the main point, I can still hear in my mind the genuine wistful, appeal, “Please, won’t you be my neighbor?”
Perhaps some of you have traveled Highway 1 from Jerusalem down to Jericho. It is truly a desolate place in the middle of a barren, harsh, wilderness. Along this modern road is a site named the Inn of the Good Samaritan. Based on the incident narrated in Luke 10:29-37, the location serves as a fitting backdrop to the challenge a young lawyer (probably a scholar of Torah) posed to Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” (10:29). Jesus turned the question from “Who is my neighbor?” to “What qualified one to be a neighbor to another?” At the close of the pericope, the lawyer had discerned the answer to his own question, “he who showed mercy” (10:37).
Behind this question was a test question of the relationship of inheriting eternal life and the Torah (the Law). Jesus, as He often did, replied with a question, “What is written in the law?” (10:26). The lawyer replied by citing portions of Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18. It was Leviticus 19:18, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” that turned the incident into a teaching moment regarding care for “the neighbor.”
This encounter between Jesus and the lawyer stands in the flow of events and sayings of Jesus as He sent His disciples into the world as His ambassadors. The first section, 10:1-9 is about followers of Jesus going into the “harvest” of the lost “as lambs among wolves” (10:3). It’s about disciples engaging cities, looking for “a son of peace,” (10:6) where refuge and hospitality are found. In such a place, there is the affirmation that “the kingdom of God has come near you” (10:9).
Where there is rejection of the message of Shalom, there is nonetheless the certainty that “the kingdom of God has come near.” But this time the nearness of the kingdom brings divine judgment because Shalom was rejected (10:10-16). Indeed, the peril is so great that the cities that rejected the Good News are in a worse condition than Sodom (10:12).
Upon completion of their mission across Galilee, a diverse area in Jesus’ day with mixed peoples from across the crisscross of empires, the disciples returned to Jesus with great excitement of the “power” they experienced in His name (10:17-20). Yet, He warned them not to confuse “power” with the reality of His presence, a reality reflected in their “names written in heaven” (10:20).
Jesus then paused to pray and rejoice concerning the purposes of the God of Heaven who had sent Him (10:21-24). For us as Pentecostals, the language of “rejoiced” in verse 21 has overtones of ecstatic prayer, some even suggesting that this describes Jesus praying in other tongues.
Within the context of Luke 10, this episode of ecstasy in the life of Jesus did not lead to privatized, individualized piety. Instead, it led into the conflict zones of activism where suffering and legal/moral responsibility collide.
This is where the Good Samaritan incident speaks loudly to us. We think of our neighbor as someone we know, someone who lives close to us; we borrow their hedge clippers and they borrow our hose pipes. Jesus redefined the neighbor to be the person we do not know, the person who is different from us, any person who is in need. Fulfilling Torah extends the borders of Christ’s kingdom by our willingness to interrupt our own agenda, time schedule, and journey for the sake of the other.
Following the incident of the Good Samaritan, the chapter concludes with Jesus in Bethany at the home of Martha and Mary (10:38-42). At first, the two incidents seem disconnected. One moves from a dramatic scene in the Judean wilderness to an apparent hospitality scene in a loving home. But in the final two incidents of Luke 10, connections do appear.
The Good Samaritan account and the Martha/Mary account interpret one another. Jesus tells us that action and sitting at His feet (piety) are not in conflict. For Martha and the Good Samaritan, their focus is action, service and responding. But interestingly, while Jesus implicitly condemns the “piety” of the priest and the Levite, Jesus commends Mary’s piety for choosing “that good part,” sitting at His feet (10:42). By acknowledging Mary’s action, Jesus affirmed what other rabbis did not: a woman sitting and learning at His feet.
It’s not one or the other, the action of the Samaritan traveler or the sitting of Mary. It’s both. New Testament scholar Fred Craddock closed his commentary notes on Luke 10 with this sentence, “If we were to ask which example applies to us, the Samaritan or Mary, his answer would probably be Yes.”[i]
A right understanding and practice of being neighborly goes beyond just being religious. It touches the hearts of those who are “Nones” or even reject Christian faith. In the summer of 1968, I joined a couple of dozen other people on an extended journey across Europe, Israel and into Russia. I remember a Sunday morning in Moscow when our communist state sanctioned young female guide took us to a Christian church service. While we did not understand the service since it was in Russian, when we got back on the bus someone asked her what the sermon was about. She said it was about a story she had never heard before. It was called the Good Samaritan. She described the biblical story and said that it touched her heart.
As we follow Jesus, may we have ears to hear the plaintive cry of those who, in the simple voice of Mr. Rogers, ask, “Please, won’t you be my neighbor?”
By Bishop Doug Beacham