The Deacon's Bench

“Who is my neighbor?”

We look around this morning, and see those around us, in the pews, and know them. We see them on the street. We pass them in the grocery store. We wait with them in line in the bank. Maybe they live in our building, or we see them every morning on the subway. We recognize them. These, we tell ourselves, are our neighbors.

But sometimes our neighbors are those we do not recognize – sometimes, even, those we don’t want to recognize.

A few years ago, my wife called me at work and asked if I could pick up some bagels on the way home, from H&H Bagels, on the upper west side. They are, hands down, the best bagels in the city. They have them on sale, half price, after four o’clock. So I went after work, and got a bag, and went down to the subway station. The bagels were still warm, and smelled wonderful.

I went to get a fare card, and there was a homeless man standing there, by the window of the token booth. He was small, and old, and filthy, and he was holding a small cardboard cup, asking for money. Instead of giving him money, I asked him if he’d like a bagel. His face lit up. “Oh yeah!,” he said, and he nodded. I reached into the bag and got one and gave it to him and he just grinned and thanked me. He was overjoyed. You would have thought that I’d just given him a sirloin steak.
I was feeling very proud of myself, and my generosity. I went through the turnstiles, and waited on the platform. My train came, and as I stood there, waiting to get on, I looked for my homeless man. I couldn’t see him. But then I noticed: he’d walked all the way to the end of the platform. And there, I saw, was another old homeless man, sitting on the ground. My homeless guy took the bagel I had given him, and broke it in two, and gave his friend half.

My train came. I got on. And I watched them eating the bagel as my train pulled out of the station.

I had never felt more moved. Or more ashamed.

I had thought myself so generous, and so thoughtful. And yet: a man who had next-to-nothing had given half of all he had…to a man who had even less.

“Who is my neighbor?”

That homeless man who shared his bagel knew.

And after that, I did to.

My neighbor is not defined by geography, or zip code. My neighbor doesn’t necessarily shop at Key Food, or ride the subway with me to work. He doesn’t necessarily live on my street.

He may live IN my street.

He may live IN the subway.

Or he may not even be someone who speaks my language, or shares my culture. But he is my neighbor.

Because he is also, like me, a child of God.

And the scripture asks me to love him as I love myself.

For the last few weeks, in Luke’s gospel, Jesus has been asking us to do things that seem impossible.. He’s told his followers to let the dead bury the dead, and just last week, he told them to take nothing with them, not even sandals, as they spread the gospel message.

And now he is asking them – and asking us – to love those we do not know, to see in the faces of the poor, or the lost, or the hungry, or the alien…a neighbor.

He is asking us not only to care for those who cannot care for themselves – like a man beaten by robbers by the side of the road – but even to care for those who are not at all like us.

In Jesus’ day, the Jews would have nothing to do with Samaritans. They considered them heretics. Yet it was this despised person, this Samaritan, who knew, truly, how to love.

He understands something the others traveling on the road to Jericho do not.

It is that same something that Moses speaks of in the first reading, from Deuteronomy: a command from God that is “very near to you…already in your hearts.”

It is the command to love the Lord…and to love your neighbor as yourself.

“Who is my neighbor?”

Jesus gives us a beautiful answer. It is not the answer his audience two thousand years ago may have been expecting.

It’s not the answer many today would expect, either.

But we hear the story of this Samaritan, and discover what made him “good,” and we encounter a message of compassion that is as timeless as the gospel, as boundless as the human heart. It is not something abstract. It is as close as the nearest subway platform.

Our neighbor…is everyone.

Our prayer today is that all of us can see one another with the eyes of that Samaritan, and with the heart of a Christian.

Ultimately, I think, that is how God see us.

When we are wounded and hurt, He stops by the side of the road, and gives comfort. When we have been stripped and beaten, He bandages our wounds. When we cannot stand, He lifts us up and carries us.

God stops when no one else will. The lesson we encounter is not just about love that is human…but also love that is divine.

We are challenged with this gospel to be neighbors to one another, as the Samaritan is neighbor to the wounded man by the side of the road…as God is neighbor to us.

Christ’s final words call on us to remember that, and to LIVE that, as we leave this church, and leave the neighbors that we know, and encounter the neighbors that we DON’T know:

“Go and do likewise.”

Image: “The Good Samaritan” by Herbert Moore, 1922

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