Joe Neville

Luke 10:25-37






A farm boy accidentally overturned his wagonload of wheat on the road. The farmer who lived nearby came to investigate.

“Hey, Willis,” he called out, “forget your troubles for a while and come and have dinner with us. Then I’ll help you overturn the wagon.”

“That’s very nice of you,” Willis answered, “but I don't think Dad would like me to.”

“Aw, come on, son!” the farmer insisted.

“Well, okay,” the boy finally agreed, “but Dad won’t like it.”

After a hearty dinner, Willis thanked the host. “I feel a lot better now, but I know Dad’s going to be real upset.”

“Don’t be silly!” said the neighbor. “By the way, where is he?”

“Under the wagon,” replied Willis.

Willis and the Good Samaritan farmer lived in a different era than we do today. While we all want to be good neighbors, the meaning of “neighborliness” has changed as the culture has changed from community to cocooning, from country to city, from slow food to fast food, from the dining room to the game room.

People don’t drop by or drop in like they used to — and, what’s more, we don’t want them to!

That’s not true everywhere. Take Deer Isle, off the rural coast in Down east Maine, for example. It’s still expected that neighbors give the time necessary whenever an unexpected visitor drops by a home, or stops to talk at the post office, or visits in the aisles of The Galley grocer.

It’s part of the island charm, but it’s also necessary to survival there. Social visiting is how island news travels. It’s faster by mouth than it is by the island’s weekly newspaper. Visiting is how islanders find out “right quick” whose house burned down, or whose boat sunk in the last blow; and it’s how islanders always find out a way to help. In places like that — where it’s hard to get to and tougher to get off — neighbors must help neighbors.

Even the non-church-goers believe it’s their Christian duty to give help unto others, as you would have them give help unto you. They say, “What goes around, comes around.” And “It don’t mattah if it’s your enemy in trouble. You help, anyways.” So, there’s often a fund-raiser potluck for the child with cancer, or a church “chowdah suppah” for the mission project in Belize, or an island-wide house-raising party for the family without enough insurance who got burned out. It doesn’t matter if you’re a native islander of 13 generations, or a newcomer or a stranger. Everybody pitches in; everybody visits.

It’s said that a good tide raises everybody’s boats together. All this good neighborliness starts with social calls, and makes for a much stronger sense of community and connectedness.

“Bad manners,” our great-grandparents would have said if we ignored such social conventions. You weren’t supposed to ignore a neighbor. In pre-phone America, dropping by for an unannounced visit was customary. It was how community folks and families stayed in touch. It was the social glue. Visits were expected, and patterns for visitation were formalized: Never arrive before the lunch hour for a “morning visit,” for example: half an hour for a formal visit was sufficient. Formal visitors never removed their coats ... and so forth. Homes had public space for social matters, and private space for family matters.

All that’s changed. Despite the fact that face time actually makes us happy — an ongoing series of studies has discovered that people with many personal contacts tend to be happier than people with a small number of personal contacts — we consider folks who drop by to be just interruptions in our daily schedule. Most of us don’t like to be interrupted when we are going about our Very Important Tasks. We’ve got things to do, and places to be.

Studies show that in rural towns and in city minority neighborhoods there are places where “stopping by” still exists, and it may even be on the rise. Social calling might be increasing in these places because they’re still working as tight-knit communities toward survival, improvement and change. It takes teamwork, which takes meeting with neighbors face to face. They know that they have to put in face time.

Outside of such time-warped locations, most post moderns don’t bother with actual social calls. Instead, we use technology — IM, TM, cell phones, and e-mail. (NPR story about the Blackberry Communication device ruining marriages and erasing social skills.)

But, by using our communication devices, we can’t shake a hand, we can’t see into each other’s eyes, we can’t lean on a shovel in the garden, talking over the peas, or in a home kitchen, smelling the coffee brewing, and we can’t hear the conviviality of pleasantly shared silence.

We can’t do that unless we visit ... in person. There’s just something about being with each other, about taking the time to talk, eye to eye, that makes such a God-graced difference in community unity.

That’s exactly what didn’t happen when the temple priest and the Levite traveled on that road to Jericho from Jerusalem when given the chance to help face to face. Instead of taking the time to trouble themselves about the other fellow’s troubles, they gave him a quick glance and a wide berth, and walked on.

Granted, the temple priests were ritually pure and were not permitted to touch a dead body, which is what the priest might be thinking about the man lying in the road. Touching the close-to-dead man would have ruined his day by making him ritually impure, thereby preventing him from going about his Very Important Business for God.

The Levite, on the same journey as the priest, goes in close, viewing the wounded man almost face to face, but he, too, walks on.

We know that the robbed and wounded man was Jewish. So was the priest; likewise, the Levite. This means they were of the same community. It’s like when an American travels in exotic Kazakhstan and meets another American in trouble. It doesn’t matter if he’s a Republican from Montana and you’re a Democrat from Missouri, or that you’ve never met before. What matters is you’re both Americans and he desperately needs help.

But you refuse aid, later to learn that a Shiite Muslim, discovering his plight, opens his heart and his wallet to take care of his emergency.

The priest and the Levite both have the chance to do what needs to be done — but they don’t.

Their misunderstanding of what’s important, of what matters, actually gets in the way of their compassion, their humanity and their faith.

They fail to act. They fail to see. They fail to feel.

They turn their faces away. They don’t just turn the other cheek; they turn their backs to suffering.

The Samaritan stops to assist. He puts in face time. He stops by for a helpful visit. He shows Samaritan behavior that we know should really be “Christian behavior.”

The Samaritan stopped, got off his donkey, and used his own olive oil to pour on the man’s wounds. He used a type of oil that wasn’t cheap, an oil that fueled the Roman Empire. It lit oil lamps and soothed cracked, sore feet. It was the prime commodity, the petroleum of its day.

On top of this, the Samaritan used his own wine as an antiseptic. He lifts his human burden, risking his own back. He pays two days’ wages and offers more, whatever the cost, on his return. All this for a man he doesn’t know; for a man who was, until that moment, not his neighbor.

The question for us is: What do we pour on the wounds of the oppressed, the hungry, the at-risk and the marginalized of our community. Do we offer our time, the kindness of words, the thoughtfulness of right actions, the warmth of an embrace, the generosity of our resources — or do we offer indifference, ignorance, scorn, and judgment? Do we pout salt in the wounds, or anoint them with the oil of compassion?

A Sunday school teacher was telling her class the story of the Good Samaritan, describing how he was beaten, robbed, and left for dead. She retold the situation in vivid detail so her students could visualize the drama.

Then she asked the class, “If you saw a person lying on the roadside all wounded and bleeding, what would you do?”

A thoughtful little girl broke the hushed silence, “I think I’d throw up!”

We wouldn’t throw up, but we might give up. Being a neighbor in a postmodern culture that stresses anonymity over community, reserve over compassion, me-ism over other-ism, challenges our commitment. It might mean crossing social lines, or cultural divides. It might mean figuring out who is our neighbor by simply sharing 15 minutes across the hedge, or lending a hand to a stranger, or talking at the bus stop to the face you see every day and never acknowledge, or making eye contact on the sidewalk, or in the hallway, or even stopping to save a life.

Imagine what can happen in our church and community if we learn to know our neighbors’ faces and lives, and begin to connect like Samaritans who take the time to help. Imagine what can happen in our world if we start to re-enact this classic story about somebody from outside the neighborhood, from the wrong neighborhood, who willingly drops by and lends assistance.

Imagine that we begin to behave like neighbors. That’s what Jesus is talking about, really. That’s what he is telling us to do.

Although we often say we are willing to help, like good Christians should, we rarely drop by and do anything. Although we often see the need, far too often we don’t make the effort to get off our donkeys, lift up fallen persons, and escort them to safety.

The victims of our world — and there are many — would like us to drop by and stop by.

Anything less is to fail at our mission.