The answer to the question, “who is my neighbor?” is: people who are hurting, whose injuries call for our compassionate response. Those people are our neighbors.
I attended the 62nd Annual Conference of the National Association of Congregational Christian Churches held in Detroit two weeks ago. Congregations across America formed this association in 1955 as a means by which likeminded, yet independent and autonomous churches could work together without sacrificing their individuality and character.Messengers from congregations across the country gather to attend to organizational matters, to hear reports from mission work at home and abroad, and to enjoy fellowship with one another. We received instruction and inspiration from both our Bible sessions and our Congregational lecture. I was happy to represent our congregation at this gathering.
There was great unity at our meeting. At the first business meeting, when the moderator was reviewing the standing rules of order, one of the messengers brought a motion to the effect that all motions and resolutions that were not unanimously passed be subject to a division of the house, that is, a show of hands or standing vote. This was approved, and I am happy to report that all votes passed unanimously. We also approved 10 new congregations for membership in the National Association.
I feel a bit like Paul, whom we heard earlier in his letter to the Colossians. He didn’t get to see these brothers and sisters in Christ. Early in his ministry when the Christian movement was small, he went to every congregation. However, as the redemptive message of Christ’s death and resurrection flourished in the ancient world, there were congregations he’d never been to. The Colossians’ church was one of these.
To them he wrote, “Each time we pray for you, we thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. We have heard of your faith in Christ and of your love for all of God’s people, because what you hope for is kept safe for you in heaven. You first heard about this hope when you believed the true message, which is the good news.”
Like Paul, we congregational messengers at the conference heard that the good news is spreading all over the world through the National Association. Our missionaries gave encouraging reports of God’s work, just as Epaphras had given. Paul was thrilled to hear that the message of Christ had spread in that same way among the Colossians, ever since the first day they learned the truth about God’s grace.
We were also challenged to consider the question: “Who is my neighbor?” This question arose in Luke 10 when a man asked Jesus about eternal life. Jesus asked him what was written in the Bible. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind,” the man replied, “and love your neighbor as yourself.” “Do this and you will live,” Jesus said. “But who is my neighbor?” the man persisted. Jesus then told this parable about a Samaritan who helped an injured man, after a priest and a levite ignored him when he needed help.
Before we go any further, I want to highlight something that is easy to overlook in the way we talk about this parable. Jesus never called this story ‘the Good Samaritan.’ It’s something that we have added in the years since Jesus originally told it. A better title for this parable might have been “The Priest, the Levite, and the Samaritan.”
We’ve heard many times about the animosity of the Jews and the Samaritans. For a Jew to call another Jew a Samaritan was an insult. In John 8:48, the Jewish leaders said this to Jesus: “Are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan and demon-possessed on top of it?” Biochemist and author Isaac Asimov wrote, “To the Jews, there were no good Samaritans.” The level of ill-will between these two groups was off the charts. Jesus was not prejudiced himself, but was using the prejudices of his listeners to make a point.
What if this story had been told in a different time and culture? In the 1800’s this story might have been called “the Good Indian.” The 1900’s might’ve called it “the Good Negro.” Maybe today the story might be about “the Good Muslim.” The point is that people often view minorities in a bad light, with an occasional exception, you know, the good one. Again, Jesus did not say this. The idea that there was one Good Samaritan was added later.
If we could see the Samaritan beside the priest and the levite, we’d be hard pressed to tell them apart. They would’ve looked very much alike to us. In this parable Jesus revealed where the real difference between them lay. We find it in the verb, “had compassion.” This word in Greek is the word, spleen. The ancient people thought the spleen was the center of emotions. When they cared about other people, they had a spleen. In a word, they had compassion.
The difference between the priest, the levite, and the Samaritan wasn’t racial. It wasn’t something that could be seen. It was internal. Quite literally, this verse says that when he saw the injured man, the Samaritan had a spleen. Apparently, neither the priest nor the levite had a spleen.
Our real spleens lie in the upper left abdomen. They’re reddish-brown and somewhat elongated, about 1″ x 3″ x 5″. Virtually all vertebrates have spleens. They remove old red blood cells and keep a supply of blood in reserve. As part of the lymphatic system, they support the immune response by processing antibodies.
Surgeons often remove spleens from people who have abdominal injuries. People can live without their spleens, though not as well as with them. A study of 740 World War II veterans who had their spleens removed due to battlefield injuries showed a significant increase in the death rate from pneumonia.
Pneumonia is a disease of the breathing system. In fact, pneuma means breath, but in the Bible it is usually translated spirit. Just as the veterans without spleens had trouble getting their breath, so Christians without compassion have trouble getting the Spirit. Without the Spirit, we may experience spiritual death.
Christians who have no compassion have had spiritual splenectomies. They can see the worst catastrophes and not have a spleen about it, that is, they have no compassion. They sigh and say, “oh, isn’t that terrible,” and they change the channel. Like the spleen-less priest and levite, they walk away on the other side. They have no spleen.
The answer to the question, “who is my neighbor?” is this: people who are hurting, whose injuries call for our compassionate response. Those people are our neighbors. If we don’t have a spleen, if we don’t have compassion, we’ll walk away. Without compassion, however, we won’t be able to get the Spirit. It goes both ways: our neighbors are people who need help, and we need to help them.
The water situation of Flint, Michigan has been much in the news. We at the Annual Conference felt compassion on the residents of that city not far from Detroit where we were meeting. You might say it aroused our spleen! We collected hundreds of gallons of water and close to $5,000.00 to purchase water filters which will be distributed free by a reputable non-governmental agency there. The people of Flint are our neighbors.
“Who is our neighbor?” The answer is that anyone who has a need, is our neighbor indeed. Let’s have compassion on others, even as our God has had compassion on us.
We pray. O God, you looked down on us and saw our need. You were moved with compassion and sent Your Son, Jesus Christ, to help us. We thank You for doing this, even though our attitudes and actions were and are often offensive to you. Enable us by the Spirit to be moved to help others around us who are also in need. Amen.