Five days a week, from 1963 until August 31, 2001, Mr. Fred Rogers (an ordained Presbyterian minister), entered living rooms across the United States through a trolley for a thirty-minute television program entitled, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. For more than three decades, Mr. Rogers talked to preschool children (and their parents) about competition, divorce, war, peace, anger, loneliness, and even the death of a pet goldfish. Weekly, he would look straight into the camera and say to children, “I like you just the way you are.” You probably don’t remember anything I have ever said, but I bet most of you, right now, have the image in your mind of Mr. Roger’s walking into his house, hanging up his suit coat, and putting on his cardigan sweater, while singing, “Won’t you be my neighbor.”
Over the last few years, working on issues like homelessness and affordable housing in our city, I have learned a new word. That word is NIMBY and it means, Not In My Back Yard. People are willing to help other people as long as it is somewhere else; on the other side of the city or the other side of the world. Yes, our city needs a homeless shelter, but, “not in my back yard.” Yes, we need a new factory to provide our neighbors with jobs, but, “not in my back yard.” Yes, we need affordable housing options, but, “not in my back yard.” Yes, we need a half-way house, and a group home, and an inpatient treatment center, or a new hospital, or a new school, or a new jail, or a water treatment center, but, “not in my back yard.” Yes, people agree all these things will benefit our neighbors, but, “not in my back yard.” NIMBY! NIMBY! NIMBY!
I understand the concerns. There are legitimate safety issues to consider and property values and traffic woes. But it’s as if those of us who grew up watching Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood have forgotten what he taught, “So, let’s make the most of this beautiful day. Since we’re together we might as well say: Would you be mine? Could you be mine? Won’t you be my neighbor?”
Two-thousand years before Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, Jesus was asked, “Who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29). To answer that question, Jesus told a story.
The Good Samaritan
If you remember, one of the main themes of Luke’s Gospel is the radical reversal of all things; those who should don’t, while those who shouldn’t do. Nowhere is this theme seen more than in the story of The Good Samaritan. This story, along with the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31), are only found in Luke’s Gospel. The point of this theme and these stories is that those who think they know what it means to follow Jesus, don’t; while those you least expect to be followers of Jesus actually are. Thus it is important to “know the certainty of the things you have been taught” (Luke 1:4).
The story of The Good Samaritan comes out of a conversation between Jesus and an “expert in the law” (Luke 10:25). This man was a scribe, a religious lawyer, a person devoted to the study of Scripture and who served as editors, copyists, and teachers. More than likely Jesus was teaching a group of people when this man stood up to ask a somewhat hostile question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Luke 10:25). In Luke’s companion to his Gospel, the book of Acts, he tells the story of Paul and Silas singing while in prison. While they were singing, an earthquake shook the jail so violently that the prison doors flew open and the prisoners’ chains came loose. The jailer (or warden), fearing for his life asked Paul and Silas a similar question as the scribe. He asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” (Acts 16:31). Paul and Silas answered, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:32). Surely, Jesus’ answer to the scribe would be the same as their answer to the jailer.
Not so quick.
Jesus answered the question by asking a question. He replied, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” (Luke 10:26). Jesus knew the scribe would know the answer. The expert answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’” (Luke 10:27). Jesus then said, “You have answered correctly…Do this and you will live” (Luke 10:28).
Do you want eternal life? According to Jesus, the secret to eternal life is to love God and love your neighbors. Notice Jesus said, “Do this…” He didn’t say, “Believe this…” like Paul and Silas said. Jesus was not saying that belief is not important. It’s not as if Paul and Silas’ answer was wrong. The point Jesus was making is, “Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead” (James 2:17, NASB). In context, I think Jesus was telling the scribe, “You have studied enough. You have believed the right things, but if you truly want to experience eternal life, get out of your cubicle and into your community.”
Apparently the scribe was offended by Jesus’ response. Luke writes, “…he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29). Mr. Rogers would have answered the question with a song. Jesus answers the question with a story. However, before looking at the story we need to go back to something that happened in Luke 9:51-56.
Luke records, “As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51). This verse marks a change in Luke’s Gospel. Jesus’ Galilean ministry is over. Now He sets His face toward Jerusalem; toward the Passover; toward His crucifixion, and toward His resurrection.
Luke continues, “And he sent messengers on ahead, who went into a Samaritan village to get things ready for him, but the people there did not welcome him, because he was heading for Jerusalem” (Luke 9:52-53). The Jews and Samaritans did not like each other, and the hostility flowed both ways. The Samaritans were a mixed race between the Israelites and the Assyrians. As such, they claimed to be Jewish and worshiped the God of Abraham, but they also worshiped the pagan gods of Assyria. Thus, the hostility between the Jews and Samaritans were both ethnic and religious. While it was quite common for the Jews to travel through Samaria, most of the time without incident, during the time that the Jews made their way to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover, the Samaritans refused travel through the land. Why? The Jews and Samaritans had a long history of desecrating each other’s temples. For example: “One Passover, the Samaritans dug up some graves and threw the bones into the temple court to keep the Jews from celebrating their most holy feast. The next year the Jews responded by burning the Samaritan temple on Mount Gerizim to the ground.” The Jews considered Jerusalem to be the center of worship. They Samaritans did not recognize Jerusalem as such. So, because Jesus and His disciples were going to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover, the Samaritans refused them, forcing them to go the long way around.
There was no love lost between the Jews and Samaritans. Thus Luke records, “When the disciples James and John saw this, they asked, ‘Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?’ But Jesus turned and rebuked them, and they went to another village instead” (Luke 9:54-56). There is not even a hint of evidence that James and John had the ability or authority to do such a thing! It is from this incident that they were nicknamed, “the sons of thunder” (Mark 3:17).
With this event fresh on His mind, and the mind of His followers, Jesus answers the scribe’s question by turning the villains into heroes, and the religious leaders into villains. A radical reversal!
The scribe asked, “Who is my neighbor?” The traditional Jewish answer was that only fellow Israelites were neighbors. Jesus turns that idea upside down with His storied answer: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead” (Luke 10:30). The road between Jerusalem and Jericho was a dangerous seventeen-mile journey, dropping from over 2,500 feet above sea level in Jerusalem to approximately 800 feet below sea level at Jericho. Being a desolate and mountainous passage, this road was notorious for bandits robbing travelers. This unfortunate traveler, more than likely Jewish, fell prey to the violence.
Remember, one of Luke’s theme’s in his Gospel is that those who should don’t, while those who shouldn’t do. And so Luke continues, “A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side” (Luke 10:31-32). Priests and Levites both served in the temple. The highest duties of priests were offering sacrifices. Levites assisted the priests and took care of the maintenance of the temple. It can be assumed by the phrase “going down the same road” that both the priest and the Levite in this story were returning to Jericho from Jerusalem after performing their religious duties. Both had just finished worshipping God and confessing their love for others when they ignored a victim of a violent crime. Both the priest and the Levite should have done something to help, but they did not. The point Jesus was making is that their lack of action was inexcusable. Their religion lacked compassion.
From the perspective of the Jewish people hearing Jesus’ words, the least likely person to stop and help an injured Jew would be a Samaritan. After all, they would think, it was probably evil Samaritans who attacked and robbed the traveler in the first place. Jesus says, “But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, took him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two silver coins (about two days wages) and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have’” (Luke 10:33-36). The one who shouldn’t, the Samaritan, did! Not only did he do, he went above and beyond his duty.
Jesus then brings his story home with a question: “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” (Luke 10:36) The answer was obvious: “The expert in the law replied, ‘The one who had mercy on him’” (Luke 10:37). And now the punch line: “Jesus told him, ‘Go and do likewise’” (Luke 10:37). This is the second time Jesus told the scribe to do something (see Luke 10:28). The question that started this entire dialogue was, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Luke 10:25). Jesus’ answer was that you must believe—you must love God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind—but your faith must lead to action. The way we show that we truly love God is by unconditionally loving others; and the way we show that our love for others flows out of our love for God is by unconditionally loving our enemies. That is the path to eternal life! Our neighbors include our enemies and those who are different from us and even those who may not like us.
But the question still remains, “Who is my neighbor?”
Who Is My Neighbor?
I have been reading a book by Shane Claiborne entitled, Executing Grace. In it he tells a story that answers the question about who our neighbors are:
“In 2006 a troubled gunman named Charles Roberts entered a one-room Amish schoolhouse near Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania. He shot ten girls, ranging from six to thirteen years old, killing five. Then he turned the gun on himself…But what quickly began to steal the headlines was the way the Amish people responded. With a distinctive commitment to nonviolence, the Amish families put their faith into action as they built a bridge to the shooter’s family and went to visit them…They were neighbors. In fact, Charlie was a milk truck driver who delivered to the Amish farms, and he had three children of his own. One of the Amish men massaged the shoulders of Charlie’s sobbing father for an hour as he wept. The response stunned the world. People from around the globe, moved by compassion, began to send the Amish gifts and money…and the Amish used that money to create a fund for the family of the shooter. As the funerals rolled around, the Amish attended service after service of their own children who had died…but then they went to the funeral of Charlie Roberts, the man who had killed their kids, so they could grieve with his family and hold hands with them as they found a way forward together.”
Who is my neighbor? Anyone, and everyone, who needs a touch of mercy, regardless of their gender, race, ethnicity, religion, legal status, or criminal background.
Recognizing and admitting that anyone and everyone is our neighbor has four implications: (1) A follower of Jesus loves God passionately and loves others unconditionally. The Apostle Paul wrote, “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, love at peace with everyone…Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:18, 21). (2) Since God is everywhere present, your neighbors are present everywhere. Listen to these words from James, “Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn’t do it, sins” (James 4:17). (3) The way you love God, whom you cannot see, is by loving others, whom you can see. Paul wrote, “The entire law is summed up in a single command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’” (Galatians 5:14). (4) Purposely ignoring a need when you see it invalidates your claim to be a follower of Jesus. John the Elder put it this way, “Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth” (1 John 3:18).
How much better would our world be if we recognized each other as neighbors instead of strangers? As friends instead of foes? As equals instead of enemies? As fellow human beings instead of differing demographic categories? “So, let’s make the most of this beautiful day. Since we’re together we might as well say: Would you be mine? Could you be mine? Won’t you be my neighbor?”
 Michael Card. Luke: The Gospel of Amazement, 2011. InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL, p. 130.
 Italics added for explanation.
 Shane Claiborne. Executing Grace: How the Death Penalty Killed Jesus and Why It’s Killing Us. 2016. Harper Collins, San Francisco, CA, pp. 10-12.