Many of us are familiar with the story we refer to as “The Good Samaritan.” In fact, maybe we are so familiar with it, we may struggle to glean new insights. Yet I invite you to look at this story with new eyes.
A lawyer asks, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus responds with a simple story. A man is on his way from Jerusalem to Jericho on a winding, desert road. Robbers jump on him, strip him, beat him savagely and run off, leaving him to die in a roadside ditch. We don’t know the man’s name, race or socio-economic status. However, we are told a little about those who come down the same road. Jesus has already set the scene by using the word “neighbor.” The word neighbor has a basic meaning of “to be near.” In other words, your neighbor is the one who is nearest you.
A Jewish priest comes down the road. He sees a man’s body in the ditch. He has no idea who the man is. He is not neighbor enough, or close enough, to know any of these things. He just sees someone in the ditch. He crosses the road to avoid him. He keeps going. A Levite comes down the road. He sees the man’s body in the ditch. He, too, has no idea about the man, but like the first man, he does not get close enough to know anything. He crosses the road to avoid coming in contact with him and keeps going. A Samaritan man comes down the road. He sees the man in the ditch. Stops. Tends to the injured man’s wounds. Takes him to a nearby inn. Pays for his care.
Jesus’s use of a Samaritan as an example of the third man to come down the road is startling. Had he followed the usual convention, he would have used a priest, a Levite, then a lay person. No. Jesus uses a priest, a Levite, then a hated enemy as example. Jesus could not have stretched the boundaries of acceptability any further than by using a hated Samaritan as a hero in this story. Why? The Samaritans had originally been part of a Jewish tribe. However, in one conflict, the rest of the tribe had been taken into exile, but the Samaritans were left behind because they were poor and unwanted. So they remained in the northern part of Israel and intermarried with other tribes. They worshipped God on Mt. Gerazim rather than in Jerusalem. They only believed in the first five books of the Torah and they interpreted it differently than did the Jews. In Jesus’ time, if you said the word “Samaritan” to a Jewish person, the best they would call them was half-breeds. In fact, they despised them so much, Jews would go out of their way to avoid traveling through any part of Samaria.
“Who is my neighbor?” asks the lawyer.
Perhaps there is an underlying issue in his question. One writer has proposed that it may be this: “’I am willing to love my neighbor as myself, but don’t get me involved with the wrong neighbor.’ What are the right rules so that I can justify myself? (Who do I have to help (and who can I ignore?)”  Jesus’ response is clear. Compassion and love have no boundaries. None. Just like God’s love. We love God as God loves us. Out of that love, we love the neighbor we like and we love the neighbor we hate or who makes us nervous or fearful. The other—whomever the other may be.
Who is my neighbor? Who can I ignore?
Above the fold on the front page of last Sunday’s Washington Post was a picture that has haunted me all week long. It is a picture of a two-year old boy with a buzz haircut. He is eating a piece of bread. There is dirt under his fingernails. As he chews his piece of bread, he looks up at the photographer. Deep sadness and wisdom look out of a two year old’s eyes. This child is one of thousands like him. In the hills of East Tennessee, it is summer. That means no school breakfast or lunch. It is a part of the country plagued by high unemployment and deep poverty. In fact, “poverty rates have almost doubled since 2009 and two-thirds of children qualify for free meals.” According to the Washington Post article, there is “a rise in childhood hunger that [has] been worsening for seven consecutive years. Congress had tried to address it mostly by spending a record $15 billion each year to feed 21 million low-income children in their schools, but that left out the summer, so the U.S. Department of Agriculture agreed to spend $400 million more on that. Governors came together to form a task force. Michelle Obama suggested items for a menu. Food banks opened thousands of summer cafes, and still only about 15 percent of eligible children received regular summer meals.”
This year, a Tennessee food bank decided to bring food to children, rather than the other way around, so a bus driver and his helper hit the road every day with sack lunches. On this particular day, here is what was in the sack lunch—which, by the way, was 750 calories each: “2 ounces of celery sticks, 4 ounces of canned oranges, chocolate milk and a bologna sandwich, each meal bought with $3.47 in taxpayer money.” By federal law, no one is to have seconds. After the month’s supply of food stamps is gone for a family, this is often the only meal that the children and teenagers have in a 24-hour period of time. One mother has begun to ask her children to rate their hunger on a scale of 1 to 10, because they are in such a dire situation.
My father’s family came from the hills of East Tennessee. Eight children. A father who wasn’t home much. I suspect they hunted, fished, had a small garden and some chickens, maybe a goat. I suspect they were often hungry. When the boys were old enough, several of them became coal miners. At least one died of Black Lung disease. My own people came from a neighborhood like Greenville, Tennessee, and I must confess to you that I don’t want to call them neighbors. I want to ignore them—for a number of reasons. For a variety of reasons, they live in poverty, some with large families. Many smoke cigarettes when their children are hungry. Their purchases at the store include doughnuts, corn chips, Airheads candy, Dr. Pepper, Mountain Dew—the last sometimes given to a baby sister when there is no more milk. So it is easy for me to justify why I don’t have to be a neighbor to these folks. Why I want to ignore them and cross the road.
Yet Jesus Christ stands in front of me this morning. He looks at me from the deep, sad, wise eyes of a two year old who sits on a bus eating a bologna sandwich. This is his ditch.
Too many of our brothers and sisters struggle to get out of a ditch called poverty. In 1967, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. referred to Jesus’ parable about the Good Samaritan in a sermon at Riverside Church in New York City. Although Dr. King was speaking in particular about the Vietnam War, he was also speaking about poverty—especially poverty generated by what he referred to as “the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism and militarism.”Dr. King said this: “On the one hand we are called to play the good Samaritan on life’s roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”
How we might restructure the political and socio-economic frameworks in our cities, counties and states so that no one goes hungry or is without shelter is open for discussion and disagreement. Yet we do not have to drive to East Tennessee to see the face of hunger. Many families in Laurel live at the poverty line. Many children are hungry during the summer when there is no school breakfast or lunch. Hungry children live in this neighborhood. They live in Washington. Baltimore. West Virginia. Idaho. Montana. Ohio. East Tennessee. There are hungry children all over this country. The problem is larger than anything you or I can do.
Yet we can do something. One thing we can do is not to cross the road and ignore them or judge them according to our standards. The other thing we can do is to do whatever we can do, out of the abundant resources God has given us. At the very least, we could promise God that every week this summer, we will buy some extra, nutritious food to bring for our LARS basket. Something that costs us $3.47 more at the grocery store can make a difference in someone’s life. We may never see that difference, but God will see it. The person in the ditch may be grateful for a little bit of mercy.
Jesus asked, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, Go and do likewise.”
Do justice. Love mercy. Walk humbly with your God. Amen.
© The Rev. Dr. Sheila N. McJilton
 Eli Saslow, “Driving Away Hunger,” in the Washington Post, Sunday, July 7, 2013, Section A, p. 8.
 Ibid, p. A-8.
 Ibid, A-1.
 The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “A Time to Break Silence.” A sermon delivered on April 4, 1967 at Riverside Church in New York City. Accessed at http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlkatimetobreaksilence.htm. July 12, 2013.