From 1991 to 1999 Tim Allen starred in the sitcom “Home Improvement”. The show was about Allen’s character Tim Taylor, who had a cable TV show about home repair called “Tool Time”—but it was equally about his family life with his wife Jill and their three sons Brad, Randy, and Mark. Part of that home life included brief conversations of a practical and philosophical nature with Wilson, his next-door neighbor. We saw Tim on his side of the backyard fence that was probably 8 feet high—which means that we never saw Wilson on the other side of the fence. We got the idea that they did know each other, because the conversations included the kinds of details that involved knowing each other. But Wilson, the neighbor, was never seen. And yet judging by the conversations, it seemed that the two men were good neighbors.
This is usually what we think of when we think of neighbors. And yet our American history is replete with people struggling with who they think OUGHT to be their neighbors. From the “redlining” practices in real estate that kept neighborhoods exclusively white or black, to the NIMBY (“not in my back yard”) arguments about what kinds of facilities ought to be built in which neighborhoods (a clergy colleague of mine, who has diagnosed mental health issues, advocated for a group home for intellectually and developmentally disabled adults to be able to open in the community where his church is—one that was opposed by many others in that community), we have seemed to want to define who the neighbor should be.
Jesus, when asked “who is my neighbor” by a lawyer “wanting to justify himself’, told a story about someone in need who is helped by someone—and not helped by a couple of other someones. When asked who in the story was a neighbor, it was obvious what the answer was—"the one who showed mercy”. And yet the one in the story who was the neighbor was someone that the lawyer would not want to have for a neighbor. Jesus challenges our definitions of who we want to have for a neighbor with a story that has the one who is our neighbor be “neighborly” to us when we need it, even if we’d not choose that person to do that. In the Kingdom of God, we don’t get to make those kinds of decisions. God does.
25 Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,’ he said, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ 26 He said to him, ‘What is written in the law? What do you read there?’ 27 He answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.’ 28 And he said to him, ‘You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.’
29 But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’ 30 Jesus replied, ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32 So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan while travelling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.” 36 Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ 37 He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’