The “Other” as Neighbor
Based on Amos 7:7-17, Colossians 1:1-14, Luke 10:25-37
A story is told about two neighbors, Robbie and John, who lived on adjoining farms and who got crossways with each other. It was the first serious rift in 35 years of neighborly farming side-by-side. However, one autumn, the long collaboration fell apart. It began with a small misunderstanding, grew into a major conflict, and finally it exploded into an exchange of bitter words followed by weeks of silence and avoidance between the two.
One morning there was a knock at Robbie’s door. He opened it to find a man holding a carpenter’s toolbox. ‘I’m looking for a few days work,’ Angel said. ‘Perhaps you would have a few small jobs here and there I could help with? ‘Absolutely,’ answered Robbie, extremely pleased to see Angel the carpenter, ‘I do have a job for you. Look across the creek at that farm, that’s my neighbor John’s farm. Last week there was a meadow between us and he took his bulldozer to the river levee and now there is a creek between us. Well, he may have done this to spite me, but I’ll go him one better. See that pile of lumber by the barn? I want you to build me a fence; a strong 8-foot high fence, so I won’t need to see John or his place anymore.’ Angel the carpenter said thoughtfully, ‘I think I understand the situation. Show me the nails and the post hole digger and I’ll be able to do a job that pleases you.’ Robbie needed to run some errands in the nearby town, so he helped Angel get the materials ready and then he was off for the day. The carpenter worked hard all that day measuring, sawing, and hammering.
It really doesn’t take much in this day and age for us to get crosswise with someone or with a group of people. All is takes is a difference of opinion, an unthoughtful word, a difference in theological or political viewpoints, a moment of unrestrained ego, a Tweet or post or Instagram or e-mail, a schedule that is over-packed so that we are over-stressed and don’t have the capacity or energy to consider the needs of anyone but ourselves, etc. Before we know it we are in full-blown “othering” mode and the focus of our venom is not just wrong, but they are evil, moronic, a plague, just should be eliminated or fenced out (as in the story). Yes, our “othering” of people really can get into overdrive nowadays – and we can easily do it to neighbors we’ll never know at the opposite end of the world, not just the people next door to us. Our scriptures show us how it is we are to recognize our neighbors as nothing other than ourselves. Let us go to God now and ask to be forgiven for how we all “other” some of God’s children sometime…
The minor prophet Amos is trying to get the people of the Northern kingdom of Israel to repent and come back to God. In the chapters preceding our reading for today, Amos has been prophesying against the leadership of Temple and King. He has named the sins of the leaders against God – the oppression of the poor and the crushing of the needy. God has been punishing the land with drought and pestilence, but the people and leaders do not return to God – they continue to worship other gods. God makes one last plea to “seek the LORD and live” and avoid the coming of the Assyrians. God showed Amos that locusts and fire were coming, and as we pick up our reading, God has shown Amos a “plumb line” as a dividing line to judge their actions as just or not. The king’s priest, Amaziah, brings charges against Amos that he is sowing sedition. Amos brings the judgment of the LORD to Amaziah and tells him that Israel will be no more and will go into exile because they have “othered” the God who was just and who brought them out of Egypt.
Paul’s opening prayer and exhortation to the believers in Colossae is filled with excitement and joy at how well they are living in the Spirit. He notes how well they have learned the gospel that has come to them. He prays for them to continue in the knowledge of God’s will that they might lead lives worthy and pleasing to God, for they have been rescued and redeemed from the darkness and now share in the inheritance of the saints in light through Jesus. After our reading today he notes how they were once enslaved, “othered” if you will, and now are reconciled through the Resurrection into a new creation which is holy, blameless and irreproachable.
Jesus is in dialogue with a lawyer who is trying to test him. The initial question was what the lawyer needed to do to inherit eternal life. In a very Socratic method, Jesus answers the question with more questions. The lawyer answers well, but wants to “justify” himself – that is he wants to win the debate with Jesus, so he asks the pointed question, “…And who is my neighbor?…” In other words, who is it that I must love and who can I ignore, marginalize or “other”? Jesus answers with a parable at the end of which the lawyer answers his own question…a neighbor is anyone who shows another mercy.
In the rabbinical writings of the Talmud and Kabbalah, it is taught that God gave Moses the prayer for the Hebrew people to use when they sought mercy from God. This is contained in Exodus 34:6-7 and goes: “…The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love for thousands of generations, forgiving iniquity and transgressions and sin,…” Here, is the response of God directly to Moses after the creation of the second set of tablets, in response to the Hebrew people’s apostasy with the Golden Calf. The rabbis note that in this prayer are the 13 attributes of mercy that God shows to Moses and all of us. Thirteen is an important number in Judaism – it denotes the infinite. Thus, God teaches us that there is no limit to the amount of times that our sins can be forgiven.
This is what Jesus is teaching in the parable of the “Good Samaritan”. Jesus is teaching the lawyer and all those listening, that there is no limit to how we are to be merciful to one another. Samaritans are the remnant of the Jewish people who were left behind after the Assyrian assault. The king of Assyria sent non-Jewish people to populate the area vacated by the 10 tribes who were taken away or killed. The non-Jews married the Jews and thus the Jews of Judah (southern kingdom) considered them half-breeds for marrying outside the faith. Also, Samaritans only recognize the Torah and not the books of the Prophets or Writings. Thus, they lack some of the witness that is so important to the Jews who went into exile in Babylon but returned to Jerusalem. Thus, these families (neighbors) got crosswise with each other over a lack of understanding and mercy for what they both endured.
Let’s get back to the story of our crosswise neighbors to hear how it ends. About sunset when Robbie returned, Angel had just finished the job. The farmer’s eyes opened wide, his jaw dropped…there was no fence there at all. Instead there was a bridge: a bridge stretching from one side of the new creek to the other. A fine piece of work handrails and all, and his neighbor John was walking toward the bridge, his hand outstretched. ‘You are quite a fellow to build this bridge after all I’ve said and done’. The two neighbors stood at each end of the bridge, and then they walked to the middle, taking each other’s hand. They turned to see the carpenter hoist his toolbox on his shoulder. ‘No, wait. Stay a few days. I’ve a lot of other projects for you,’ called Robbie. ‘I’d love to stay on,’ Angel murmured quietly, ‘but, I have many more bridges to build.’ Our God is constantly seeking to build bridges whereas humans are constantly trying to build fences. Even though God provides judgment and consequences for our intentional and unintentional sins, God’s mercy always and forever accompanies those consequences. The essence of the teaching from our scriptures today is that we need to be merciful as God is always merciful to us. We need to spend our time building bridges to those we have marginalized both as individuals and as a society, instead of erecting barriers to full participation in God’s kingdom. God’s plumb line, that is always held straight by the gravitational pull of God’s grace, calls us to judge our actions and public policies as people and as a Nation “under God”. Do our actions and policies bless without othering, serve equitably, seek union instead of divide; in other words – do they provide God’s view of justice, mercy and neighborliness? If not, then we are still lacking mercy while we walk by on the other side of the road while our neighbor lies robbed, oppressed, bleeding and broken. Lord, have mercy upon us all when we don’t recognize the other as self! Amen. rity