The Art of Neighborliness

“‘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.’”

Luke 10:36-37 NRSV

His voice was commonplace in our home during my early
years. Day after day, I would sit intently before the television eager to
see what surprise he might bring with him or which special guest
would be introduced to his viewers. “Trolley,” “The Land of Make
Believe,” and “Picture-Picture” helped me to pass a good twenty-eight
minutes prior to my daily engagement with homework. His demeanor
was always pleasant with gentleness and sincerity characterizing his
interactions with others. Although he was many miles away in
Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, he could just as easily have lived down our
road or even next door. Fred Rogers was one of a kind and from
1968 until 2001 his show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood touched the
lives of countless childhoods, mine especially. His narrative was
never complicated, always unrushed, and relatable to a variety of life
experiences. While his conversations and illustrations touched on a
number of important life issues, his viewers have often summarized his message as that of “being good to yourself and to others.”

Long before Fred Rogers, another individual lived who had much to say about the relationship between oneself and other people. His name was Jesus. In what has become perhaps his best-known parable, “The Good Samaritan,” Jesus addressed the selfless regard and humble approach which should shape how we live and the manner in which we treat others. The story originated in response to the inquiry of a legal expert. Wishing to know what was expected of him to attain eternal life, the man asked the one whom he perceived to know best. The lawyer knew what the Torah stated, but, as we can attest to, there is a difference between knowing and understanding as well as
understanding and living. Perhaps the man wondered if something was missing. Maybe he thought along the lines of “It can’t be that straightforward. Can it?” Desiring to “justify himself” concerning the identity of a neighbor, he posed the question of all questions, “Who is my neighbor.”

Without missing a beat, Jesus began to tell a story. So often, Jesus’ responses were in the form of stories or additional questions aimed at engaging his audience. Such an approach invited (and continues to do so) hearers to make discoveries for themselves. These parables do so in a manner which defies conventional wisdom and understanding. They cut against the grain of traditional views and reactions especially when it comes to other people. “The Good Samaritan” is one such example of Jesus breaking down walls and overcoming common expectations. For us, it is
the story of “being nice to others” or “helping folks when they are down and out.” But for Jesus’ original listeners, the outcome would have been striking if not somewhat offensive. One of the most despised people in Jewish eyes stepped up to the plate and acted when no one else would. Who was/is a neighbor? The one who shows mercy.

The times and circumstances may have changed since Jesus told this story long ago, but the opportunity continues to be present. Jesus’ words show us that neighbors are more than those who live in close proximity to us. They are not necessarily people we know and may very well be amongst those whom we dislike. When we consider our present-day surroundings (our mission field), what do we notice? Might it be that we notice only ourselves and what others ought to do for us? Could it be
that we see a people with whom we cannot or do not wish to relate? Perhaps we are not exactly sure as to what we want to do with others. We suggest, “All Are Welcome!” We tell people to, “Come As You Are!” We say…but does our treatment of others mesh with those words? My memories of Fred Rogers remind me that everyone has a place. Jesus’ teaching challenges me to see (really see) others for who they are. You and I have neighbors, but I wonder to whom God might be sending us to be a neighbor this day.

In Christian Service,
The Reverend Kelley Smart