The phrase “Neighbourhood Watch” is usually associated with an initiative where neighbours watch their neighbourhoods for “unusual” activity. Another expression of this same initiative is “Block Watch.” These programs are an organized method, including prepared program material, seminars and meetings, to support one another in keeping the neighbourhood safe—safe from intruders, safe for their children, safe for their property. This kind of “neighbourhood watch” is prudent and positive.
I’m turning the phrase around a bit. I’d like us to think about “Neighbourhood Watch” in a different way. I would like us to think about it stressing the need to look out for—to watch out for, to show kindness towards—someone who is our neighbour. Who or whom could I refer to as “neighbour.” Who is in my neighbourhood? Who’s is included? Who is excluded? Let’s look at the scriptures that were read today to help us understand “neighbourliness.”
Neighbourliness implies living together in mutuality. Neighbourliness reflects values that are shared, interdependence and supported within a community. Neighbourliness means being mindful of others.Neighbourliness means going out of ones way to be kind. To reach out and include others, especially those who are excluded or lack access..
In our first scripture reading from the “minor” prophet Amos, we might find it challenging to see where “neighbourliness” comes into play at first glance. This message is a story of severe divine judgement upon powerful politicians by a prophet of God. The politicians include Jeroboam , the king of Israel’s Northen Kingdom and his chief priest and soothsayer, Amazaiah. He is the king’s personal professional prophet. The problem is that Amos is an amateur.
He is up against the “pro” Amaziah, who has been currying King Jeroboam’s to retain his privileged place of authority and control over people and resources. Amaziah speaks to and for the religious status quo. Along comes an outsider, a farm boy, Amos, to bring the bad news to the king. And what’s the bad news?
The king, and his clan and associates have systematically crushed the poor. Amos’ target is this elite, and their life-style of conspicuous consumption at the expense of the landless poor, the exploited. Amos shows the king God’s plumb line. Reading verse 7 again: This is what he showed me: the Lord was standing beside a wall built with a plumb line, with a plumb line in his hand. The Lord said to me, “Amos, what do you see?” And I said, “A plumb line.”
Then the Lord, speaking through Amos, sets the plumb line in the midst of the people, all the people. He begins pointing out the king’s failure to meet the standard of care, the standard of “truth” to building a kingdom, a kingdom which includes all of God’s people. God desires abundance for all God’s children, including, the widows and the orphans, including the tillers of the soil, and the workers in the poor and the marginalized; not just the elite. God’s judgement for this failure will come down in the most dramatic and catastrophic way says Amos—the women will be sold as sex-slaves, the men shall be slaughtered. The people—these epicureans and “party animals’ who enjoy living off the fat of the land, exploiting others, they will go into exile. Why? Because they have been negligent in looking after the needs of others—the weak, the marginalized, the poor, widows and orphans—their neighbours.
Amaziah, the powerful prophet has a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. Amos, neither prophet nor prophet’s son, but a herdsman and a fruit grower, brings down the words of cataclysmic judgement. “ The Assyrian army is coming and your days of privilege, “partying” will end in shame because you did not watch out for, show kindness towards, your neighbours. Neighbourhood Watch.
Our New Testament reading also brings together two prominent men: one who is credentialed, a learned person, and the other, a wandering mystical preacher/prophet from Galilee with a large following. The context of our reading from Luke is the return of the seventy appointed disciples who had been sent to the towns and villages throughout Galilee. Now, as Jesus is in the process of reviewing the progress of these first “field workers” , travelling disciples, a lawyer, one with knowledge of the Law, Torah Law and the civil code outlined in the books of Moses—Mosaic Law—the German translation uses the word “Schriftgelehter”—one who has been schooled in the scriptures, this man approaches Jesus and asks him the ultimate question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
How would we phrase that today? “What must we do to bring about the inner peace, the prosperity, the consensus, the security, the hope in a future for ourselves and our children, and our church, and our community? What must we do to realize our sustained vision for our lives on this earth and beyond? “
Perhaps that is the question that we might ask. Perhaps that is “eternal life.”
And Jesus answer to this learned man is a question. What is written in the law? What do you read there? (v. 26). The learned man answers. He quotes the shema—the fundamental statement for all Jews, from Deuteronomy 6—You should love the Lord with all your heart, soul, and strength. And then quoting the Law from Leviticus 19:18: and your neighbour as yourself. You shall be neighbourly. Neighbourhood Watch.
And Jesus congratulates him for his good answer and dismisses him—he now wants to turn his mind to the business with his seventy new preachers. But, being a lawyer, the man won’t let it go. He wants a clearer definition of “neighbour.”
“And who is my neighbour?” he asks.
With this prompt, Jesus launches into what has become the most well-known, and almost clichéd story in the Bible: “The Good Samaritan” story. We all know it.
A man is beaten and robbed in the Jericho Road—leaving him half-dead. Half-dead—that’s important because a corpse , a dead body is a huge problem for an observant Jew of the day. A priest comes along, sees him, but passes by on the other side. Then a Levite, another religious man, a man for the priestly house of Levi—he comes along and passes by on the other side. The main reasons for avoiding the injured, half-dead victim are founded in scripture—purity laws.
But then along comes a Samaritan— a Samaritan , a member of the rejected and abhorrent group …and when he saw him he was moved with pity. ( v. 33)We know what he did—bandaged wounds, poured oil, gave wine. He hoisted him on his donkey and walked beside him to the next town. Then he paid two days’ wages to the innkeeper and said, “Take care of him. I’ll pay the balance of the expense when I return.”
Then Jesus asks the question: “Which of the three, do you think was a neighbour to the man?” And the simple answer ought to be “the Samaritan,” but the lawyer hesitates—“The man who showed him mercy,” he replies. And Jesus responds, “Go and do likewise.”
The key point here is that the lawyer cannot utter the word “Samaritan.” The name itself is repugnant to him. They are hated by observant, scripturally pure practitioners of the faith. The Samaritans have their own beliefs which are at odds with Jerusalem- temple centered Judaism to this day. In the mind of an observant Jew, a scholar, a lawyer, they are to be dismissed, avoided, not mentioned.
And that is the point of the story that is often missed. It’s not that someone, a good person, came along, showed kindness and helped out. That is true . That happened. What is significant is that the one who helped out is the one who has been rejected and vilified. This fact prevents the scholarly lawyer from uttering the true identity of the helper. He has been blocked from including him, the Samaritan, as a neighbour. He cannot see him as a neighbour. Neighbourhood Watch.
Today, we as Christians are challenged by this concept of Neighbourhood Watch. Who is our neighbour? Who are our neighbours?
Both our Old and New Testament readings give us insights into who might be included as our neighbours. The king and his henchman are brutally reminded by Amos—the widows , the orphans , the landless and hopeless , those are the ones that have been ignored . In the “Good Samaritan” story we could substitute the names of any marginalized, oppressed and vilified group and replace the identity of the Samaritan.—Muslims, Sikhs, Indians, panhandlers, riff-raff, homeless, addicts, gays—there is no shortage of “sketchy” identities or appropriate labels for those who are dismissed and rejected in our society today.
The two men who pass by on the other side, maintaining their distance from the half- dead traveler, would be well supported by “the Law”, for the decisions they take to ignore the near-death victim. Their Mosaic laws regarding human flesh and purity would be sufficient to clear them from any wrongdoing. They have Scriptutre. They would be followers of the Law.
And yet, it is The Law that brings us back to the plumb line from our reading from Amos. What is God’s law ? What determines our accurate and “true” bearing in relationship with God in God’s world? What is the standard, what is the “truth” about being God’s chosen ones, the plumb line, when it comes to inclusion? Who is included in the idea of “neighbourliness?” “Who is my neighbour?”
We are all damaged people on the” Jericho road” in some way. From whom will we accept the help we need? We are all able, at various times, to provide help, to include others, other who may be damaged, “ robbed and beaten on the roadside” by society. We always have opportunities to extend ourselves, to be inclusive, to show kindness, to watch out for a neighbour.
The Christian church in North America is facing some very challenging questions regarding inclusion—full inclusion by everyone, with everyone.
As we consider the questions that face us as Christians in the Presbyterian Church in Canada, let us reflect on the message from our scripture readings today. Let us measure our attitudes against God’s plumb line. Let us reflect upon who are our neighbours. Let us pray for the grace to show kindness, to show mercy and act neighbourly.
Neighbourhood Watch. Amen