If you grew up in the seventies, eighties, and even the nineteen nineties, or had children during that time you could have a television neighbor who taught his viewers a particular song, “It’s a beautiful day in this neighborhood, A beautiful day for a neighbor, Would you be mine? Could you be mine? I have always wanted to have a neighbor just like you, I’ve always wanted to live in a neighborhood with you.” You may recognize that song from Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood which ran on PBS from 1968-2001.
You may remember that Fred Rogers would come in the front door of his studio home, go to the closet and talk off his coat, and put on a more comfortable zippered sweater which he always zipped to the top, then back down, and then he’d take a seat and take off his shoes and put on a more comfortable pair of loafers or tennis shoes, all the while singing that song, “It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood…”
And when I was young I don’t what I thought of it, but I could imagine I thought, “I’m that nice man’s neighbor and I’m going to watch him feed his fish, or maybe go down to the local music store to see some of his friends and learn about musical instruments, and follow Trolley to the Neighborhood of Make Believe. I’m that man’s neighbor.”
I have to admit it sounds kind of corny, idealistic, and unrealistic to think that a guy on television really wanted to be a neighbor to every man, woman,, and child that watched his show. To one degree or another we all have probably been tainted with at least a little cynicism about such sentiments, and could say “Mr. Rogers never met the people I have to put up with.” Could Mr. Roger’s really tolerate or love and appreciate all types of people as his neighbor?
What were his neighborly limits? What are ours? This whole question of who our neighbor is, comes about in response to a question posed to Jesus by a lawyer, who asks him, ‘Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ It’s a good question. What must we do to inherit eternal life? That’s something that we all might want to know. So Jesus points him to the Scriptures, “Well, what is written in the law? What do you read there?’ Jesus asks. The lawyer, drawing on his knowledge of the law answers with two lines that Jesus uses elsewhere to summarize the whole law, 27 ‘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.’ 28Je Jesus said to him, ‘You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.’ That seems to settle it, but the lawyer, trying to justify himself and who I imagine as a little distressed asks, 29”But who is my neighbor?” Am I supposed to love everyone as myself?
To answer that question Jesus doesn’t give a direct answer. Instead he tells a parable: A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, which was a very dangerous road to travel, and this man fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and left him for dead. “31Then by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33But a Samaritan while travelling came near to him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. 34He 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. 35The 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.”
Then Jesus poses the question, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” 37The lawyer said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.” In Eugene Peterson’s translation of this passage found in The Message, he translates the final words of the lawyer, as “The one who treated him kindly.” Here kindness consists of being moved by the hurt man’s situation. He felt something when himself on behalf of another person. Then he actively cared for the man and generously made for his provision by paying the innkeeper.
Jesus told parables like this one not to be unnecessarily obscure as some of the parables sometimes could be, nor to give easy pat answers to difficult questions. He told parables to get people to think about the nature of the Kingdom of God and to think deeply about their motivations and behaviors based on the Kingdom’s nearness.
One way of looking at this parable is that the Samaritan was a neighbor to the hurt man. Samaritans at that time were a people despised by Jews, so is the point of the parable that even people we don’t like are our neighbors and can be kind to us? Or is the point of the parable that to be a neighbor is to be kind. The point of the parable is to get us to think about who is our neighbor is and how to be a neighbor and in thinking about we can say that to be a good neighbor is to be merciful and kind.
There is a person I have heard speak three or four times in the last 15 years and that is Brother Curtis Almquist* who is a member the Society of Saint John the Evangelist. The Society of the Saint John the Evangelist or SSJE for short is a community of men within the Episcopal Church living under a rule of life in Cambridge, Massachusetts where they live and offer retreats and spiritual direction. They also have strong presence on the internet and send out lots of good content on matters related to spirituality. Through the years I have had the opportunity to hear Brother Curtis speak at our diocesan clergy conference a number of times and his reflections have always been thoughtful, and grounded in love and humility.
In a recent blog post on the SSJE website he reflected on the meaning of the word “kindness” and said, as we read the Bible, “we see how kindness redresses how we could otherwise deport ourselves in the presence of those who are different,” meaning that kindness gives us direction on how we are to relate to people and treat people who are different than we are. We are to treat them kindly even though we could treat them otherwise. Brother Curtis then he points out that Jesus’ kindness is “remembered in the Greek as philonexia, ‘the love of strangers’ which is the opposite of xenophobia, which is the fear or hatred of strangers, the discrimination against strangers.” Jesus’ way, the way of eternal life, is not based fear or hatred of the stranger, but based on love and kindness to the stranger.
As I asked near the beginning about Mr. Rogers and ourselves, what were his neighborly limits? What are our neighborly limits? To whom can we not be kind? To which people would we sing, “I never wanted to have a neighbor like you?”
You might guess where I am going with this. Kindness is not just for our kin. Kindness is related to the word kin, but kindness extends beyond to whom we are kin, to those with whom we are not. It is just for our kin, but the stranger as well. It is not just for family and friend, but the refugee and the immigrant. Kindness is how we respect the dignity of every human being whether they are family, friend, refugee, or asylum seeker.
Though he found great success on television, Fred Rogers was an ordained Presbyterian minister and much of what he taught in his show was grounded in the values of the Gospel: love, peace, vulnerability, and kindness. He was once quoted as saying, “There are three ways to ultimate success: The first way is to be kind. The second way is to be kind. The third way is to be kind.”
Our success is dependent not just on how we treat those we know, but also depends on how we treat those we don’t know. The people of this hurting world need kindness whether they are like us or not. God’s church can be a place where we practice kindness with one another, so we can practice kindness in the world. Kindness is one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. May it be our gift to a hurting world and to hurting people.
*Brother Curtis Almquist, “Kindness” https://bit.ly/2XZoQpS
Please see links for statements and information on the crisis at the southern U.S. border and how to help:
Episcopal Bishop in Texas issue statement decrying the inhumane conditions at our country’s border. https://bit.ly/2xMqFYq
Presiding Bishop’s Statement on the Crisis at the U.S. Border https://bit.ly/32wHeWG
Episcopal Migration Ministries Resources https://bit.ly/2Y5GOqL