Won’t You Be My Neighbor? A Good Samaritan Reflection

by Melissa Taft
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by Elaine Breckenridge

Who doesn’t love the story of the Good Samaritan? As a child, it may have been one the first stories I read in my children’s Bible. If you have not read the story recently, you can find it in Luke 10:25-37

Jesus tells this story as an answer to a lawyer’s question, “And just who is my neighbor?” The lawyer expected Jesus to define the word neighbor as a Jew who lived in close proximity. However, Jesus re-framed the lawyer’s question, “who is my neighbor?” by telling this parable. A traveler understood to be Jewish is robbed, beaten, and left for dead alongside the road. Both a Jewish priest and a Jewish temple assistant do not stop their journey to help the injured man. Then a third man, a Samaritan stops to give aid – quite generous aid. What is notable is that Samaritans and Jews despised each other citing religious, cultural, and even racial differences. 

 After telling this parable, Jesus then asked the lawyer, “Who acted as a neighbor to the man who fell in the hands of robbers?” The lawyer answers correctly by saying, “The one who showed mercy.” 

Certainly, we have a teaching by Jesus about the importance of showing compassion and hospitality to strangers. It is about practicing love in action, which reveals the fullness of the kingdom of God. And yet this is also a parable of Jesus. And Jesus always used parables to wake up his listeners, often using subversive means.  

Like our world today, the social context of Jesus and the Early Church was a multi-ethnic world, full of tension, suspicions and hostility between groups. This parable was asking all listeners not to simply listen but to rise above such hostility and to cross the boundaries of the fear of cultural, religious, and racial differences. This parable is about blowing apart social prejudice. 

When this Gospel was read out loud in the early church, Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians (who also had trouble mixing) were being invited to come together, to hold hands, to touch one another, to get close, to become neighbors as illustrated by Jesus. 

I cannot help but be reminded of a contemporary figure who – like Jesus – worked constantly to show us that a neighbor was not someone who lived in close proximity, or someone who looked and acted like us. Like Jesus, he used stories to show us that being a neighbor was love in action. And like Jesus, he was often just as subversive. I am thinking of Fred Rogers. 

Mr. Rogers was an ordained Presbyterian minister. Then he followed Christ into the neighborhood and into television and into the hearts of children and adults alike. Fred had a vision that his television program could teach children about love and goodness and the dignity of every human being. And it was not just words. The people in his neighborhood, the actors he included in the series manifested diversity, including gender, racial and sexual diversity. Fred Rogers believed that cultural diversity and difference are to be celebrated.  

There is one scene in the documentary of Mr. Roger’s career called “Won’t you be my Neighbor?” which reminds me of the Parable of the Good Samaritan.  Mr. Rogers was sitting on the edge of a children’s swimming pool holding a hose and spraying his feet. Onto the set walks Mr. Clemmons, the neighborhood policeman. “Oh hi Mr. Clemmons,” said Rogers. “It is such a hot day. I am cooling my feet with this water and it really feels nice. Would you like to join me?” Mr. Clemmons responded, “Oh that looks very nice indeed. But I don’t have a towel.” Mr. Roger’s had a towel around his neck and said, “That’s o.k. I am happy to share mine.” “Ok!” says Mr. Clemmons. He pulls off his shoes and socks and sits next to Rogers. Both men sit side by side immersing their feet in the water in the swimming pool.  Sweet. 

François Clemmons and Fred Rogers Having Foot Bath

Sweet. But also, subversive. The year of that particular episode was 1969. Mr. Clemmons was an African American man sharing a foot bath and a towel with Mr. Rogers who was a Caucasian man. 

This episode was created, filmed and aired by Rogers just a few days after a major news report. This news report had been widely televised, showing an angry Caucasian man throwing swimming pool chemicals into a public swimming pool where African Americans and Caucasians adults and children were swimming together. The pool had recently been declared as desegregated and yet here was this visible and violent display of protest. 

Mr. Rogers had his own way of protesting violent action. He did so by reaching out to a person of color, demonstrating that it was a positive and pleasant thing to share water, a pool and even a towel. He could be subversive–just like Jesus!

Fred Rogers embodied what it meant to be a neighbor rising above prejudice and hostility. “Would you be my neighbor?” he sang; asking and living that question is the Good News in action. It is our highest calling. What neighbors, “others”, may fear and hate, ignore and exclude is ours to accept and include, celebrate and bless.  

I often wish that Mr. Rogers was still alive to help us sing his song. “It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood. It’s a beautiful day for a neighbor. Would you be mine? Could you be mine? Since we’re together we might as well say, please, won’t you be my neighbor?” 

Now it is up to us to sing and live that song. How do we sing the song of Mr. Rogers who sang the song of Jesus?  By speaking up when in the presence of racist or sexist jokes or bullying. By making efforts to reach out to those of different races, religions, economic classes and cultures. By learning how to proclaim and defend the rights and freedoms of all people. And most subversive, perhaps reaching out to those of different political parties. These days, that’s a tough one for me.     

Fred Rogers sang another song called “It’s you I like. You make each day a special day by just being yourself.” That was the message of Jesus. Jesus saw past people’s beliefs and practices (unless they caused harm and then he named it) and into people’s hearts and declared them good. Like Mr. Rogers, may we learn creative and perhaps even subversive ways to do likewise.

Photo by Derick McKinney on Unsplash, the pool scene can be viewed by visiting https://misterrogers.org/videos/sharing-a-swimming-pool/

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