Today’s lesson, I am glad to say, follows closely on the heals of what Pastor Jim was talking about last week…when the Pharisees were trying to trap Jesus with their questions about paying taxes to Caesar. The setting is still the same with this being the last week of Jesus’ life. Two other Gospel writers pick up on today’s events with Luke actually rephrasing the question. Instead of having the lawyer inquiring about the greatest of all the commandments…Luke has him ask, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” And yet, Matthew doesn’t go there. With the clock ticking and little time left, Matthew’s question is practical…to the point…and ultimately leads us to the larger issue of ‘who Jesus is’.
For me, the rub in this story…comes in the form of an observation. When asked to offer his opinion on which one commandment was the greatest (realizing that he had some 613 to choose from),…Jesus chose not one but two commandments and then intentionally bound them together. As far as we can tell, Jesus was the first one to do this, which makes his answer all the more impressive. What Jesus is implying (and not in a small way)…is that the criterion of whether love for God is real is whether or not that same love is reflected in our relationships with others. Ouch! Did that get our attention? I hope so…because what Jesus is doing here is a perfect example of ‘relational teaching’.
What the lawyer in today’s story really wants to know is what we all want to know: ‘Ok Jesus, just tell us. Who is our neighbor, really?’ One person whom I believe came very close to discovering the answer is Fred Rogers, whom many of us have come to know simply as Mister Rogers, from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. According to author Amy Hollingsworth, Fred’s definition of a neighbor was simple: the person you happen to be with at the moment. Quoting from her book, The Simple Faith of Mister Rogers:
‘At the center of Fred’s theology of loving your neighbor was this: Every person is made in the image of God, and for that reason alone, he or she is to be valued…”appreciated”, he liked to say.
Fred Rogers was a master when it came to relational teaching…especially when it came to teaching children about how to relate to others. Having been called as a minister in the Presbyterian church, he found his parish to be that of the television viewer. For over 30 years, children flocked to be a part of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and to hear the gentle words of affirmation coming from the kind man who wore sweaters and blue tennis shoes.
His message, although quite simple, was an important one: ‘Be the good neighbor’. It is a message that Jesus himself would have affirmed…knowing that behind it all was an unspoken love for God. The two can not be separated, as Fred Rogers undoubtedly knew. There was something relationally divine about engaging one’s neighbor, whomever and wherever they happened to be. Again, to quote from her book:
‘Fred believed there are those in our world, people his mother called “helpers,” who allow us to remember what is good about being human. Even God chose to identify with being human, he once noted, and He continues to work through those created in His image.’
What happens when the person whom God chooses to work through turns out to be someone whom we might not feel close to? Someone who seems so different from us, our values, our way of life that we can not possibly relate to them as our neighbor…and vice versa…or so it would seem. One of the stories that caught my eye was actually about the Hollingsworth family and their unlikely encounter with a man named Junior.
‘Dressed in mud-splattered coveralls with hair that looked like he had just awoken from a week long nap’ (she writes), Junior presented Amy one day with a large cut of raw venison. Still dripping blood through his fingers, as he stood at their front door, Junior had come to say thank you to Jeff, Amy’s husband, who had visited him in the hospital. Needless to say, I’ve heard of people bringing all kinds of gifts to thank Pastors for their help, but this one takes the cake. And yet, it was just the beginning of what turned out to be an extremely important relationship.
As Mister Rogers often said on his show: ‘You make each day special…just by being you!’ I believe Fred Rogers was right. Every person is made in the image of God, and for that reason alone, he or she is to be valued and yes, appreciated. And that, dear friends in Christ, makes every day a wonderful day…in the neighborhood. Amen