In an ancient middle eastern village a leper took up his usual place. He sat on his tattered carpet with a tin cup waiting for whatever would clink from the passersby of his little world. He stayed there from dawn to dusk, no matter what the weather. His meal that night would depend on what he received for the day.
A self-righteous person had a noticeably unpleasant expression on his face as he looked at the leper. He walked this way often, and this wasn’t the first time he had seen the leper, sometimes saying under his breath, “Lazy bum; why don’t you get a job like the rest of us. If I was in your shoes, I’d find some kind of job, even becoming a slave.”
An aloof person had eyes fixed on the horizon and walked quickly until the leper was out of sight. There was no comment or sneer but only a desire to get by the leper without hearing his voice, the money in the cup, or his plea for help. If the leper wasn’t seen, he didn’t exist, sparing this person any guilt feelings.
An indifferent person threw a few coins in the leper’s cup without comment. Aside from the pocket change, this person gave no further thought to the leper and his future.
The final person to pass by placed a gift in the cup with an offer of further help. He even told the leper his name and said he would see the leper again. As he walked away he wondered what caused that person to be in that situation.
If Jesus told this story, he would ask, “Who was the neighbor to the leper?”
Indeed. “Who is my neighbor” is a question that confronts everyone. Neighbor is the leper in an ancient middle-eastern village, but also the office mate. Neighbor is the next person in the checkout lane and the person who is sitting nearby at church. Neighbor can be a super-intelligent person in your service club or the person with diminished mental capacities who talks too much or boldly asks for your help at inconvenient times.
Sometimes neighbors can be irritating or confusing or not-as-wise-as-you. They can step on your last nerve, say things that seem stupid to you, or make you want to scream.
With the right set of circumstances anyone can take the leper’s place on the ground. Sitting on the threadbare piece of carpet as the leper is hard enough, but it is made even harder by feeling invisible or inconveniencing to others.
Jesus taught that the only way to be neighborly is to show compassion and love. Judgment, self-righteousness, gossip, impatience and related responses are the most un-neighborly way to be in our world. But, true to form, these responses seem righteous to the self-righteous.
So Jesus asks us, “Who is your neighbor?” And “Are you a neighbor in return?