Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
“The lawyer, wanting to justify himself, asked Jesus,
‘And who is my neighbor?’” (Luke 10)
I’ve been thinking about the difference between ideals and expectations, and wondering how they are related. Ideals are those convictions we each have that draw us out of and beyond ourselves. They represent something not yet achieved, but to be desired. They challenge us to reach out, to go beyond, to exceed the ordinary. Ideals are beliefs like the inherent dignity of all people; our right to equal treatment before the law; and while we are at it (since today is July the 14th, Bastille Day) we might as well cite lofty watchwords of the French Revolution: the ideals of liberté, égalité, and fraternité.
Expectations, on the other hand, are beliefs that we have about what we think we are owed. They are the sense of entitlement we feel because of some personal status or achievement: perhaps because we are well-educated, or are a native-born citizen, or because we’ve worked hard for what we have, or even because we have a well-developed spiritual rule of life. Expectations are about what we think we deserve. And unlike ideals, they cause us to turn inward, to become preoccupied with what we expect to receive, rather than with what we are obligated to give.
The trouble, of course, is that ideals and expectations so easily start to blend into one another. When we have done well by living up to our own ideals, for instance, then in our sense of accomplishment we all too often instinctively start to slip into expecting some reward or recognition for having done so. I can’t tell you how many honorary doctorates the seminaries of our church hand out to people every year, just for having been faithful Christians!
And so we come to the lawyer who stood up in today’s gospel to test Jesus. He knows already what the ideal is: to love God with heart, soul, mind and strength—and to love neighbor as self. But now he wants to know just how faithful to that ideal he has to be, in order to get his reward. So he chooses the question of neighbor as the case study: just who is my neighbor, anyway?
And so, of course, Jesus tells the familiar parable of the Good Samaritan: a priest and a Levite come upon a man left for dead by robbers beside the road, but both pass him by. Then a Samaritan comes by—a foreigner—and only he stops to care for the beaten man lying in the ditch.
The usual emphasis placed on the story is that only the Samaritan recognized this poor soul as his neighbor, and so only he fulfilled the ideal of loving neighbor as self. But if we read carefully, Jesus actually points toward a slightly different interpretation: his question to the lawyer at the end of the parable is not, “Who recognized the injured man as his neighbor,” but “Who was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” In Jesus’ question, it’s not the man in the ditch who is the unrecognized neighbor, finally ministered to by the Samaritan. Rather, the point is that it is the Samaritan who becomes his neighbor.
The difference is subtle, but it shifts the story from being about a uni-directional offer of help from the Samaritan to the injured man, to the establishment of a mutual relationship between them both. It’s a story, in other words, as much about receiving as giving help.
So the ideal that Jesus holds up is that “loving your neighbor as yourself” is not just about being willing to offer something to someone else, but also a willingness to receive something from them—to become bound in a relationship of mutual respect, sharing, and kindness. My father always admired Harry Truman as a president of uncommonly good sense. I remember him quoting Truman to me, saying, “All will concede that in order to have good neighbors, we must also be good neighbors. That applies in every field of human endeavor.” Neighborliness is a two-way street: it is Mutual. Communal. Reciprocal.
The Aspen Institute has an initiative underway under the leadership of David Brooks to identify “Weavers,” that is, people who in the midst of a society that is “frayed by distrust, division, and exclusion,” are weaving together the social fabric in their local communities by putting relationship at the center of life. The Institute’s website tells this representative story: Asiaha Butler lives with her family in the Englewood section of Baltimore, a depressed, dangerous neighborhood that she and her husband had decided to leave. But one day just before their departure, Asiaha was looking out her front window at the vacant lot across the street. Some little girls were playing, throwing rocks and broken bottles and playing with abandoned tires in the mud. Aisaha turned to her husband and said, “We can’t leave that.” In that moment, she recognized not only that the girls playing in the vacant lot were her neighbors, but that she was their neighbor as well. A sense of relationship sprang up inside her, and she and her family decided they had to stay, going on to found a community renewal organization known as RAGE: the Residential Association of Greater Englewood.
In moments like Aisha’s realization the she and her family had to stay, it seems to me that what happens is that our ideals and our expectations suddenly converge. What we need and want for ourselves, is put in alignment with what we believe is the best for others as well. Perhaps that is the larger meaning of the Good Samaritan: the story is about a meeting point between ideal and expectation that allowed a relationship to take root.
And if you think about it, perhaps a big part of what we do here at church is to try to effect something similar. We use some very lofty idealistic language—talking about the New Creation, the kingdom of God, or the beloved community. But we put that language side by side with the very human set of expectations we all bring with us about what we need and want—and then try to mold them into a vision of life together. We’re all about learning to become weavers.
Because you see, we human beings don’t just naturally gravitate toward ideals. We have to be coaxed out of our futile self-preoccupation, toward a commitment to something bigger. Ideals and expectations have to be brought into sync, harmonized into an ambition to which we can give ourselves whole-heartedly and unreservedly.
We, in our country, are in a time of high expectations, and low ideals right now. We are collectively more concerned with what we expect to get, than with that toward which we aspire. And that’s why it’s important that you are here today: this is a place to be called to rediscover the ideals that weave us together in the communities where we life—like the Good Samaritan, like Aisha Butler. We come here to learn to make our families, our schools, our church, our city, our politics, arenas where relationships are woven together. That is a high calling, but as Moses reminded Israel, that word is not actually far off: it is very near you, even in your own heart. Amen.