That’s Another Good Question

Liz Heinzel-Nelson Avatar

Good morning Church. For those who are newer to the VIP family, my husband, is pastor at Allentown Presbyterian Church, in Allentown, NJ, not to be confused with Allentown, PA. In 2008, 15 years ago, my husband and I sensed a call from God to take one year of an unpaid leave and go serve with our children in Malawi, a country ranked among the 5 poorest countries in the world. As you can see, not everyone was excited to go. However, God blessed us and transformed all of us through that year! 

Since then, I’ve traveled back and forth to Malawi many, many times, including trips with some of your church members.

Malawi’s culture and way of life is vastly different from ours! Little ways to huge ways.

  • There’s no such thing as political correctness. They just tell me like they see it, all white people look the same.
  • And I still haven’t gotten used to their forms of compliments. When they haven’t seen me for a while, they will say, Amayi, you look so fat fat fat. This is meant as a compliment because in Malawi, it demonstrates that you have enough food in your house. Haha, thank you, as I try to keep the smile plastered on my face.

Over the years, I’ve come to know people with names like Triza, Bonongwe, Chifundo, Heswick, Cydney and Ruth. Cydney is an orphan, his mother died when he was 9. He lived near his aunt but she was too overwhelmed with her own children and poverty so Cydney was left in charge of his younger siblings, at 9 years old. Cydney was suddenly the one responsible for collecting water, growing food to feed the family – This is what they call a “Child-headed household – a term we don’t hear in America”. Triza, another teenage orphan, was being raised by her 80 year old grandmother. Her grandmother died last December and I don’t know who will take care of her now. These are beautiful children, who’s lives are so different from ours, but for me and others who have met them on Friendship Trips, they have gone from being strangers to neighbors, from statistics to people.

I travel to Malawi 2-3 times a year, spending months in total. This allows me a consistent presence on the Jericho Road in Malawi.

One of Jesus’ most well known parables takes place on the Jericho Road. The impact of this parable on my life is considerable. The parable is prompted by 2 deep and probing questions that people continue to ask today.What’s the meaning of life? And How am I to think about others? Let’s listen to what happens on the Road to Jericho.

An expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  Jesus said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” The lawyer answered, “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.” And Jesus said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”

But wanting to vindicate himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and took off, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came upon him, and when he saw him he was moved with compassion. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, treating them with oil and wine. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The 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.’ 

Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” The lawyer said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

Luke 10: 25-37

I love the preamble to this parable because there, a great question is asked. What must I do to inherit eternal life? This word, eternal life, can be a confusing translation from the Greek to the English. When we hear the phrase, eternal life, we often think of the afterlife. But that’s not really what was being asked. The Greek word used here is Zoe which actually implies, living life to the fullest, right here and now. He is asking Jesus, what is the meaning of life, what must I do to live life to the fullest?

What a great question? Isn’t this something we all long for? We should all be on the edge of our seats. What will Jesus answer?

However, when the lawyer asks Jesus this question, Jesus throws it back to the lawyer because the lawyer is actually the expert in Jewish scripture. Lawyers, in those days, were authorities in the Torah, levitical law and the scriptures.

And so Jesus throws the question back to the lawyer, and indeed, the lawyer quotes not one but 2 different passages, “Love God with your whole heart, soul and mind and love your neighbor.” The lawyer confidently spouts out the right answer, but Jesus recognizes something is missing from the lawyer’s response. And he exposes it with 2 small words. Do this, and you will have Zoe. Do this, and you will have life to the fullest. Jesus sees that the lawyer intellectually knows the right answer but he doesn’t know it in his heart. He doesn’t understand what it means to love your neighbor.

It’s kind of like when you need to forgive someone and you know in your head yet in your heart, you are not there yet. That’s the way it is with the lawyer. He knows the law yet he living it.

Jesus tells him, do this and you will live. And so this leads the lawyer to ask another great question, Well Who is my neighbor? How do I apply this to my real life? At this point, Jesuscould’ve launched into a long philosophical response but instead, the master, tells a simple yet profound story.

A man is attacked, beaten, robbed and left for dead by the side of the road to Jericho.  But there is hope. Someone is coming, and he is a priest.  But, the priest is consumed with other cares. He is busy, he does not want to be contaminated by touching a sick or potentially dead body. And he walks on, leaving the suffering man to die.  But yet another is coming.  A Levite, a temple official. But the Levite shows no compassion either. The crowd listening to the parable loves it.  Jesus is calling out the elite religious groups for their hypocrisy, they are the people who should be caring for others and yet they do not.  And so the crowd waits for Jesus to introduce the 3rd character. For in Jewish story telling, the 3rd character is the most important. It is the 3rd character who is expected to break the established pattern set by the first two. The third character is the hero of the story.

So people are leaning in, waiting for Jesus to introduce the hero. Who do they expect it to be? Maybe they are expecting Jesus to lift up one of his own disciples. Maybe they are expecting that the hero will be an average, ordinary Israelite.

But Jesus rarely does the expected. Jesus chooses as the hero in the story a most unexpected, despicable character. Jesus chooses a Samaritan, an outcast, despised, scorned, looked down upon mixed race by the Israelites, a people who are considered unclean and worthless. And yet, Jesus makes him the hero of the story.

What makes him the hero of the story?  Do you see what the Samaritan does? He puts himself at risk. According to Jewish law, touching a half-dead person or a corpse will contaminate him. Yet the Samaritan takes the risk and picks up the wounded.

Then the Samaritan invests in this person.  He tends his wounds, lifts him onto his animal, carries him to the inn and he leaves money for the innkeeper to look after him until he is healed.

Often, when people learn of the work I do in Malawi, they ask, why go to

Malawi, we have poor right here in the USA. Another very important question! This question gets to the heart of the question the lawyer is asking Jesus, who is my neighbor? This perplexing question is a philosophical and immensely practical question with which we must all wrestle, especially as the world becomes a more global community and we, here in America, enjoy more and more privileges.  In the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus gives us a new definition of neighbor. It has nothing to do with proximity, or relatives, no – the one who is the neighbor is the one who shows mercy. Being a neighbor has nothing to do with where we live, it has everything to do with how we act. Neighbors help each other!

Christ calls us to serve the poor, here, in our communities surrounding FPCA, and in the greater Allentown area and yes, all the way in Africa. And specifically in Malawi because the people there are threatened by a danger that we never encounter. A danger called extreme poverty, a poverty our country does not know.

It is oppressive and kills the weakest and most vulnerable in a society, children! If you live in the village and do not bring in enough harvest, your children starve. If you live in a village that has no access to clean water, your family is forced to draw water from contaminated water sources and your children die from diarrhea. If you live in a remote village where there is no access to health care, your children die from malaria, go blind from measles, suffer brain damage from malnutrition. The people we serve in the remote villages live on less than $1 a day. There is no one to tax in Malawi and so their government does not have the resources to assist the poor.

Do you know, when we had 4 of our Malawian staff here in 2019, and we took them to serve at Trenton Area Soup Kitchen, do you know what they said to me when we came out, “Amayi, we didn’t see any poor people.” That’s because poverty looks very different in Malawi.

When you hear staggering statistics that:

  • Malawi’s population is 20 million and of those, 1.5 million are orphans.
  • 52 % of Malawi’s population is under the age of 15.
  • 85% of the population in Malawi are subsistence farmers, meaning, they eat what they harvest. If you have a drought, well, your family starves. They don’t have a government, a social system, organizations, churches to take care of them. They starve!

I want to quote Bono. Who remembers Bono from the Rock band, U2? Is he too old, too passé to quote? (Quote from Bono) Not with this thought… Bono challenges the Church,   

It’s an amazing thing to think that ours is the first generation in history that really can end extreme poverty, the kind that means a child dies for lack of food in its belly. That should be seen as the most incredible, historic opportunity but instead it’s become a millstone around our necks. We let our own pathetic excuses about how it’s “difficult” justify our own inaction. Be honest. We have the science, the technology, and the wealth. But do we have the will?”

Do it, and you will have zoe.

Bono, U2

I want to tell you a story of a child I know. A person who is not a parable, not a scenario, he’s real. His name is Heswick.

Heswick is an orphan. He is HIV positive from birth. The first time I met him, he and his grandmother were receiving a goat from VIP. They were identified by their community as one of the most vulnerable families in the village and therefore eligible to receive a goat. When I met him, Heswick didn’t talk. His grandmother told me he stopped talking about a year earlier when a kerosene lamp they use at night for light, spilled on him and caught him on fire. She pulled up his pants leg to show me the oozing wound that will not heal.

It happened that a medical team was coming that week. The medics made home visits to Heswick and his grandmother nearly everyday. Heswick’s wounds were healing well with the daily care from the medical team. However, they pointed out that the scar tissue was restricting his leg movement. He could no longer bend his knee and needed surgery. VIP Malawi staff contacted CURE Hospital, an orthopedic hospital in the city of Blantyre. CURE Hospital treats children for free. Heswick was selected for surgery and the VIP staff accompanied him to Blantyre for the operation.

I remember the next time I came to Malawi, I immediately went to visit Heswick and his grandmother. Heswick came running down the path, kicking his knees up high to show me how he could bend and use his leg. Dodging here and there, running back and forth. He was so happy, so grateful!

Last December, I learned Heswick’s grandmother died. Sometimes, the weights and burdens these children carry are so heavy. Who will care for Heswick now? When I arrived to Malawi in the spring, Heswick was living all by himself and did not look well. He was dying. Finally we got him into a home for severely vulnerable children who have no one to care for them. The name of the home is Good Samaritan.

Through Villages in Partnership people like Heswick, who are suffering on the side of the Jericho Road in Malawi, have become accessible to us. People who used to be invisible can now be seen. Little girls and boys who used to be statistics, are now our sisters and brothers.

So I have another question for us? Are we suffering from the same spiritual dysfunction as the lawyer?

Richard Stearns, President Emeritus of World Vision warns:

“One of the sure signs that we have been co-opted by our culture is that, like frogs in the proverbial kettle, we have grown comfortable with things that should shock us and mobilize us to action. We no longer feel the heat of outrage against things that anger God. We have so embraced the American dream that we can no longer see or feel the world’s nightmare of poverty, suffering, and hopelessness.”  

Richard Stearns

Heswick is not the only one. Triza, Chifundo, Mphatso, Jonathan, Cydney… There are over 1.5 million orphans in Malawi, all who have names, some of whom I’ve met, some of whom you’ve helped.

I need to thank your church. I hear that you are raising funds so that you may bring clean water to the people of Malawi. Clean water is something we take for granted, but in Malawi, that is a huge gift that impacts hundreds of people! Let me give you a glimpse into the joy and celebration that clean water brings to a community.

In closing, I want to challenge you to choose to see the stranger as a neighbor. choose to pick up the wounded and suffering and carry them on your donkeys. Sydney, Triza, Heswick are a few of thousands of children who need us to place them on our donkey to a well with clean water, to a field with a bountiful harvest, to a school that offers a new future, where not only their lives, but the lives of children for generations will be changed.

I’m here to tell you, there are many more people on the Jericho road who need your help. There are orphans like Hesiwck who are lying on the side of the road. We, as followers of Jesus Christ, cannot rest until each one of these children have been picked up and put on our donkeys, no matter how many trips we have to make to the Inn.

Now, you might be sitting there thinking of the overwhelming need and sacrifice you are being asked to make. The mystery of God that I have been experiencing over the last 15 years is that when we serve, when we give sacrificially, investing in the lives of others, we become spiritually blessed in abundance. When we come alongside one another and devote ourselves to care for each other, we experience community, hospitality and faith that can only be described as the zoe that our lawyer friend was seeking. As we make these trips to the Inn, the mysterious blessings of God pour down us and we experience Zoe as Jesus Christ tends to us all.