THE ONE WHO SHOWED HIM MERCY
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A priest goes to a new barber for a haircut one Monday. When he tries to pay, the barber informs him that haircuts are free for clergy on Mondays. The next week the barber finds a bottle of wine with a note of thanks on it outside his shop as he opens it. A few weeks later, a rabbi visits the same barber. The rabbi is pleasantly surprised to be told the same thing. The following week, the barber finds a loaf of freshly baked bread outside his shop with a thank-you note attached. About a month later a Baptist pastor visits the same barber. He’s told about the free-for-clergy-on-Mondays policy and thanks the barber profusely. The next Monday, the barber arrives at his shop to find six more Baptist pastors waiting outside.
Now I don’t know that I have ever in my life started a sermon with a joke, or really been one to subscribe to the “start off with humour” school of public speaking? Why did I do it? I want to illustrate where we are as Jesus tells a story this morning. We’re looking at parables all summer. “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho” is how the story starts. Right away the listener knows that he or she is in the land of a “throwing or casting alongside”. A story that is meant to point to something being itself, like the joke does. The story has three characters in it, called in some quarters a “folkloric triad” where the third character is meant to contrast or outdo (the Three Little Pigs or Goldilocks are examples of this).
What might God have to say to our hearts this morning as we examine this story with which many of us are so familiar? Let’s turn to God in prayer and ask for help.
One of the interesting things about the parable of the merciful Samaritan is that is framed in a larger story (framed in the larger story of the Gospel of course). It begins with a question that is posed to Jesus. A lawyer stood up to test Jesus. One who is knowledgeable in the Law – in the Torah in other words. Now some would say that this lawyer is trying to trap Jesus or “get” Jesus in some way, but I prefer to think otherwise. I prefer to think that this lawyer is sincerely asking – “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Where can I find life? To what purpose or for what purpose am I living my life? It’s the question of the human condition, isn’t it? What must I do to inherit eternal life, which as I like to say is not just asking about the afterlife, but life of the ages. Life that is really life, as Paul put it to Timothy. How should I live, in other words. Know that there are people all around us asking the same kind of questions. We should be asking the same question on a daily basis of God – teach me how I should live! It’s literally a question of life and death. Choose this day between life and death, between blessings and curses. We want to know what it means to live, what it means to choose blessings.
I believe the question to be a sincere one. We can see ourselves in the character of the questioner here. Jesus answers in typical Jesus fashion, with another question. What does the Law say? The lawyer answers with a mix of Deut 6:5 and Lev 19:18. The opening of the Shema which was a daily Jewish prayer. Something everyone knew. 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 neighbour as yourself.”
“Good answer!” as they say. Jesus agrees.
And then comes the next question. “Who is my neighbour?” Again we can see ourselves in this character. We want to put limits on love. This is what our society says. “Respect me and I’ll respect you.” Don’t respect me and look out, all bets are off. This is normal yes? We need to look after our own. Who is my neighbour? How can I delineate this whole thing?
The thing is, in simply asking the question, this lawyer has opened himself up to an encounter with Jesus. This lawyer is having a conversation with, looking into the eyes of, the man who was the perfect embodiment of love, of grace, of mercy. I wonder what that would have been like, particularly when you consider how trite such a thing as “Love the Lord your God…” can become. The lawyer heard it every day after all. How trite can something like “The Lord is my shepherd” become? How much meaning can something like “The Lord is my shepherd” take on when we are in the midst of a crisis? When we have lost someone? When things have not gone the way we had planned? When we say “I didn’t expect things to turn out this way” in the worst possible way? How much meaning can words like this take on? What kind of meaning might they take on for us this morning?
As we consider a story. It’s interesting that Jesus answers the lawyer’s follow-up question with a story, is it not? We are not simply theorizing or philosophizing about concepts like mercy and love. This is not what we’re called to do. We are not going to grow in our knowledge of God’s love by simply talking about it. God’s love is meant to be borne out in action. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of how Jesus does not get stuck here in merely talking – he called it “the paralysis of analysis”. What does God’s love mean when it comes to the “doing?” I was in a meeting with members of our CE Board recently and somebody said that our Bible study is never to be simply navel gazing or only considering ourselves, but is rather meant to lead to a consideration of what it means to show God’s love in our lives.
And so Jesus tells a story. A man was going down to Jericho from Jerusalem. The hearers knew this was a dangerous road. They knew Jesus was not recounting a news story or talking about one specific man. The man is robbed. Not only robbed but beaten and left for dead. They didn’t have to do that surely. He’s lying there and he’s in a situation from which he’s unable to extricate himself. He is in need of help. A priest comes along the road – top of the religious hierarchy in Israel. The priest passes him by. A Levite comes along, next in the hierarchy. The Levite passes by.
At this point it’s thought that the crowd would have been expecting a layperson to be the next one to come along. They would help, be the contrast in the whole folkloric triad thing. What comes next is shocking. It’s important to keep in mind when “Good Samaritan” has become such a part of our language that we use it to title laws. “But a Samaritan…” The social outcast, the ritually unclean, the enemy. And if that’s not enough of a shock, the sentence ends with the Greek word for the kind of compassion you feel from your guts. That visceral “splanchnizomai” which our NRSV bibles translate as “he was moved with pity.”
Mercy comes from an unexpected place.
I always say we must start with God; with God’s love for us. We see God here in the person of the man who has been beaten. Helmut Thielecke put is like this: “…for he faced the robber, Death, and allowed him to strike him down in order that he might walk with us down this last bitter passage. And when we suffer some distress in which nobody understands us or anxieties that deliver us to terrible loneliness, there is one who is our neighbour, because on the Cross he submitted himself to imprisonment in the dark dungeon of ultimate loneliness. And when we stand all alone, quivering beneath a sense of awful guilt, which nobody else suspects, which would cause our friends to desert us if they knew about it, then here too Jesus is the neighbour who is not shocked by the dark abyss, because he came down from heaven and descended into the deepest pits of misery and guilt.”
There is no road that we may walk down on which Jesus has not gone before us. There is no pain we may suffer that Jesus has not suffered before us and suffers with us. There is no road we may walk down from which Jesus cannot bring us back to him.
Having compassion for us. Binding our wounds. Pledging to look after us. Pledging to come back.
We see God in the character of the Samaritan. Mercy arriving from an unexpected place. From the son of a carpenter from a backwater town in Galilee who was also the son of God. Who would have thought it? He went to him. He came down into our mess. He had compassion for him. He bandaged his wounds. He became involved in the situation. He became involved in our situation. It wasn’t even a matter of throwing some money down as the Samaritan passed by and hoping for the best. He took time. He took money. All to ensure the well-being of the man who was in a situation which left him needing help.
Which is where we see ourselves. Which is where we’re invited to see ourselves if we don’t see ourselves like this already. In need of help from someone outside ourselves. This is where we’re invited to see ourselves for the first time if that’s the case. This is the knowledge which we hope to grow in as we walk with Jesus – an ever-increasing heart knowledge of our need for God and God’s mercy.
We look beyond the character lying on the road to find ourselves of course. We look to the Priest and to the Levite. This is a challenge for us. We hear it in Jesus’ closing words here “Go and do likewise.” Too often we’ve done like the Priest and the Levite. This parable is sometimes interpreted in such a way as to make it seem like the Priest and the Levite had no choice because they couldn’t be around a corpse. I think that’s letting them off too easily, and by extension us. The thing about the Priest and the Levite is they didn’t get beyond seeing, and actually went out of their way not to look, passing by on the other side. The man wasn’t dead so it wasn’t a matter of a corpse. They might have been afraid it was a trap. They might have been afraid of suffering the same fate. One writer speculates that the Priest may have been carrying offering from the Temple and wanted to safeguard it, which is not unreasonable. He further speculates the maybe the Levite was on his way to give a lecture on mercy in Jericho which might inspire a new “Good Samaritan Society”. What are the things that keep us from looking? From stopping? I’m busy. I don’t have time. They’ll likely only use the money for drugs anyway. We might be afraid for our safety. MLK preached about passing by a man in need out of fear for his own safety – “… he himself once profiled a man asking for help beside a road in his neighbourhood, fearing for his own safety, he passed him by.” As King put it – “The alternative to moral courage is the sort of death that attends the coward, no matter what his (or her) age.”
Someone has said that love sees with the eyes first and then with the hand. We are to see as God has seen us. As God’s looking is described in the book of Exodus – “God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them” (Ex 2:25) and we learn that God’s looking is not merely observing but moving toward with kindness. May our seeing be more than just seeing – may it be looking that becomes action. Loving without preference and without boundary that expects nothing in return. Love that doesn’t mind plans that are interrupted. Love that doesn’t consider who’s inside or outside or thinks in terms of “us” and “them” but that asks the question “What does it look like to show mercy?”
By the end of this story, the lawyer’s question has been turned around by Jesus. It’s no longer “Who is my neighbour?” but rather “To whom can I be a neighbour?” What does it mean for me to be a neighbour in the Kingdom of God? To dream of what that might look like and not only to dream but to turn this into reality. Not to get lost in the paralysis of analysis. To act.
We could tell stories about mercy too and the way we’ve seen God answer this question “To whom can I be a neighbour.” We’ve been seeing it for the past six summers here, haven’t we? Hasn’t God taught us something of what it looks like to show mercy? May God continue to do so as we continue to ask the question “What does mercy look like in action?” God grant that the answer becomes ever clearer to us.