14 July 2013

Showing Mercy

"The Good Samaritan" by Dinah Roe Kendall (b.1923).
Luke 10: 25-38

8th Sunday after Pentecost/ 14th July 2013

The Parable of the Good Samaritan—we know this text so well. Perhaps too well.  So well that it’s difficult to hear anything new. If this is true, then how do we hear something fresh in such a familiar text? How do we listen for the Word in the words when we’ve heard these words so many times before? 

We might hear something new, something fresh and relevant and life-giving if we realize and remember one thing: this isn’t an “example story” with a moral.[1] If you come away from this text thinking, “The Samaritan did a good deed, go and imitate,” then you haven’t heard the text.  If we believe that Jesus is essentially a teacher of morality, providing us with an ethic to follow, to imitate, then we’re not hearing the Gospel.  And, I would say, when this happens we’re very far from the Kingdom. 

            Yet how many sermons have we heard over the years, how many Church School lessons have held up the actions of the Samaritan as the ideal, as someone we should all emulate and aspire to be like?  I agree with David Henson who says we have made this text “into little more than a mushy morality tale about random acts of kindness to strangers….”[2] He insists that, “We have whitewashed this radical parable into a fantasy of the privileged and wealthy in which we believe Christ calls us only to apply bandages, throw money at the pain and injustice in the world, and trust it is enough.” Such a reading, he says, “justifies, but also glorifies drive-by charity as the pinnacle of Christ’s command to love thy neighbor.” [3]  I would add, these moralistic readings reduce the Christian life to moralism, they reduce the Gospel to essentially an ethic.  This approach is insidious, I believe, contributing to the decline of the Church in the West. It’s also a strategy used by the Church to get people to behave in a socially accepted manner, as a tool of conformity and convention. And society loves it when the Church sanctions convention and conformity.  Go to church and be nice to others – some think that’s what it means to be Christian. Well, it isn’t.

            This is not an “example story,” not a morality tale.  It’s a parable.  And Jesus was masterful in the use of them.  If we really hear the parable about the Samaritan it can’t be used by the religious to endorse convention. 

            Parables pack a punch.  Parables are supposed to generate an experience, touch us deeply, hit us in the gut, and knock us off our feet.  They are very similar to a Buddhist koan, designed to provoke, such as, “What face did you have before you were born?”  Parables make us think. They force us to wrestle.  They give us headaches and mess with the way we view the world.  They are intentionally disorienting, which is probably why we want to turn them into morality tales.  But then they wouldn’t shock us and they’re meant to shock. 

            The great American writer Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964), a Roman Catholic who lived and wrote in what she called the “Christ-haunted South,” that is, Protestant South, is known for her memorable characters and disturbing images.  Her short story “Revelation” is probably the single best description of the disturbing, unsettling, and transforming aspect of grace that I’ve ever read.[4]  O’Connor said, “You have to make your vision apparent by shock; to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind, you draw large and startling figures.” Her stories are hard, “but they are hard,” she said, “because there is nothing harder or less sentimental than Christian realism.” [5]  In order for us to be properly oriented to reality, disorientation is necessary; disorientation is required for grace to break through, the kind of life-changing experience that enables us to be graceful, to show mercy.

            Why does Jesus share this parable? Because he’s being tested by the lawyer and the lawyer is trying to justify himself.  He’s not a lawyer in our sense of one today.  The law in question is not Roman law or civil law, but the Law, Torah, the Jewish Law, the Ten Commandments and all the other associated laws that go with it.  The Torah attorney knows the law; he’s an expert, a professional.  He knows it inside and out.  He knows what the text says and what it doesn’t say.  The lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher – Rabbi – what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  Being a good teacher Jesus throws the question back at him, “What do you read there?” And he dutifully answers, because he knows the answer. “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart,…soul,…strength,…and mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”  Jesus tells him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”  The Rabbi asked his question, received an answer—sort of.  Jesus answered correctly—sort of. 

            So why did the lawyer not stop here?  Lawyers and trials, tests, testimonies and cross-examinations have filled the airwaves this week.  The Torah attorney should have known better, “asking a witness in open court without knowing in advance what the answer will be.”[6] The lawyer should have remained quiet, but he didn’t because he was beginning to see that Jesus wasn’t the one on trial—he was on trial.  The lawyer asked the question, but Jesus never really answered it.  He responded with a question and then affirmed the lawyer’s response and then Jesus finishes up, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”  Do you hear the shift?  You have given the right answer.  The lawyer senses this because then the text says, “But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’”  He goes on the defensive.

            That response—“And who is my neighbor?”—opens a window deep into the lawyer’s psyche.  The lawyer is not a bad man.  He’s smart, well educated, has a respectable profession.  He has standing and authority in his community.  He’s a religious person, a faithful worshipper of Yahweh.  He’s fairly conventional. He’s self-assured about his place in the world, his perspective on faith and society.  His world is clearly demarcated, divided up, neat, in order: he knows what’s holy and what’s profane, what’s Jewish and what’s Gentile, who is in and who is out, who is clean and who is impure.  And it’s obvious that his religious perspective helps to make sure that the dividing lines are solid and clear.  So why does the lawyer test Jesus?  Because he senses, correctly, that Jesus is messing with the status quo. A lot of Jesus’ ministry and actions are anything but conventional; they do not conform to values of the moral majority (often the majority isn’t moral). The guy has funny ideas.  On the surface Jesus’ response to the lawyer is very conventional, traditional in many respects.  Indeed, the lawyer looked to the tradition to make sure concepts such as “love God” and “love neighbor” remained fixed and stable, “a system of religious justification, and, like most of us, he had found a sweet spot in that religious system that allowed him to be satisfied with himself and his life.”[7]  The lawyer used his faith to justify the status quo. So that when the lawyer asked, “And who is my neighbor?” he probably expected Jesus to reinforce things as they are.  And that’s when Jesus unleashed this bombshell of a parable into his neatly ordered world.

            “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead….” You know the rest.  First a priest, a Jewish priest, a religious professional comes across him, sees the man in the road and intentionally walks on the opposite side in order to pass him.  A Levite, a religious lay associate, not a priest, comes along and he, too, avoids the man.  Neither wants to be bothered.  They also don’t want to risk contamination, because if he were unclean, a Gentile, then they would have to go through a process of purification.  And if he were dead, then they would have to go through an even lengthier process of purification.  They obviously feel that they have no obligation to him; he is not their neighbor.  But then a Samaritan comes along.

            We need to pause here to remember that by Jesus’ time Jews and Samaritans hated each other for a thousand years, a millennium of political rivalry, ethnic hostility, and religious bigotry seared into the psyche of this people.  They despised each other. 

            So this is the real shocker, the twist in the parable, that it’s this religious outsider, this unclean nobody—from the lawyer’s perspective—this untouchable, this nonhuman who comes near the man in the road.[8]  “And when he saw him,” Jesus tells us, “he was moved with pity.” The use of the word pity is a weak translation of the Greek, splagchnizomai, meaning to be moved in one’s gut.  It’s a gut-wrenching emotional response.  It’s a depth of feeling toward what he encounters along the road.  It’s not reason or thinking that moves him to action, it’s feeling that moves him to action.  With little thought he goes to the man in the street and risks contamination by touching him and caring for his wounds, pouring oil and wine.  He puts him on his own animal, potentially contaminating his animal.  The Samaritan provides lodging for him.  Gives the innkeeper plenty of money to care for him (two days’ worth of salary)—trusts the innkeeper, who’s under no obligation to him. “Take care of him…,” he says, and when I return, if you need more money, I’ll give it to you then.  “Which of these three, do you think was a neighbor…?”  The lawyer gets the point, although did you notice that he can’t even bring himself to say Samaritan, an unclean word? He simply says, “The one who shows him mercy.” Go and do likewise.

            Can you see why this isn’t an example story or a morality tale?  Can you see that it’s not really about the Samaritan?  It’s not about imitating the Samaritan. Our focus needs be upon the lawyer, the one who hears such a disturbing and morally offensive story such as this.  Focusing on the lawyer helps us to see that at some level we are all just like this lawyer, intent on justifying ourselves.  We’re on trial.

            Tom Long is one of the best preachers and writers about preaching in the church today.  His sermons and his analysis of any text are stunning.  He teaches at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta. I’m grateful I had the opportunity to study preaching with him when I was a student at Princeton Seminary.  This week I read his take on Luke 10, which, when I was finished, left me breathless.  I was tempted to just read his essay instead of write my own sermon this week.  In fact, Tom’s sermons are often plagiarized.  I once heard Tom tell the story of the time he visited a church one morning.  On his way out after worship he greeted the pastor and said, “Good sermon.” The preacher was flattered and said, “Why, thank you.”  To which Tom said, “I should know. I wrote it.”

            Tom really opened up the text for me, especially the way he helped me to see that this text is really about the lawyer.  Again, the lawyer’s not a bad man; he’s a pretty conventional fellow, he probably looked very Presbyterian (except that he was Jewish, but you know what I mean).  And yet Jesus is very hard on him because this is a blistering parable to have to hear.  Luke says that the lawyer “stood up to test Jesus,” stood up and blocked Jesus’ path on his way to fulfill his calling in Jerusalem.  Jesus knows that convention often stands in the way of the Gospel.  Very often it’s not the people on the left or the right that hamper God’s movement in the world, but the people in the broad middle, who stand behind convention and religious respectability.[9]  With the telling of the parable, Tom suggests, Jesus actually throws the lawyer into the ditch beside the Jericho road.  It’s a striking contrast.  Luke says, “Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus,” and then Jesus offers a parable with someone thrown to the ground.  The victim left for dead in the parable is the lawyer.  Tom says, Jesus “is not doing violence to him; he is, instead, using a parable to disclose the man’s true condition.  He is showing that this lawyer, who thought he had a righteous place to stand, has nowhere to stand in his own strength but is in fact, like all the rest of us, lying face down and naked by the highway.  The lawyer wanted to be seen as already righteous, but Jesus showed instead that he was simply a member of the human race, in desperate need of rescue.  Jesus undermines the lawyer’s standing in order to show that the lawyer, like all the rest of humanity, needs not to stand his ground but to see the face of grace, and then to move [with Jesus], to repent.”[10]  We need to be rescued by a Samaritan.  This is what grace looks like.  It looks like a man who wants to “justify himself” but is instead rescued from distress by the face of Jesus Christ.  Shockingly, Jesus is the Samaritan. The work and witness of Jesus is like the despised, unwanted Samaritan who comes with compassion to save us.

            And that’s why in the telling of this parable, “Jesus ironically gave the lawyer a great gift, a work of kindness, even though the lawyer may not have thought so.”  Jesus invited “the lawyer to see himself in a new way, to see himself not as one who stands at a distance and defines the term ‘neighbor’ objectively, but as someone who might himself need to be neighbored—as a wounded traveler in need of rescue.”[11]

            “The real answer to the lawyer’s question ‘who is my neighbor?’ is that you have no idea who your neighbor is until you, yourself, know how needy you are, and in that need receive the unexpected grace of being neighbored by God.”[12]  Acknowledging our neediness….  Most of us don’t want to admit this.  This kind of confession requires help.  But the truth is: we are all needy.  Everyone of us.  It’s only when we stop trying to justify ourselves, acknowledge our need, embrace our woundedness, allow our wounds to be tended by God are we then able to have compassion toward our neighbor, extending real mercy and grace.  This way of life is more than simply being nice to others.  It means tending to the wounds of the people we meet along life’s way, it means even entering into their wounds, whoever they are, even if they’re “Samaritans.” It means tending to the wounds of the men, women, and children who now sit beside you, one to the other, showing mercy, having compassion.

            And do you know what?  When this happens—and every time it happens—you discover that you’ve, somehow, stumbled, even fallen into the Kingdom of God.

[1] As I share later in the sermon, I am indebted to Thomas G. Long’s reflection on this text, “The Lawyer’s Second Question.”  Long’s insights are infused throughout the sermon.
[2] David Henson’s remarks continue, “…that, at its worst buttresses the damaging and pervasive charity industrial complex in American churches.”
[4]“Revelation” is included in O’Connor’s collection of short stories Everything That Rises Must Converge (1965).  It can be read online at various websites, including this one.
[5] Flannery O’Connor, “The Fiction Writer and His Country,” Mystery and Manners. 
[6] Long.
[7] Long.
[8] The use of the word untouchable came to mind in light of my recent trip to India, specifically learning about Dalit theology.  
[9] This was precisely Martin Luther King, Jr.’s (1926-1968) claim in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” (April 16, 1963), addressed to the religious leaders of the community.
[10] Long.
[11] Long.
[12] Long.

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