This week we witnessed the scripture passage reenacted - as a conversation between the lawyer and Jesus. Then the congregation together finished the “sermon” through a small group reflection exercise that will be described at the end of this.
So, who is my neighbor?
The cocky lawyer first comes to question Jesus with his provocative and vague non-question – “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” But Jesus doesn’t take the bait – and he has the man answer himself first from scripture – what is the answer you already know?
“Love the lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and love your neighbor as yourself.“
“Right answer!” Jesus says, “Do that and you’ll live!”
But the man comes back to Jesus and presses him, parses it out, clarifies it, seeing just how far he can take this paradigm. How can we use the law to define and limit our responsibility?
And Jesus tells him this story:
A man is in need of help. The priest doesn’t help him, the levite doesn’t help him – good people numbers 1 & 2, pastor and associate pastor – they cross the road to avoid being confronted by him, to avoid the inevitable obligation that coming directly upon him, seeing his need, might inflict upon them.
The lawyer hangs on Jesus’ words. He’s about to hear the message, the answer to his question about how to ensure he is on his way to eternity, more specifically, if I am to love God and my neighbor, who is my neighbor?
Wait for it…
Along comes a Samaritan. Samaritan. Enemy. Despised. Mutual disregard runs deep through their connection. They claim to worship the same God as Israel, but they do it all wrong – wrong place, wrong scriptures, wrong interpretation, wrong, wrong, wrong.
Along comes a Samaritan, and…
he goes to the man and cares for him. Uses his own donkey, his own money, his own room at the inn to care for this man. Gives him extravagant, seemingly limitless care.
Now Jesus asks his own question. The super basic, you feel dumb answering it its so obvious question. “Which one of these three, do you think, is the neighbor to this man?” Jesus asks the lawyer.
Not the priest or Levite, certainly. But he can’t get the word out. He can’t even say it. Instead he answers, “The one who shows him mercy.”
Oh, you mean the Samaritan? That one? Is that the neighbor you are to love as your very self?
“Then go and do it.” Jesus answers. And we hear nothing more of this lawyer.
Who is our neighbor?
I spent time off and on at General Assembly this week, and it was beautiful. It made me respect our process and polity all the more. But watching the excitement and the energy, the tension and the drama, the protestors with placards picketing out front, the people scattered here and there among the assembly with defiantly bright rainbow scarves, the grieved groups praying in huddle while intense topics were discussed. Underneath most of the other business, hovering in and around the worship and the exhibit hall, battle lines were drawn, people were sniffing out the true allegiances and alliances with a glance, an assumption, a guess.
We say we worship the same God, but clearly we do it the right way and they are wrong. They interpret the bible wrong, they apply the scripture wrong, they misrepresent the faith wrong, they are wrong, wrong, wrong.
Who is my neighbor? Who is our neighbor?
A friend shared a story this week about her father in law, who for 25 years has sat at her dinner table freely sharing his political thoughts and perspectives on issues over which she and her family diverge greatly from him, even when they ask him every time not to talk about these things in their home.
At his most recent visit, he went on and on and on in a racial rant about those people that couldn’t be politely stopped and only ended when everyone had left the table one by one and he found himself alone. And unknowingly, he had given his speech in front of a woman whose son in law was a different race, and whose grandchildren were a “mixed” race, were the very those people about whom he had just unleashed a harsh and hideous tirade.
This man is wrong. He’s the father of her husband, but he is wrong. He sees the world wrong, he judges it wrong, he treats it wrong. wrong wrong wrong.
Who is her neighbor?
We so often hear this story to be about us helping them. First just anyone who needs help, we like to start with the obvious deserving. The street kids, the hard on their luck single parents, the outcast and downtrodden. We’ll start there and feel all neighborly and Christian, and certainly that is a challenge enough. We most often, I most often, cross to the other side of the street anyway.
Then, to really challenge ourselves, we might consider those people it is difficult to help, those people that we really need God’s help showing mercy to. The father in law who always mouths off politics at the dinner table despite 25 years of requests not to. The people and churches who present your faith to the world so very differently than you would, so against what you believe it is. The sister who has known better than you your whole life. That family across the street that refuses to turn down the music or park their car in their own driveway and who makes fun of you for asking. The boss who nit picks and critiques and scrutinizes and belittles. We can really feel challenged when we think this text is about trying to show mercy to even them.
Except in this story, the neighbor is the enemy. The one who shows mercy is the despised one. Even more than helping the difficult person, this story also asks whether you can let the difficult person help you.
What would it be like to be the one in the ditch, Jesus suggests, when the Samaritan comes along?
Who do we most think has nothing to offer us?
Whom would we rather die than let care for us?
Who would you least want to see at your most vulnerable?
Can you let yourself receive mercy at all? Let alone from him? from her? From one of them?
Who is the neighbor? We might as well ask, Who is my Samaritan?
The one who shows mercy. Go and do likewise. Jesus says.
And then we’re stuck along with the lawyer in the limits of the paradigm. At the boundaries of good and evil, right and wrong, where people get to fit in clear-cut categories and the good and right people do good and right things and the bad and wrong people do bad and wrong things.
But Jesus’ story just stirred the pot into a messy ethical soup, where the good people do the wrong things and the wrong person does the good thing and we don’t know if we’re supposed to emulate the enemy, or seek out the needy, and truth be told we’d rather just be the priest and look the other way.
And the lawyer walks away now, without an answer, really. He had the answer already when he arrived, and Jesus took it away from him.
Because the answer is not about being good or right, or even kind to those in need.
The answer comes in a different reality altogether. A reality defined by mercy. A reality where God meets us not by what we deserve or earn, but by the grace and mercy of God’s own being. A reality where we are all in need of mercy, and mercy can come through anyone. A reality where God comes into the world as a peasant from a nothing place and suffers for the sins of others. Where the least are greatest and the greatest miss the point.
This reality that Jesus invites us into is defined by mercy.
And so in order to delve into what this reality is and what it means, in order to respond to Jesus’ invitation to be in the world in a different way, we are going to take a few minutes to explore mercy, to describe mercy and what it does and how it meets us.
The congregation gathered in groups to share, free-association style- “What is Mercy to me?” They took turns saying everything that came to mind, thoughts, ideas, experiences, one at a time and listened without interruption. Then they asked the next person, “What is Mercy to you?” They went around in their group until they had shared completely.
We regathered and pooled our thoughts. Mercy, we said, is something unearned, often undeserved. It meets you without filters or judgments, apart from your beliefs or behaviors. Mercy is really hard to give and to receive, but harder to receive. It comes from the heart of the giver. Mercy sees your need and goes right to the core of it, and of who you are. It comes from outside you. Mercy restores some kind of peace, some kind of life – you don’t need mercy when things are fine, you need mercy when things are difficult. Mercy involves, but isn’t limited to, forgiveness, grace, love. It has connotations of abundance and fulfillment.
When the lawyer leaves Jesus, with his new rules, his new efforts to love his neighbors as himself, how far will he get before he fails? Before he finds himself in need of mercy?
What would it mean to live in mercy?
To participate in the mercy of God – to open ourselves to mercy? Giving it, receiving it?
That this is the way God encounters us? You, and me, and the world?
What does it mean that we have a God of mercy?
Image: Good Samaritan, by He Qi