Mercy Sees, Mercy Does
The following message was delivered to Bethel UMC – Seymour on July 14, 2019 (5th Sunday after Pentecost). Lectionary readings were: Amos 7:7-17, Psalm 82, Colossians 1:1-14, Luke 10:25-37
Reading of the word (Luke 10:25-37):
Lord, open our hearts and minds by the power of your Holy Spirit, that as the Scriptures are read and your Word is proclaimed, we may hear with joy what you say to us today. Amen.
10:25 Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
10:26 He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?”
10:27 He 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.”
10:28 And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”
10:29 But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
10:30 Jesus replied, “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.
10:31 Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.
10:32 So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.
10:33 But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity.
10:34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him.
10:35 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.’
10:36 Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”
10:37 He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”
The word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God.
Mercy Sees, Mercy Does*
Lord, speak through me and, if necessary, in spite of me that your word may be heard this day. Amen.
This story appears to start with a pesky lawyer asking seemingly impertinent questions in an attempt to one-up Jesus. Only he wasn’t a lawyer … he was a Torah scholar. He may have been today’s equivalent of a graduate student seeking a doctorate at a seminary or university, or even a professor of such. In any case, his entire focus would have been on studying, discerning, and interpreting the laws of the Torah (the first five books of our Old Testament) … the religious laws of the Jews at that time. And his questions weren’t impertinent. They were actually really good questions!
The first question was “what do I need to do to inherit eternal life,” which Jesus answered with a counter-question: ‘What does the law say you should do? What’s your interpretation of that law?’ And our scholar answers correctly and Jesus acknowledges that with a ‘Correct, do this and you shall live.’
Jesus’ answer to the first question, though, creates a problem for the scholar. If he has to love his neighbor as himself, then who exactly is his neighbor because, let’s face it, there are some folks we’re going to struggle with identifying as neighbors. So his real question isn’t “Who is my neighbor?” but rather, “Who is not my neighbor?” At this point, he’s asking Jesus to tell him where he can safely draw the line between “gotta love” and “don’t gotta love” and still qualify for eternal life.
This time, Jesus doesn’t answer him with a question, though. Jesus tells him a story and it is in that story that the scholar finds an answer he may not want to hear.
We all know this story, right? We learned it in Sunday School and have known it by heart for years. A man gets robbed and left for dead, a priest and a Levite pass him by, but the Samaritan doesn’t pass by. He stops to help him. The Samaritan, showing mercy toward the man, becomes the example of what it means to “be neighborly”. We should all do likewise. End of story.
For generations, people have read and understood this story exactly that way. After all, we’re supposed to be out here imitating Christ, assisting people, showing concern, offering compassionate care to those in need and this story is a perfect model for doing just that. We may be missing some important aspects of this story, though.
Two of the characters in the story share the same religious beliefs but with different roles in their religion: The priest and the Levite were both what today we would consider clergy of the temple. The priest’s duties were primarily outside the temple itself, ministering to the people coming to Temple, making sure everyone who tried to enter the temple had done what they were supposed to do before entering – things like making the proper sacrifices, being clean, and so forth. The Levite, on the other hand, was one of the clergies that served inside the temple. His role did not require him to deal with anyone from outside who was unworthy of being inside.
Both the priest and the Levite would have been strict adherents to the laws of the Torah. They would have done nothing that could put them in jeopardy of violating those laws according to their interpretation of those laws. This may explain why they didn’t help the man in the ditch. They may have worried that the man was in some way unclean and to touch him in any way would have created problems for each of them. They may have gone to the other side and purposefully avoided him to protect their own positions as clergy of the Temple.
Jesus’ use of the Samaritan as the one person who did stop and help the man in the ditch, the commonly held hero of the story, would have shocked his listeners at that time. The Samaritans were a group of people who lived in Samaria – an area north of Jerusalem. Their race, a half and half mix of Jewish and Gentile, came about through the intermarriage of Assyrians to Jewish people left behind after Assyria was captured in 721 BC. The Samaritans had their own temple, their own copy of the Torah, and their own religious system. The disagreement between the Jews and Samaritans as to where the proper place of worship combined with the Hebrews’ position that the Samaritans weren’t fully Jewish and therefore somehow unworthy, put the Samaritans on the Hebrews list of “untouchable others.”
Now the Samaritan could have just patched the guy up enough to get him to that inn, told the innkeeper, “Here you go. It’s on you now,” and then walked away, but he didn’t. He paid the innkeeper to continue caring for the man while the Samaritan went on with his business and indicated he would return to make sure the man was on the path to recovery and pay anything more that might be owed on the man’s bill. In other words, he patched the man up, got him to help, created a community to care for him by including the innkeeper in the man’s care and arranged to support the whole thing by returning to pay any bill that might be due.
Remember Jesus’ question to the scholar when he’d finished telling the story: Which of these three was a neighbor to the man in the ditch?
Remember also, the scholar’s answer: The one who showed him mercy.
And remember Jesus’ instructions to the scholar when he answered correctly: Go and do likewise. Do this and you will live.
Back to the original good old moral of the story: Do this. Draw close enough to see where mercy is needed and then show mercy, extend kindness to those who are broken and battered and beaten and bloody by life. Live out your theology – your beliefs and your faith – in real time with hands-on caring for others. Don’t just think love. Don’t just talk about it. Don’t just post “thoughts and prayers” when you see it. Do something.
But what if there’s something more here that Jesus is showing us, trying to tell us. To know that, we have to put ourselves into the story.
We’ve probably all been the priest and the Levite at some point. We felt bad, but it wasn’t our problem, or it would have been a risk to our reputation or even our job or other relationships to actually act, or to help would have made it appear we supported something we don’t agree with, so we quietly looked or stepped the other way. We were tired, we were overwhelmed with so many other things, we were afraid. Those are our “thoughts and prayers” days when, if we’re being honest about it, we most likely tend to think and pray about as long as it takes us to type “thoughts and prayers”.
Still, we continued to make our best attempts to be the Good Samaritan. We made that donation even though it meant skipping lunch for a week, we not only bought the homeless guy outside a meal before we left the restaurant, we made eye contact with him when we delivered it and even shook his hand. We stopped and helped the elderly woman with a flat tire. We mowed the neighbor’s lawn without being asked when their mower broke because we knew they were struggling financially. We let a friend who was down on her luck stay with us, essentially squatting on our living room couch for months, even though it made things tense and she wasn’t easy to live with.
But what if that wasn’t the goal? What if just doing mercy alone wasn’t what Jesus was after … or at least not the entire goal of Jesus’ story? What if there was something more there? What if the story is a reversal of every single thing we think we know?
Who is the last person on earth you would ever want to call a hero? Who’s the last person you’d ask to save your life? Who do you secretly believe needs to be converted, fixed, impressed, controlled, or saved — but you would never, ever need them no matter what?
Or, think about it this way. An Israeli Jewish man is robbed, and a Good Hamas member saves his life. A conservative Republican is robbed, and a Good liberal Democrat saves her life. A white supremacist is robbed, and a Good black teenager saves his life. An anti-LGBTQ activist is robbed, and a Good transgender woman saves her life. A Christian fundamentalist is robbed, and a Good atheist saves his life.
Those are the same kinds of stark contrasts between the Jews of Jesus time and the Samaritans … significant differences that divide us, so significant they have serious consequences in the real world; in each of those situations just like the Jews and the Samaritans, each side is so fully convinced it is right and the other is wrong, there is no room for any negotiation or compromise of any kind.
That’s what made Jesus’ use of the Samaritan as the hero of his story so radical, why it would have so thoroughly shocked his Jewish listeners. Jesus wanted them to imagine a different kingdom. By using someone they saw as totally opposite themselves, he was showing them that people can be more than the sum of their political, racial, cultural, religious, political, and economic identities. He was asking them to forget the history they knew and the prejudices they held and to leave room for God and the divine surprises that only God can produce.
I also think we miss the point of the story when we fail to put ourselves in the role of the man in the ditch. He has no identity at all. We don’t know his profession, his social class, or his religion. His only identity is his desperate need. He doesn’t care who’s on the other end of that extended, nursing, nurturing hand or what beliefs the owner of that hand has, what buttons that hand pushed in the voting booth, who’s hand it held when it said “I do” or what kind of church it was raised in when it’s owner said Amen. He only cares that it’s reaching out to him. Everything that would divide him from the owner of that hand disappears into the cosmos because the only thing that matters is whether the hand is extended in mercy.
At some point, we will each have been that man if we haven’t already. If we can’t extend mercy as guilelessly, as swiftly, as without prejudice, and as fully as the Good Samaritan, how then can we expect mercy to be extended to us?
And yet we did and do receive mercy and we receive it every minute of every day. Just as the Samaritan extended his hand in mercy to the man in the ditch, Christ extended his mercy to all of us and to all those not like us, to all those we consider neighbors and to all those we prefer not to be neighbors with. He did so with his last breaths when he asked his father to forgive us and gave his life for us on that cross.
“Who is my neighbor?” asked the lawyer. And Jesus told him a story that turned everything he thought he knew upside down by showing him that his neighbor was the one who was willing to ignore the division between “us” and “them” in order to show mercy. Be that neighbor.
Let’s pray …
Father, we ask that you walk with us now more than ever. When we would take the path of the priest and Levite walking away from those who need mercy, remind us of what your mercy has done for us, Lord. Lead us to those in our community who are in the ditch. Let mercy see through our eyes and our hands show mercy to all. In Jesus’ name, we pray. Amen.
*While numerous commentaries were used in researching this message, special thanks to Debie Thomas for her 7/3/2016 message, “Go and Do Likewise” posted at “Journey to Jesus”.