Rev. Amy Morgan
July 14, 2019
God stands in the divine council; God judges in the midst of them.
“How long will you judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked?
Give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute.
Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.”
They have neither knowledge or understanding,
they walk around in the gloom of night;
all the foundations of the earth are shaken.
I say, “You are gods, children of the Most High, all of you; nevertheless, you shall die like mortals, and fall like any ruler.”
Rise up, O God, judge the earth; for all the nations belong to you.
25 Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. "Teacher," he said, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?"
26 He said to him, "What is written in the law? What do you read there?"
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."
28 And he said to him, "You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live."
29 But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?"
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.
31 Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.
32 So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.
33 But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity.
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.
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.'
36 Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?"
37 He said, "The one who showed him mercy." Jesus said to him, "Go and do likewise."
There’s a picture you’ve probably seen of a trigonometry question. There is a right triangle with the lengths of two sides labeled. The third side is labeled x. The question simply says, “Find x.” The test-taker has cleverly circled the x and drawn an arrow pointing to it. Just to be clear, the test-taker has written: Here it is. One internet meme of this picture states: “The simplest solutions are often the cleverest. They are also usually wrong.”
If you’ve read many of Jesus’ parables, you know this to be true. When we try to simplify what Jesus says, we may feel clever. We may feel right. We may be able to construct a 4-step plan for discipleship or 6 daily habits to make us feel like better Christians. But we are also usually wrong.
When we think about this parable, known as the parable of the Good Samaritan, we might think of the Good Samaritan residences where several of you reside. Their tagline is “In Christ’s love, everyone is someone.” It’s easy to see how this relates to Jesus’ parable. No one deserves to be passed over or ignored. Everyone matters, when we see them through the eyes of Jesus. Simple.
Then there is the Good Sam Club, offering insurance, discounts, roadside assistance and more to RV owners. Again, easy to see how this reflects Jesus’ parable, helping travelers who may be in distress. Simple.
Finally, there is the NoCo Secret Samaritan. The mission of the NoCo Secret Samaritan is simple: brighten as many days as possible through as many acts of kindness as possible without anyone ever knowing who she is. Secret acts of kindness and joy. It’s an excellent mission. That’s why I follow the Secret Samaritan on Facebook. Messages of positivity and encouragement are posted along with events and organizations that help people in the community.
The NoCo Secret Samaritan is exactly the sort of person we associate with Jesus’ parable. A nice Samaritan helps someone in need, someone who has been neglected by other people. He gives self-sacrificially, asking nothing in return. He is a good person who does a good thing. This is what we call a Samaritan today, secret or otherwise. The name Samaritan has become so synonymous with goodness that we don’t even need to add the descriptor anymore.
All-in-all, the simplest, cleverest solution to the question posed by the lawyer in this story from Luke’s gospel, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” is: be good. Treat people like they matter. Help people in need. Spread kindness. Be a good person. Like that Samaritan. That Good Samaritan. Simple. Clever. Also wrong.
In first-century Judea, a Samaritan might have been called many things by the lawyer Jesus is talking with. None of them would have been good. The enmity between Jews and Samaritans went back so far that they couldn’t really remember what they were angry about anymore. Both groups professed belief in the One, True God - presumably the same One, True God. But they read different scriptures and worshipped in different ways and in different places. This was not a disagreement between diametrically opposed groups. This was a centuries-long family feud.
So when a lawyer, a scholar of the Hebrew scriptures, an expert in the law of Moses, comes to Jesus, looking for x, for the equation for eternal life, Samaritans did not jump immediately to mind for him. Jesus asks him to refer back to his textbook, and the lawyer is easily able to recite from memory: 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. Simple. Right?
Jesus puts a big, red checkmark next to the lawyer’s answer. “You have given the right answer. Do this and you will live.”
But the lawyer, the text tells us, wants to justify himself. Now, this doesn’t necessarily mean the lawyer has sinister intentions or is trying to legitimize some offensive behavior. This whole conversation is a typical example of how religious leaders – rabbis, scribes, experts in the law – would discuss the law. They would argue and debate, ask pointed questions, try to trap each other and test each other. So, in fact, the lawyer’s test shows that he regards Jesus as a learned teacher. Justifying himself may simply mean that he wants to prove his interpretation of the law is correct. Perhaps he expects Jesus to agree with his point of view on this matter. Or maybe he’s expecting Jesus to flub the question so he can give the right answer.
Whatever the case, we do get the feeling that the lawyer knows the answer he is looking for. He’s asking Jesus again to “find x,” this time requiring him to work out the formula for who counts and who doesn’t; who deserves love and who deserves contempt.
With all of the “givens,” the assumptions, the things we think we know to be true, who adds up to the status of neighbor? If we follow the Pythagorean Theorem, ratcheting up our stereotypes and prejudices exponentially and adding them all together, what does that equal? The missing segment of the population, the people who are on our side. Those are our neighbors, surely. The lawyer could easily circle the x, the people who are righteous and good, the people who are obviously worthy of our love, and say, “here it is.” Simple. Clever. Wrong.
Jesus works out the solution to the lawyer’s question through a story. And the hero in the story is not a lawyer, not a scholar, not a righteous insider. The hero is a Samaritan.
Because of the enmity between Jews and Samaritans, when the character of the Samaritan enters the scene in Jesus’ parable, we’d expect to hear booing and hissing. This is clearly the villain. Probably the one who beat up the man in the first place, come back to finish the job.
But instead of coming on the scene as a scoundrel, living into the first-century stereotypes of Samaritans, the Samaritan in Jesus’s parable did what the “good” people, the “righteous” people, refused to do. He felt pity for the naked, broken, and bleeding human being on the side of the road. He treated the man’s wounds, put him on his own animal, and brought him to a place of safety.
Jewish New Testament scholar Amy Jill-Levine says that we’ll truly understand this parable when we consider if there is “anyone, from any group, about whom we would rather die than acknowledge, ‘she offered help.’” We’re happy to get a comfortable home at Good Samaritan, or get a discount from Good Sam’s travel club, or daily feel-good boost from the NoCo Secret Samaritan. But when we are vulnerable, defeated, as good as dead, who is the last person we’d want to see turn up? Who is the person that, if they did show up, we’d be pretty sure they were there to finish us off?
When it turns out that the Samaritan did something surprisingly good, the lawyer Jesus is talking with can’t even bring himself to say it. The very word, “Samaritan,” sticks in his throat, so that when Jesus asks him who was a neighbor, “find x,” he can only answer, “The one who showed mercy.” He cannot bring himself to say out loud that a Samaritan was a neighbor, that a Samaritan fulfilled the law, that a Samaritan was the good example we should follow. He is simply “the one who showed mercy.”
And so, a Good Samaritan is not someone who does something nice, or kind, or helpful. A Good Samaritan is someone who shows mercy.
Mercy has become synonymous with words like kindness and compassion. But the distinctive thing about mercy is that it requires an imbalance of power. I can be kind and compassionate to my peers, to people of similar social status, to people like me. But mercy, by definition, can only happen when one person has power over another. Specifically, the power to punish or harm. Mercy happens when someone with power shows kindness or compassion or forgiveness to someone who is defenseless. It’s a legal term, used in this story by an expert in the law. In the end, he finds x. It is mercy.
Most of scripture talks about mercy in relation to God’s mercy for humanity. There is no greater power imbalance in the universe than the relationship between God and humans. And yet, God doesn’t use that power imbalance to punish or enslave or harm us. Instead, God is “merciful and just, abounding in steadfast love,” as the Hebrew scriptures say again and again. God’s mercy allows a sinful and broken humanity to be in loving relationship with a holy God.
If we look back to the first part of the equation in this story, the answer to what we must do to inherit eternal life, the answer begins with loving God. It is only in loving relationship with God that we experience and learn to live out the mercy that has been extended to us. Only then can we show mercy to others, only then can we be a neighbor, only then can we recognize our neighbor in our enemy.
The lawyer’s question, “who is my neighbor?” is being asked more and more in our society. We want to be able to find x, that group of like-minded, good-intentioned folks, folks like us, who we can do nice things for and feel good, like a Samaritan. We want to be able to rachet up exponentially our assumptions about groups of people – based on how they vote or where they live or what sports team they cheer for. We want to be able to clearly state what side we’re on. That’s how we want to define loving our neighbors. By being nice to nice people. Simple. Clever. Wrong.
If we are looking for x, for the path to life now and life eternal, we cannot simply circle the x and write, “here it is.” We have to work out the solution with the mercy equation. No one in this room, to my knowledge, is all-powerful. There is also no one in this room, that I’m aware of, who is entirely powerless. For each of us, there are people more powerful than us who could extend us mercy, who could, if they chose, improve our situation, spare us from distress. There are also people who we might show mercy toward, people whose situation we might improve or whom we might spare from distress.
The deep, dark, complicated answer to this question, the true way to find x, eternal life, is to consider two more questions. First, from whom would we be most surprised, disturbed, or even upset if they were merciful toward us? That’s your Samaritan. Maybe it is a family member or a freinemy. Maybe it is a Christian whose beliefs differ from yours or a political party you think is going to ruin the country. Maybe it is a chauvinist or a socialist, a racist or a radical, or any of the other labels we use to define one another. Who is your Samaritan? Who would be the most surprising source of mercy?
Second, who would be most surprised if you were to extend mercy to them? Who in your social circle or in our society would be shocked if you went out of your way to not harm or punish them? I know we are all nice people here, and no one would ever expect us to be anything but kind and lovely to them. But is that really completely true? If you can’t think of a personal example, try these broader ideas out: Do most white police officers feel like most young, black men expect mercy from them? Do most border patrol agents feel like immigrants expect mercy from them? I can tell you from experience that many Mexicans do not expect Americans to show them mercy. Who might we surprise with mercy?
This is not a simple answer. It doesn’t look clever. But it is right. If we want to test Jesus, this is the kind of answer we’re going to get.
As Christians, we are more than welcome to administer tests for college admission, for professional qualifications, even for citizenship. We can establish whatever boundaries and set whatever standards we desire.
But admission to the neighborhood of God has no test. It has no boundaries. Everyone is our neighbor, like it or not. The ones who show us mercy, and the ones who need our mercy. Mercy is what leads to justice, to righteousness. Mercy is what makes a Samaritan, and each one of us, good. Mercy is the path to life now and life eternal. Thanks be to God. Amen.