By Tracey Leslie
Scripture: Luke 10:25-37
Our world is a violent place and we are a violent people. Let’s own it, confess it; we have been violent from the start. Cain could not deal with the fact that his brother’s sacrifice was accepted and his own was not and so he quickly and violently took matters into his own hands and murdered his brother. It was human violence that prompted the great flood. God lamented the actions of humanity, saying to Noah, “the earth is filled with violence because of them.” And while most of us will never murder anyone, we cannot escape our culture’s violence. It seeps into our conversations, our attitudes, our politics, our “entertainment,” even our religion.
Yet, this morning’s scripture from the gospel of Luke reveals a way of living that disrupts the flow of violence and destruction; a way that restores life; a way that leads to eternal life: the way of mercy or compassion. It is God’s way and Jesus invites us to make it our way.
It is interesting to note that, when God first encounters Moses at the burning bush, God reveals himself as “I am,” a rather mysterious title. But as Moses and God join together in the work of delivering the Israelites from slavery, as they become friends who speak face to face and their relationship deepens, God identifies himself differently to Moses, using these words, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness…” It seems to me that “merciful” is God’s first and pre-eminent adjective of self-description. And it is no “flash in the pan”; rather, over and over and over again (especially in the Psalms), God is defined by those two adjectives: merciful and gracious. Our God is merciful and gracious. And, if we are the people of God, a merciful God, well…
In scripture, my friends, mercy is a chosen relational sentiment. Mercy is how God is oriented toward us in relationship; not because we deserve such generous compassion, not because we have earned it, but because God has chosen to feel for us and to bind God’s self to us. God has chosen, God has decided to be vulnerable, to be stirred, by our sorrows and our suffering. That is God’s nature. And, in Jesus, that merciful nature of God put on human flesh to show us what it looks like to live out the mercy of God.
So, if God is a God of mercy and grace, why are we such a violent people? Why, as Rodney King so famously asked, “can’t we all get along?” Well, that word “neighbor”; it’s a sticky word. It might come as a surprise to you to learn that “neighbor” in the ancient world was a pretty exclusivist term. An ancient Israelite understood a “neighbor” in this way: “those who live in proximity and interact in terms of mutual attachments and entitlements.” Let me unpack that. Neighbors were those in close physical proximity, the folks next door from whom I could borrow a cup of sugar or pay their teenage son to mow my lawn. But it goes beyond that because my neighbor and I share mutual values and interests due to our close proximity. My nephew, a law enforcement officer, shares how frequently folks in a tight-knit community will call the police about people speeding in their cozy, little neighborhood. Yet, if patrols are put in place and a resident of that neighborhood gets a ticket for speeding, they are furious. The message, unspoken, when they called to request assistance was this: speeding tickets are for those who cross the boundary into our neighborhood; tickets are not for those of us who belong here... which brings us to that final piece of the definition. Neighbors are those who share mutual entitlements; because I “belong” certain rules should and shouldn’t apply to me. In ancient Israel, neighbors were, “characterized by common blood, common land, common language, common way of life, and common worship.”
The man who prompts the telling of this well-known parable of the Good Samaritan is an expert in Jewish religious law. He knows all the rules and commandments and puts Jesus’ rabbi skills to the test. They banter back and forth. “How do I inherit eternal life?” the man asks. “What do the scriptures teach you?” Jesus throws the ball back in his court. “Obey the commandments.” “Good answer,” says Jesus. But it doesn’t end there. This man wants to push a little harder, perhaps to make himself look good and holy. “But who is my neighbor?” he asks. And Jesus replies with a parable; a story about mercy; a story that challenges the traditional understanding of neighbor; a story that teaches us how neighborliness, exhibited through tangible acts of kindness and compassion, can restore life in the face of this world’s violence.
Remember: mercy is a chosen relational sentiment. Even when Israel sins against God by worshipping false idols, even when Jesus’ disciples deny him and flee from him, even when we behave in ways that break the heart of God, God still chooses to show us mercy. God still chooses to call us his children and to be moved by our suffering. Mercy is a chosen relational sentiment.
Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan was a brilliant teaching tool. The story began in a predictable way. Travel in the ancient world was risky business and the road that ran between Jerusalem and Jericho was notoriously dangerous. Often bandits would lie in wait for a vulnerable traveler. So this man’s fate comes as no surprise. Stripped of his clothes and beaten, his class or ethnicity were likely hard to pin down. It’s also worth noting that sometimes bandits set traps for hapless travelers; staging what looked like an injured traveler to lure someone in; they would let their guard down and then their partners in crime could pounce and attack. To choose to show mercy placed one – as it still does today – in a vulnerable and risky position.
Now, the power behind a good story lies in its ability to draw you to the characters; we listen closely for characters “like us.” Those in Jesus’ audience can identify with this setting and circumstance. Suspense is set up by the injured man’s condition. Someone must come to his aid. Who will it be? We would hope that it would be someone like ourselves. We all like heroes who are like us, don’t we? Suspense, predictability, and identification grow as the story progresses.
As we already know from the gospels, many – though not all – religious professionals in Jesus’ day looked down on the common people, the un-educated Jewish peasants. So, the apathy of the priest and the Levite, both well-educated religious professionals, would not have been a great shock to Jesus’ listeners. But, in the age-old pattern of “story-telling three’s”, they would have likely anticipated the third passerby to be someone like themselves; an everyday Jew just trying to honor God and their neighbor and get by. So, what a shock when the hero turns out to be someone they despise: a Samaritan. Samaritans were a mixed race. Centuries before, when the nation of Assyria conquered the northern tribes of Israel, they brought people of other nationalities into Israel and the Israelites began to intermarry with these foreigners who worshipped other gods. In a culture where purity and boundaries were of great importance, the Samaritans were anything but pure. Good, pure, pious Jews wanted nothing to do with them; they certainly didn’t want to be touched by them. They weren’t neighbors; they were more like those folks on the other side of the tracks. So Jesus’ Jewish audience is suddenly shocked when the hero of this story is one they despise. And this one they despise, this one that evokes a feeling of disgust, yet behaves in a way that Jesus holds up as the model for any who would seek to obey God’s commands and inherit eternal life. He is not the model because of his ethnicity or education or background. He is our model simply because he demonstrates the mercy of God toward someone whose body is close to his own. As an online commentator put it: “In a gracious way, Jesus offers a radically simple answer to the lawyer’s question: a neighbor is anyone—regardless of any factor that might justify any socially constructed theoretical boundary—whose body is close enough to mine for me to identify with.” This one lying in the road is not one with whom the traveler shares mutual attachments and entitlements. They simply share, for a brief moment in time, this piece of road, this slice of life’s journey. They share a sacred space of vulnerability on a dangerous stretch of highway. The suffering of this man lying at the side of the road is not a sight the Samaritan can turn away from. Three men all see the same thing, but only one does anything about it. The Greek word used here is like our English word for “seeing.” It can mean strict visual perception or it can mean to perceive or discern. Three men saw with their eyes. One man saw with his heart, mind and soul.
In the 1991 movie The Fisher King starring Robin Williams, there is a scene in a subway station where one of the two main characters of the movie – Jack – is seated by a man in a wheelchair, a veteran who lost his legs in the war. Now, the veteran sits in his chair at the station and collects coins in his can from passersby. One man tosses the coins in his general direction but goes well off the mark. Jack disdainfully observes that he just tossed the coins at the man without even really looking and the veteran responds “He pays; he don’t have to look.”
Friends: We do have to look… and see. We ought never to turn a blind eye to the world’s violence and suffering because Jesus reminds us to see with eyes of mercy. As you entered the sanctuary this morning, you may have noticed pictures scattered about on stands and communion rails. They are pictures of mass shooting locations throughout the US in recent years and months. I would invite you to move about and select one image, one city. Please do so in silence, prayerfully allowing yourself and others the opportunity to see where your heart and eye are drawn. Then, take one picture back to your pew with you. In just a few minutes, Pastor Suzanne will transition us into our prayer time. She’ll begin that time with a form of prayer called visio divina or “holy seeing.” So, take a moment now to get up, move about silently, and view the pictures. Select one image that can provide a focal point for your prayer and carry it back to your pew.
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