Grace Presbyterian Church
July 14, 2019, Pentecost 5C
No Room For Anything But Compassion
It is good to be back.
I will confess, though, that being out of action over these past weeks has been challenging in many ways, but the way in which it might have been most difficult has been the number of headlines splashing across the news on a regular basis that are frankly offensive to any sense of the gospel that can be obtained by even mildly careful reading. You can only distract yourself with so much World Cup before those things crash in on you. We don’t live in God’s good world right now, that much is obvious.
Given that frustration, it’s quite amazing that the Revised Common Lectionary managed to offer up for today a gospel lesson that could not be more responsive to the things going on in this country. Yet at the same time this lesson, one of the most familiar and oft-repeated of Jesus’s parables, is almost impossible to hear fresh, so to speak. I’m willing to bet that across the country (and in here as well, possibly), many, many folks in pews heard the familiar beginnings of the parable, thought “oh, it’s the Good Samaritan, I know that one” and immediately checked out, minds wandering off to lunch plans or afternoon ballgames or anything else but the scripture and sermon to follow.
So how do we hear the desperately needed message in such a parable, familiar to the point of numbness? I will suggest three different corrections, so to speak – corrections not to the parable itself, but to our tendency to hear the parable as if we’ve heard it a thousand times before, as though we already know everything there is to know about the story. Perhaps those corrections will allow the story to open up to us, maybe in an unexpected way, and illuminate the times in which we live.
The first correction to our perception of the story is this: there is no excuse for the priest and the Levite to pass by the man in the ditch.
Pastors and Sunday school teachers over the decades have tended to offer up an excuse for the priest and the Levite, one that is not indicated in the scripture itself. Trying to apply some other part of the code presumed to apply to such figures in Temple practice, such teachers have suggested that to offer aid to the man in the ditch would have rendered them ritually impure and caused them to be unable to fulfill their ritual duties. I know I was taught that a few times along the way as a child or youth. To be clear, it was still not considered “good” or acceptable for the priest and Levite to pass by without offering aid, but there was at least a justification for their choice to pass by.
The trouble with this interpretive trick is that in supposedly preserving this ritual purity, the priest and Levite would have been in direct violation of the Torah. The verses we have heard from Leviticus earlier would have been only scratching the surface of that the books of the Law had to say about one’s comportment to those in need, be they the poor, the “widows and orphans” so often named in the Law and the prophets, or (as verses 17-18 note) the stranger in the land, which the unknown man in the ditch would also represent. The Torah, or the Law, was at the very center of the practice of both priest and Levite, and that Law spoke profusely about such behavior. This is what you do, no exceptions – you help those in need. Jesus’s listeners, who knew and had been taught this about the Law themselves, would have been thoroughly shocked at the behavior of the priest and Levite in Jesus’s parable, well before any Samaritan came along to upset their expectations in the story. The behavior of the two Temple representatives in this parable was plenty scandalous itself, and the scholar of law questioning Jesus would have recognized that.
The second correction is this: Jesus never answers the lawyer’s question: in fact Jesus rejects the very premise of the question.
We tend to read and hear the parable as Jesus’s answer to the lawyer’s question, “Who is my neighbor?”Indeed, Jesus does reply to the law scholar’s question with the parable. A reply, however, is not always the same thing as an answer, and in this case Jesus’s reply to the question is not an answer to the question at all.
Robert Williamson, Jr. Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Hendrix College in Arkansas, points out that, once the parable is done, Jesus in turns challenges the lawyer to identify who was the neighbor in the parable, and once the lawyer has given his I-can’t-say-the-word-“Samaritan” answer, Jesus responds with the imperative “Go and do likewise.” In this case to “do likewise” means to show mercy to those in need, as the Law repeatedly instructs.
But “go and do likewise,” or “go and show mercy,” is not an answer to the question “Who is my neighbor?” The two don’t really make sense together outside of their connection via Jesus’s parable.
In telling this parable and not answering the question Jesus is also cutting to the unspoken question behind the spoken question. Ultimately the lawyer, like so many folks in this country today, is less interested in knowing who his neighbor was and more interested in knowing who his neighbor was not.
Who can I exclude? Who am I allowed to hate? Who can I dismiss? Who can I not care about? Who can I reduce to something less than my neighbor, something less than human, something that isn’t my problem, something I can blame? Who can I get away with not treating according to the Law?
For all of that, Jesus doesn’t really answer this question, either. Instead, in his “go and do likewise” reply, Jesus frames a completely different question: “to whom are you a neighbor?” Reading the parable narrowly might lead to the answer “the one who is in need”; reading it fully, knowing the human condition, leads to the inevitable but deeply challenging answer “anyone and everyone.”
There is no such thing as “not my neighbor.” There is no one we can hate or exclude or dismiss or reduce. No one. Ever.
The third correction we need to take into account for this parable follows closely after this realization, and provides clinching support for it.
The third correction is this: don’t read the parable of the Good Samaritan separately from the dialogue that precedes and provokes it.
Even taking into account the “who is my neighbor?” question from the scholar of law doesn’t quite do justice to the parable and its defining context. Jesus doesn’t just coax “love your neighbor as yourself”’ from the law scholar; instead, the answer comes in two parts.
You heard the source for part two in the reading from Leviticus. The first part comes from Deuteronomy 6, continuing from the famous words of verse 4: “Hear, O Israel: the Lord is our God, the Lord alone,” known in scholarship and liturgy as the Shema. Here in Luke something seems to have been added; beyond heart, soul, and might (or strength), the scholar also cites the commandment to love God “with all your mind.” This isn’t the first time this addition appears in the New Testament; in Mark 12 these words (with “mind” included) come from Jesus himself, in answer to another scribe’s question of “which commandment is first of all?” Jesus throws in “love your neighbor as yourself” as a bonus, and then notes that “there is no other commandment greater than these.” A similar passage in Matthew’s gospel (which curiously includes “mind” but not “might” or “strength”) adds the further reinforcement that “on these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Mt 22:40), suggesting that everything taught in Jewish tradition that Jesus and his listeners inherited – Torah and prophetic literature – in some way comes from these two commandments.
The connection of “love your neighbor as yourself” to the parable is obvious enough, but the command to love the Lord your God with essentially the totality of your being also matters to the parable. It isn’t a “therefore, you must” kind of connection, though; it’s a result, a cause-and-effect. If you truly “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind,” you can’t help but show mercy to the one in need of mercy. In the life of the one who truly loves God with everything, there is no room for anything but compassion. You can’t not show mercy to the one in need – not because of command, but because of compulsion. You can’t stop yourself from it.
Taken as a whole, this story becomes much more radically demanding even than the simple mandate to show mercy to your neighbor; it, when fully lived, produces no less than a whole life ethic that regards all of humanity – all of creation, even – as neighbor. It ends up being so much more than “being nice.” It’s a little risky and not always easy to point to examples of such a full-fledged neighborliness, but you could do worse than that individual who, in twentieth-century popular culture, did more to promote the whole idea of “neighbor” than most anyone, the only children’s television host I know of who was also an ordained Presbyterian minister: none other than Fred Rogers.
Even if his song ended with the question “won’t you be my neighbor?”, Mr. Rogers’s ministry (and that’s what it was) was devoted to the practice of being a neighbor and demonstrating how to be a neighbor to others, particularly to children. From very early episodes of Mister Rogers’s Neighborhood calling out the foolishness of war through the foolishness of puppets (at the height of the Vietnam War), to sharing a feet-cooling kiddie pool with a black man (in the difficult days of the Civil Rights Movement), Mister Rogers was a neighbor, in the truest sense of the word, to children and adults he never knew, no matter what they thought of him or who they worshiped or anything about them other than their need for a neighbor.*
It won’t necessarily take the form of a television show for children, but loving the Lord our God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength, and loving our neighbors as ourselves, will look something like this.
Those last words of Jesus in today’s scripture – “go and do likewise” – are loaded with challenge. They challenge our presumed right to decide whom we do and do not acknowledge as our neighbor, or even as anyone worthy of our attention. They challenge our notion of what it means to follow Christ fully and without reservation, as opposed to merely “being a Christian” with no particular evidence to show for it. It’s a bit frightening and a bit offensive and very overwhelming, but to live up to Jesus’s instruction here is nothing less than answering the call of following Christ. It is, in short, what we do if we love the Lord our God.
For the call to be neighbor to all, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal unless otherwise noted): #757, Today We All Are Called to Be Disciples; #—-, Receive the Stranger; #—-, O Love Your God; #707, Take Thou Our Minds, Dear Lord
Robert Williamson, Jr., “There Is No ‘Not My Neighbor’,” https://robertwilliamsonjr.com/there-is-no-not-my-neighbor/?fbclid=IwAR0_Iv2YwEjTMkVZ2UKp8Iqbo8YVXrgnKxmAawLcevRexRZxFGDmB_jyM9M, accessed July 13, 2019.
*Suggested further reading: Michael G. Long, Peaceful Neighbor: Discovering the Countercultural Mister Rogers (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2015).