Grace Presbyterian Church
July 10, 2022, Pentecost 5C
The One Who Showed Mercy
It is such a familiar story, what’s a pastor to do with it?
It is maybe the most well-known parable Jesus told, rivaled only by the parable of the prodigal son. It’s a full-fledged story, with plot and development and conflict and all the good stuff that makes a story compelling enough to hear.
Well, one thing we can do is back up and remind ourselves that the story didn’t just come out of thin air; Jesus is – cue the dramatic music – being interrogated. By a lawyer.
The lawyer is, as Luke tells the story, testing Jesus. Throughout the different gospels different parties at different times do just that, trying to trap Jesus in some kind of bind that would either set him up to be found in error theologically or cause him to fall out of favor with the people. The lawyer (not the kind of lawyer we think of nowadays but an interpreter of the law) seems to be probing Jesus for some kind of theological misstep about the commandments.
Instead, Jesus (as he so often does) turns the question on his interrogator, who could hardly get away with declining to answer – it was his job to answer questions about the law. So, he answered, and did so appropriately, turning to words from Deuteronomy 6 (with the “mind” added to the heart and soul and might – here given as “strength” – found in that passage). That’s the part of the scripture reading covered in that first hymn we sang, and it also shows up in different contexts in the gospels of Matthew and Mark.
In this case, with the famous parable coming right after it, it’s easy to overlook this summation of the “greatest commandment,” but we shouldn’t. While here it is quoted by Jesus’s interrogator, in those other gospel context Jesus himself states it as “the greatest commandment” and “one like unto it,” to use the King James style of speech. If you were seeking to summarize the faith in as few words as possible, this isn’t your worst possibility.
Jesus more or less congratulated him and invited him to go his way in peace and security. This of course left the lawyer stewing in the same kind of humiliation that Jesus’s would-be interlocutors typically endured; their questioning turned against them, their duplicity exposed.
But in this case the interrogator can’t leave well enough alone, and – using a long-favored legal tactic – tries to recover himself by questioning the terminology in the answer: “And who is my neighbor?”
The novelist and Presbyterian pastor Frederick Buechner offers this take on the lawyer and his question:
He presumably wanted something on the order of: “A neighbor (hereinafter referred to as the party of the first part) is to be construed as meaning a person of Jewish descent whose legal residence is within a radius of no more than three statute miles from one’s own legal residence unless there is another person of Jewish descent (hereinafter to be referred to as the party of the second part) living closer to the party of the first part than one is oneself, in which case the party of the second part is to be construed as neighbor to the party of the first part and one is oneself relieved of all responsibility of any sort or kind whatsoever.”
Instead Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan, the point of which seems to be that your neighbor is to be construed as meaning anybody who needs you. The lawyer’s response is left unrecorded.
Well, not that I want to be in the position of questioning a Pulitzer Prize nominee like Buechner, but one small part of the lawyer’s response actually is recorded for us. And it’s a pretty revealing answer.
Upon finishing the parable, Jesus again turns on his would-be interrogator. Having told the story in which a Samaritan steps up, above and beyond the call of duty, to aid a badly wounded man who had been passed over by members of the religious elite, he again questions the lawyer, asking him to identify which of the three travelers in the story had been a neighbor to the wounded traveler. Do pay attention to the lawyer’s response:
“The one who showed him mercy.”
On one level, of course, the lawyer has answered rightly. Now the way the Greek is constructed in this particular sentence, a more literal translation would read something like “the one who did mercy to him.” That’s actually a theologically superior way to put it, if not so wonderful grammatically. “Mercy”, like so many of the loaded theological words we use, is active. It’s not a feeling or emotion or empathetic reaction. Mercy is, even if English doesn’t quite capture it, something you do. And this traveler had indeed “done mercy” to the wounded man, unmistakably so. And Jesus’s answer to the lawyer acknowledges this, as he leaves him with the command “Go and do likewise.”
But notice the lawyer’s answer again, even in the theologically superior but grammatically awkward version:
“The one who did mercy to him.”
The three passing travelers in this story didn’t get names, but they did get pretty clear identifiers that Jesus’s listeners would have immediately recognized. One was a priest, a religious authority, and the second was a Levite, a member of that tribe set apart since Moses’s time for service in the Temple. Two figures to whom would be attributed qualities of righteousness as a part of their standing among the people.
The third man was a Samaritan. And the lawyer couldn’t even say the word.
In the time of Elijah and Elisha, the prophets who figured into the scriptures and sermons the past three weeks, Samaria was simply a region of Israel, the northern of the two kingdoms that had resulted from the machinations of those who succeeded Solomon as king after his death (the other kingdom was Judah, which was centered in Jerusalem). The city of Samaria sometimes served as the seat of government of that northern kingdom, and a lot of Elijah’s activity was concentrated there. By the time of today’s story, though, all of the region is simply lumped into a larger Roman province called Palestine. Yet over the centuries a virulent schism had erupted between those Jews (whose worship was centered on the Temple in Jerusalem) and the Samaritans, who were, technically, Jews, but whose practice had evolved to worship on Mount Gerizim in their own territory. That site was, they claimed, the original holy place in Israel, dating to the time of Joshua, as opposed to Jerusalem, which only became prominent during the era of King David. In short, a disagreement over what might seem to outsiders an arcane theological point had become a hard-and-fast schism, with Jerusalem Jews literally going out of their way to avoid even passing through the region of Samaria, much less actually having anything to do with Samaritans.
For Jesus to invoke the third, merciful traveler as a Samaritan no doubt provoked agitated bristling, and probably an oath or two, among his listeners. That’s if they were a well-behaved group. And let’s be clear; had the parable been told in Samaria, and the identity of the third passerby been Judean, reactions would most likely have been extremely similar. Vitriol ran both ways.
It was a two-sided provocation that Jesus put before his listeners. By no means would any self-respecting Jew of what we might call the Jerusalem party even think of defiling himself by dealing with a Samaritan at all; being a neighbor to a Samaritan was out of the question. At the same time, no such self-respecting Jew would conceive of a Samaritan being a neighbor to a Jew. It would never happen, they might say, the way a plantation overseer of the 1850s might say that a member of the same skin color as the slaves he ruled over would never be President of the United States.
Such was the vitriol that our lawyer couldn’t even vocalize that “the one who did mercy” could even possibly be a Samaritan.
It’s easy enough for us to grasp the main point of the parable, and to apply to it Frederick Buechner’s point that a neighbor is basically anybody who needs you. But it’s not always easy or comfortable – or, frankly, desirable to us – to get Jesus’s point that “anybody” really does mean anybody. We live in a world that isn’t prepared to give up our grudges, our ancient hostilities, our prejudices or superior attitudes or whatever ruses we use to divide ourselves and keep ourselves set apart from and above others. It would never happen. It can’t happen.
I won’t let it happen.
Our society is pretty good at demeaning and dehumanizing “the other.” The world out there calls them job-stealers and threatens to build a great big wall to keep them out, never mind who’s going to pick all those tomatoes and strawberries in south Florida. Or people call them terrorists and yell “go back where you came from” even if they were born here, never mind that they are much more likely to be the ones that the actual terrorists kill first.
Or, when they get shot, people just call them thugs.
Jesus has this nasty habit of not caring one whit about our preferences or prejudices or whatnot. The world tries to respond with “but Jesus, they’re…” and Jesus cuts us off and finishes the sentence “your neighbor.” Society protests “but he’s a…” and Jesus won’t let us finish but says “the one you should imitate.” See, the kingdom of God doesn’t honor those divisions we create. The kingdom of God sees need and moves to meet it. End of discussion. If we want to claim to be part of that kingdom of God, if we call ourselves disciples, we’d better move that way.
Which one … was a neighbor to the man who fell among the thieves?
The one who did mercy to him.
Go and do likewise.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal unless otherwise indicated): #—, O love your God with all your heart; #707, Take Thou Our Minds, Dear Lord; #757, Today We All Are Called to Be Disciples