You may have noticed in Scripture that people often come to Jesus looking for a judge’s ruling. Not surprisingly, they usually also look for the answer that best serves their own interests. We are humans, after all – deeply beloved and deeply flawed. So we come to Jesus, the face of God among us, and ask: Who’s right, and who’s wrong? And what do I have to do to make sure I’m in the right?
You also may have noticed that Jesus usually takes that kind of conversation in a different direction. We look for a judge’s ruling, and he transforms our hearts instead.
Take, for example, the lawyer in today’s Gospel reading. We focus on the story Jesus tells about the Good Samaritan, but I think this reading is just as much about the lawyer who asks the question in the first place. He’s an expert in religious law, and he wants to justify himself to prove he’s on the path to eternal life.
So, in this conversation between two religious experts, the answer is never in doubt. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” the lawyer asks (Luke 10:25). Jesus gives him the answer he already knows: “Love God and love neighbor.” “Well, then,” the lawyer asks, ready to score his debating point, “who is my neighbor?” Everybody knows we’re supposed to love people, the lawyer is thinking – but how far does that love have to go?
Well, Jesus isn’t about to start drawing lines in the sand about who’s comparatively more or less worthy of love. Instead, he tells a story that spurs a deeper question. This story of the Good Samaritan is one many of us have heard before, and here’s the short version we may already have in our heads: A man gets beaten up on the road; two religious types can’t be bothered to help him; somebody at the losing end of the holiness scale, a Samaritan, does the right thing, going above and beyond to help the injured man. Presumably, the lesson – the expected answer to the lawyer’s question – is that anyone you come across is your neighbor. Everybody is worthy of your love. Badda bing; end of sermon.
Well, I think Jesus would agree that everyone is worthy of your love. But that’s not what he’s asking the lawyer to wrestle with. At the end of the story, the question isn’t, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus’ question to the lawyer is, to what degree are you a neighbor?
And that’s a much harder question. I find it pretty easy to understand that every human being is a child of God and therefore worthy of love. Great. But am I loving them as best I can? Am I being a neighbor?
So, back to the Gospel reading and this lawyer who’s trying to justify himself into the kingdom of heaven. I wonder what the next line in the conversation might have been – what Jesus might have had in mind when he told the lawyer to “go and do likewise” (Luke 10:37)? We don’t know; as usual, Jesus isn’t nearly as directive as we might like. We’re left to wonder what real-world concerns the people in that moment were thinking about. But here are some things we know were true for the Jews of Jesus’ time: They wrestled with how to relate to the Roman occupying forces. They wrestled with how to relate to all the different kinds of people who came through their land, traders and travelers on the international highway of the day, some of whom came and brought their strange ways … and stayed.
And the Jews of Jesus’ time wrestled with how to relate to maybe the most challenging people, the Samaritans – which just means the people who lived in neighboring Samaria. The Samaritans were very much like the Jews, religiously and culturally. They once were the same people, before the Kingdom of Israel divided, and the two nations were exiled under different circumstances, and the Samaritans came to worship the one God differently than the Jews did. That’s why Jesus chooses a Samaritan as the virtuous character in this story. The Jews hated the Samaritans because they were so similar, and shared so much history, but didn’t see things the same way.
So, when Jesus told the lawyer to “go and do likewise,” following the Samaritan’s example, what did he have in mind? Well, one really obvious thing about this story is that the Samaritan was out there. For whatever reason, he was out on the road, encountering people; and he allowed himself to be drawn into an extremely inconvenient relationship with someone he probably disdained. The Samaritan wouldn’t have been any happier about dealing with a Jew than a Jew would have been happy to deal with the Samaritan. On top of that, this Jew was injured, needing time and care. But the Samaritan stopped. He engaged. We don’t know what went through his mind at that moment, but something happened. He saw the common humanity of this person he would have preferred to avoid, and he acted on it.
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As you know, this week has brought us great sadness in our national life – more black men tragically dying in confrontations with police; police officers in Dallas tragically dying at the hands of a black man. Predictably, we’ll hear voices dividing into camps as they reflect on five hundred years of racial oppression and division in this land. But ironically, in the moment of tragedy, victims find common ground. In his news conference Friday morning, the Dallas police chief said officers felt “under siege,” and he pleaded for support and prayer from his community and the nation. I imagine those protesting the deaths of two more black men could have said precisely the same thing – that they feel under siege, in need of support and prayer from their community and their nation. It is tragically human that what unites us is our brokenness and our need to be healed.
So, as we hear this story of the Good Samaritan and Jesus’ call to “go and do likewise,” what are we supposed to do to help our culture heal? I truly believe the vast majority of us want reconciliation and healing. We’re even willing to be reconcilers and healers, if we can figure out what to do to help. Sadly, tragedy like we’ve seen this week isn’t something any of us can fix.
Well, we may not be able to fix it, but there are a few things we can go and do. Our presiding bishop has asked Episcopalians to pray with special intention for healing in our nation – a request I also heard on Friday from one of our own faithful pray-ers at the Noon Eucharist. So, as part of the prayers of the people, we will do just that. And I hope you will do it every other day of the week, too. Prayer changes things, not the least of which is our own hearts. May we, like the Good Samaritan, open our hearts to the other.
Here’s the other thing I think Jesus would like to see us “go and do.” Go out, and be a neighbor. That will look different for each of us. For me, it might mean spending more time writing sermons at the Roasterie rather than tucked away at home, watching the rabbits and squirrels in the back yard. I’m more comfortable writing at home, and probably more productive, too. But to be a neighbor, I have to put myself out there, on the road, and be present to the people I encounter along the way.
Then, once we’re out there, however that looks in our lives, we need to engage the other. That “other” might be someone who looks different or comes from a different social background – or simply someone who sees things differently than we do. In this part of the country, we put a very high value on being polite – meaning that avoiding conflict sometimes becomes the prime directive. Well, building relationships with people who see the world differently than we do means taking the risk to speak our broken and conflicted hearts, and to hear the broken and conflicted heart of someone else. For example: You know we’ve worshiped a few times with our friends from United Missionary Baptist Church. Well, a few of our members share Bible study with people at UMBC. From what I hear about that, there’s a lot of honest conversation about areas where they disagree. But they keep coming back, putting themselves out on the road, engaging the difference rather than pretending it’s not there.
Now, I have no delusions that if we put ourselves out there and engage with people more intentionally, it will magically heal our social divisions. But I do believe that every act of being a neighbor, and every act of prayer for our neighbors, matters – no matter how small. None of us can heal our nation’s brokenness or our sinful turns toward violence. But each of us can connect with people we might have avoided otherwise. The more we get outside ourselves, then the more we see that we are one with “those people” we don’t know. We are like them and they are like us, deeply beloved and deeply flawed, feeling “under siege” and pleading for healing. They may be Samaritans and we may be Jews, or vice versa; but what matters is the holy fact that relationship builds peace. So, as we sang last Sunday, may we carry this song in our hearts:
O day of peace that dimly shines
Through all our hopes and prayers and dreams,
Guide us to justice, truth, and love,
Delivered from our selfish schemes.
May swords of hate fall from our hands,
Our hearts from envy find release,
Till by God’s grace our warring world
Shall see Christ’s promised reign of peace.
Carl P. Daw, Jr. (Hymnal 1982, #597)