This week, again, and now even this morning there have been more acts of horrific violence. More and more people have joined the ranks of those who are grieving and shocked and angry and uncertain.
This week, again, we come back together as a community of faith, to remember what is good and right and true, to hear the Good News, to see again the vision of a just and peaceful world – the Realm of Heaven on Earth – to feel again with our hearts that God is love, and that God is with us. People of faith have been coming back together again like this to be fed by the Spirit for generations, during times of peace and times of war, times of poverty and times of plenty.
So, let us seek wisdom, and worship together.
(Micah 3:5-6, 4:1-4, Luke 10:25-37)
I saw a cartoon recently: there are two angels in the proverbial clouds of heaven – A young man and a young woman. The halo over the young man’s head is two sizes two big. He’s got this smug look on his face, and he says, “Good Samaritan? I was a great Samaritan.”
This is a send up of a problem that can come with these moral parables, like the Good Samaritan. They run the danger of being an excuse for us to feel pretty puffed up and prideful, on the one hand, or, on the other hand, to feel guilty, to feel broken down and burdened by how we fall short.
One the one hand: when we’re out doing do-goodery, we can have a kind of smugness: “I’m being just like that Samaritan Jesus talked about.” We want to justify ourselves, like the Lawyer whom Jesus challenged. Celebrities and politicians are great at this. They are great at getting the cameras to follow them when they bend down for some charitable effort or the deign to save the world: “Look at how great a Samaritan I am!”
Then on the other hand, there’s guilt. When we recognize, “Whoa, I was not the Good Samaritan. I passed by somebody in their need, and I was too spooked, or too busy, or too self-absorbed or whatever, to do anything.” And we’re weighted down by guilt and shame.
I remember very clearly times when I have not been the Good Samaritan. But I can also think of times when I have been. I think that’s probably true for all of us. There have been times when we’ve been moved to do the right thing by somebody else, we’ve had compassion and encountered someone in need, child of God to child of God. And there have been times when we were hard-hearted like the priest and the Levite in the story.
But the point is not to keep score. The point is not pride or guilt.
The point of these parables of Jesus is to unlock our hearts; it’s to unleash our souls. It’s to trigger an “Aha!” … an “Aha!” that has got something to do with the Realm of Heaven, with new life, eternal.
There are two levels of “Aha!” that I would like to point out in this Parable of the Good Samaritan. There are actually a whole bunch of “Aha!s” for us to find in this Parable – that’s why we keep coming back to it through our lives and through the generations. For now, two “Aha!s”
“Love God, love the One who is supreme, with all of your heart, all your mind, all your soul, all your strength. And love your neighbor as yourself.”
The lawyer in this story asks Jesus, “Okay, got it, but who is my neighbor?” We’re told that he asks this of Jesus in order to justify himself. So he’s expecting the answer to be that his neighbors are the people he already loves, who are probably the people who we all already treat well: the people we like, our families, if we like them, our neighbors, if we like them, the people we identify with, our tribe, our nation, our religion, the people who are good enough to deserve our love.
But Jesus has a surprise in store. To answer this question of “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus tells this story we just heard and that we all probably know pretty well, the story about a man who was traveling along the Jericho road who got robbed and beaten up and left for dead. Two different travelers came down the road and saw him left for dead, but crossed to the other side of the road and walked pased. These were members of his tribe, and people with some pride and esteem, a priest and a Levite. But when a member of an enemy tribe, a Samaritan, came, he stopped and cared for the injured man and went out of his way to be sure that the man would recover.
Now, after Jesus tells this story, he asks the lawyer, “Who was a neighbor to the man who got robbed and beaten up?” The lawyer says, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus says, “Go and do likewise.”
Who was the neighbor to the person who needed mercy?
The priest and the Levite walked by a man beaten and left for dead, and they said to themselves, “That man is not my neighbor.”
But the Samaritan walked by and said to himself, “I am this man’s neighbor. I am the neighbor that this man needs.”
This is the Aha!
Who is my neighbor? I am the neighbor. I am the neighbor of this person who needs a neighbor.
Do you feel the shift?
When we focus on “Who is my neighbor?” we get stuck on who qualifies for our love, who deserves our help.
This dude all bloody on the side of the road is probably mixed up in some dirty business. It’s suspicious, right? This isn’t a good part of town. He’s got tattoos. Did he get in a fight? Was he trying to rob someone who stood their ground? Maybe he’s just passed out drunk. Maybe he’s just faking it so he can jump me? He’s probably got a prior record. He probably had it coming.
We make these judgments very quickly, we know this if we’re honest with ourselves. And psychology experiments show this. We quickly grab onto any excuse to see this person as not my neighbor. Based on the color of their skin, based on the quality of their clothes, based on their gender, based on how attractive they look, based on how the headline is written, based on the opinions of other people.
But instead of asking, “Is this person my neighbor”, Jesus asks, “Does this person need a neighbor? And can I be that neighbor?”
This is the “Aha!” that unlocks the heart and unleashes the soul. We feel what it is like to need a neighbor.
Have you ever needed a neighbor?
Do you know what it’s like for someone to not help you because they judge that you don’t deserve to be their neighbor?
And then, do you know what it’s like for someone to reach out and to be your neighbor, to be your neighbor when you need a neighbor?
When that neighborliness happens, when someone is a neighbor to us or we are a neighbor to them, that is an eternal moment. This is Good News. We inherit eternal life. That “Aha!” of the heart is beyond time, it is holy, it opens the horizons to what it is we call “God”. In that moment all of our heart, all of our soul, all of our strength, all of our mind is in the love of God. This is enough.
But I promised you two “Ahas!” – the second one is more troubling. It is the “Aha!” that this moment of neighborliness is enough for each of us, but not enough for all of us.
We have this “Aha!” courtesy of Dr. King.
He said, “We are called to be the Good Samaritan, but after you lift so many people out of the ditch you start to ask, maybe the whole road to Jericho needs to be repaved.”
In Jesus’ day, the road from Jerusalem to Jericho was well known for being dangerous, for being a place where people victimized each other. So why does that happen? How can that be healed?
This is the awakening of the prophets, from Micah to MLK to the present day. These prophets show us that we must attend to the wounds of our collective body, wounds or sicknesses in our body politic or the body of humanity. When these wounds fester, it produces individual acts and group acts of violence, and it excuses these acts.
The prophets force us to admit this. But they also share the promise, God’s promise, that neighborliness can and will break out in a global way.
The eternal that we enjoy in moments of neighborliness can join with history, that’s Micah’s beautiful vision of an outbreak of peace and justice. Swords into ploughshares, spears into pruning hooks. We pray in the Lord’s prayer, “God, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” We can be instruments of that. It’s hard work.
But along the way I hope we enjoy the little moments of eternity, the “Aha!”s we get in moments of neighborliness.
As Micah says, “Do kindness, love justice, walk humbly with your God.”
Thanks be to God.
(Delivered July 17, 2016 at First Congregational Church of Walla Walla by Rev. Nathaniel Mahlberg)