Monday, July 12, 2010

The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 10C] - July 11, 2010 (Luke 10:25-37)

You can practically hear the pencils being sharpened in the crowd at the beginning of today’s gospel lesson. A lawyer has just stood up in the midst of the crowd to test Jesus, and his aim is to snare this bright young rabbi from Nazareth with a sticky question about Jewish law and, with hope, humiliate him in front of everyone. This lawyer is good. He is a product of the recent rabbinical education reform, “No Pharisee Left Behind.” He learns for the test, can memorize anything set in front of him, and can quote it back to you. If he has a weakness, it is his inability to think creatively, but he hopes that won’t come into play because he wants to catch Jesus on a technicality: who is the neighbor?

The issue at hand is that Jewish Law, the Torah, is actually inconclusive on this question. At one point, “neighbor” is defined as other sons and daughters of your own people; that is, neighbors are other fellow Israelite countrymen and –women. However, at another point in the law, the term “neighbor” is expanded to mean anyone who is found in your land, foreigners and illegal aliens, included, even ones who come seeking economic opportunity. By pinning Jesus down with the question, “Who is my neighbor?” the lawyer is asking Jesus to clarify this distinction. If actions toward my neighbor are what will help me to live in God’s kingdom, then it will be helpful to know exactly how Jesus will interpret this. Pencils are sharpened, and the whole crowd is ready to take notes. You can’t fault them for thinking critically. Perhaps they are even thinking carefully. But I can’t help but believe they might be thinking a little cowardly, too.

And, like a clever Supreme Court nominee before her panel of politicos, Jesus slices and dices the question in a way they can’t initially make heads or tails of. He tells a story. It was actually very common for rabbis to tell stories to respond in debates, but Jesus’ story has a few twists and turns in it. When a fellow Israelite countryman gets beaten by bandits and is left by the side of the road for dead, both a priest and a Levite walk by on the other side, refusing to help him. Perhaps the priest and the Levite do recognize the poor, injured guy as a neighbor, but they are too bound by other restrictions and regulations—“don’t touch blood, don’t be late for obligations”—to help the man. Perhaps these professionally religious types recognize him as neighbor but their response to him is all in their head, as if their faith has made them too heavenly-minded to do any earthly good.

That’s the first twist—the non-response of the two figures representing the best of Israel’s holiness. Then comes the next twist in the plot: the person who actually does stop and take care of the wounded man, going the extra mile to make sure he gets healed, is a person whom no one would ever expect to go out of their way for an Israelite.

Samaritans were despised by the Israelites. They were considered half-breeds, imposters, dirty and mean. You could expect no good to come from Samaritans. In fact, in the previous chapter of Luke, Jesus himself gets rejected by a Samaritan town. But in this parable, which is told maybe even in the same day as that rejection, it is the Samaritan who saves the day. The key phrase in the story is that Jesus says the Samaritan looks on the man and is “moved with pity.” The Samaritan has compassion. He wants to suffer along with this wounded man with the chance he might restore him to health. In doing so, Jesus imbues his filthy main character with the quality that Israel’s own prophets had associated with God’s own heart. A Samaritan’s display of compassion for and Israelite = one enormous plot twist.

The lawyer in the crowd has most likely stopped taking notes at this point. He is either drawn into the unlikely drama of this fictitious story, or it is likely he is repulsed altogether. When Jesus looks at him and says, “Which of these three turned out to be a neighbor to the one who fell into the hands of robbers?” the lawyer is not even able to mention the word “Samaritan” on his lips. He simply replies, “the one who showed mercy.”

And right there is the final twist to the story, and the most remarkable one. The hinge of the parable swings not on discovering who our neighbor is so that we may respond appropriately, but actually being a neighbor to anyone in need. The point of the parable is not that the Samaritan correctly recognizes the wounded man as his neighbor. The point is that the Samaritan lets himself be ruled by compassion and, in doing so, becomes a neighbor to the other. In his reply to the lawyer’s question, Jesus doesn’t simply tweak the definition of who counts as a neighbor, but he gives greater clarity to what it actually means to be a neighbor. The lawyer’s task has been to think critically about these issues, to reason and to act carefully. But in God’s kingdom, the chief task is to think and act compassionately.

Furthermore, we must remember that this parable is set within the context of a question about eternal life. Jesus’ story is told in order to clarify exactly what “loving the neighbor” entails. So, in addition to receiving a lesson about the Law’s expectations, we also hear a story about God’s grace. Maybe, in fact, this is what eternal life looks like. It looks like no one caring anymore about these boundaries of race or class or national identity or ethnic identity, distinctions for which we are far too quick to take up arms to defend. Instead, eternal life is best envisioned as surprising, death-defying occasions of self-sacrifice and compassion, times where we take the side of someone who is hurting enough to take on some of the hurt ourselves. The fullness of God’s kingdom will be borne by compassion that wipes the tear from every eye, compassion that drives us the extra mile and makes short order of the artificial restraints we place around it now—restraints imposed by our own schedules and budgets, our own prejudices, our own agendas. Eternal life resembles this kind of suffering alongside our other brothers and sisters more completely, unafraid of how it will make us look, or whether it will wear out the back of our own animal and deplete our resources. Eternal life, therefore, will look more like the great teacher himself, Jesus, self-sacrifice extraordinaire, who himself stops on his own journey of glory to go to the cross, and in the process, picks us all up from the side of the road and heals us.

Mariam was a teacher on staff with me at the school for refugee children at my internship congregation in Cairo, Egypt. A refugee herself from the war-torn country of Eritrea, Miriam had been eking out a living in Cairo for her family for a few years before I got there. I assume she is still there, either unable to seek refuge in another country, or perhaps she feels that teaching young refugee children is her place. When I was there, Mariam taught the upper-level classes of English and science. She was a trained teacher, qualified to do much more than our little school, with its limited resources, could allow. Nevertheless, she taught with unparalleled love and enthusiasm and integrity. The children absolutely loved her and thrived in her classes, even though they were action-packed with energy and themselves dealing with the effects of many internal wounds.

As is common in refugee work, about every few weeks or so another child would get word that his or her family had been accepted for resettlement in the States or Australia or Canada, the very places Mariam herself might have dreamed that she would take her family someday. Once she brought us both to tears as she explained that three of her former students saved up their allowance so they could call her long distance from Calgary, Alberta, every night for a week in order to tell her they missed her and loved her. Mariam put herself in a position of pain and vulnerability in order to teach those students and make them better people. In fact, I could say that everyone who passes through St. Andrews Church in Cairo, whether a student or teacher (or feckless Lutheran intern) is touched by her mercy and compassion.

And Mariam is Muslim. She is a veil-wearing, peaceful, take-her-Islam-seriously type of Muslim. And, what’s more, almost all of her students and co-workers are Christian. She loves them without question—offers her life to them, you could say. I know that we often see on the TV pictures of turbaned so-called Muslims ramming planes into skyscrapers and inciting suicide violence against Westerners and Israelis, but I can’t get Mariam the Muslima out of my head as the example of the Good Samaritan. In the crazy way God often chooses to get his point across, I learned from Mariam a little more about how his kingdom functions, how we are to stop worrying about what the law requires and figuring out who exactly is our neighbor and instead just be a neighbor, be ruled by compassion, and show mercy. And every tear will be wiped from every eye. This is the stuff of eternal life.

So, at the end of his twisty-turny parable, Jesus simply tells the lawyer “Go and do likewise.” Go and do likewise. Suffering pays no heed to any boundaries. Neither then should compassion. Break your pencils, O Pharisee. This is no test. Christ has claimed everyone for mercy. The same goes for you—you who have been picked up from the side of life’s road and washed clean with this water, whose wounds have felt the salve of this body and blood: you, too, can let loose with his compassion. “It is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. This word is near you…in your mouth and in your heart.” You, too, can stop the studying. Go. Be a neighbor.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

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