Like almost any other child in any family, our younger daughter has earned several nicknames from her parents. One that she has had for a long time is “Little Counselor,” as in “Little Attorney,” or “Little Lawyer.” I’m not telling you this so that you can you can call her that—she probably wouldn’t appreciate that—but so that you know that one of the gifts she’s had ever since she learned to speak is the ability to make distinctions. Arguing with her has been and I imagine will continue to be a challenge for us because she can always find a way to be technically correct, or locate a loophole in our logic.
For example, a few years ago I had to attend an orientation conference for a youth mission trip down in South Carolina and since Melinda was off work I decided to take the whole family. We decided to take the church van, which the girls thought was a hoot. They’d never ridden in any other car before, much less a van. On the way back, the girls started arguing about something in the back seat and their voices started to get louder and louder until pretty soon they were yelling. Melinda turned around in her seat and told the girls to get quiet. “No yelling in the car, girls. Daddy’s trying to drive.”
Laura, without missing a beat, retorted, “It’s not a car. It’s a church van!”…as if that meant she didn’t really need to be quiet. She was two at the time. Nothing against any attorneys who are here…no, no, no, we are quite proud of her mind! And we know any good legal system depends on their careful attention to detail, their ability to draw distinctions and know definitions—but you can see the frustration Melinda and I are in for.
|Trayvon Martin (Feb 5, 1995 - Feb 26, 2012)|
It is only a fraction of the frustrations, I imagine, of those in the community of Sanford, Florida, today, at the news of an acquittal late last night in one of the most intensely-watched legal cases in the past decade. From its beginning, the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman case had all the makings for a media spectacle and a chance for everyone to jump in with an “expert” opinion. All the favorite hot-button issues of race, class, age, gun rights, and drug use and law enforcement were involved. Like strands a sticky spiderweb that could entrap almost any reasonable man or woman, distinctions and definitions ran throughout the course of the whole ordeal.
We heard legal experts make distinctions, for example, about self-defense, distinctions about racial profiling…even attempts at distinctions about whose voice was heard on the 911 call. As a whole nation peered through their television screens to draw their own conclusions about whether justice was served or averted and what this means about our society today, it almost seems that the most basic injustice has been overlooked: that at the end of one foggy February night on the side of the road someone had been shot and left for dead, for reasons of self-defense or not. There’s no way to parse the tragedy out of that, no way to make any other distinction that will help us ignore or feel better about the terrible loss that has occurred or the violence which sadly occurs each day and night in many different neighborhoods in this country.
Jesus, as it turns out, tells a rather convoluted story about neighborhoods and violence and someone else being left for dead as a response to a lawyer’s attempt to make distinctions and test Jesus on a technicality. The first question the lawyer asks Jesus relates to eternal life and what someone must do to inherit it. Presumably the lawyer wants to hear Jesus’ knowledge of the Torah, the Jewish code of commandments. The Torah included a long list of laws, in fact, that could be interpreted and was interpreted many different ways. Jesus, like any good rabbi, turns the question back on the lawyer by asking him what he finds written in the law and, more importantly, how he reads it.
The counselor responds with the two-fold statement on loving God and loving neighbor that we hear from Jesus himself at other times in the gospels: from the book of Deuteronomy, “Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your strength and with all your mind.” And from Leviticus: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Throughout Jesus’ life, those two commandments become linked together in a way that lets us know love of God and love of neighbor are somehow vitally, inextricably linked, as if one cannot truly love God without also loving neighbor and vice versa. It makes me think of the truth that Catholic social worker Dorothy Day once imparted: “I really only love God as much as I love the person I love the least.”
|He Qi "The Good Samaritan"|
Jesus seems pleased with the lawyer’s understanding of the law, but as a lifelong Lutheran and theological descendant of the Protestant Reformation, I want Jesus to cut to the chase and tell the man that there’s nothing he can do to inherit eternal life. After all, that’s what has been hammered into my head since the beginning of my life. It’s what Paul says throughout his letters in the New Testament. It’s what we learn as Lutherans from our own pastors and professors and Sunday over and over again: there’s no amount of following any of God’s rules and laws that can help us inherit eternal life. Rather, we receive it through God’s grace. It is given, not earned…no matter how clever we are at reading and interpreting it.
Thankfully for our sake, the lawyer is also not quite satisfied with Jesus’ response, either, because there is one more big distinction to make: namely, if Jesus agrees that we are to love our neighbor as ourselves, then what exactly constitutes a neighbor? Is this a car or a church van we’re talking about? The law was actually a little vague on this point, and I guess the lawyer probably knows that. At several points in the Torah, “neighbor” is defined as anyone from the household of Israel, but in at least one other reference, “neighbor” is expanded to mean anyone who is found in your land, including foreigners and illegal aliens.
|The road from Jerusalem to Jericho was steep and perilous.|
Here is where the lie of questioning gets really tricky: which definition will Jesus choose? And if you’re thinking like the lawyer, then you know that the answer will help you figure out exactly who in this world you are expected to show compassion for, who you’re expected to serve and love. The answer to this question will help you pin down how to inherit eternal life.
As we all know by now, Jesus responds to the lawyer with the parable of the Good Samaritan, wherein a wounded and dying man is ignored by two of his own countrymen before receiving mercy from a complete stranger. Furthermore, the stranger happens to be a Samaritan, the group of people found most repulsive to the Jews. In modern usage, the term Good Samaritan has come to mean help from a by-stander, impromptu aid from someone not directly or intimately involved in the situation. However, that connotation blunts the original offensiveness of the parable Jesus tells. This story relates an interaction between two people who absolutely hate each other’s guts.
In Jesus’ time, it would have been hard to believe that a Samaritan would have ever stooped to help a Jew, and more importantly, no self-respecting Jew would have allowed a Samaritan to bind up his wounds, place him on a Samaritan’s donkey, and, on top of all that, pay for his recovery in an inn! No Jew would ever expect to receive mercy and salvation from that source. This Samaritan exhibits grace no one could fathom! A Jew would more achieve that kind of recovery on his own and from his own power—picking himself up off the road and somehow limping home—before he could expect to receive it from someone that unprecedented.
And as we hear the lawyer hear the story, we realize that maybe Jesus has answered the initial question directly after all, the question about how to receive eternal life: in the end, we aren’t able to achieve it ourselves, but we can receive it from a very unexpected, unprecedented source. In the end, the act of inheriting eternal life is not about distinctions we make or how critically we can think about theology or law or people on this earth. It is not about winning the argument or about thinking up new definitions that will get us off the hook. Rather, inheriting eternal life involves coming to the realization that we are really just a person stuck in a ditch, waiting for God’s mercy, dependent completely on someone’s compassion and love. And that rescue comes from the unlikely source of God himself, alien to this sinful earth, who stoops down in death on the cross to bind up our hearts and give us new life. God makes no distinctions about who we are and what we’re like. There is no loophole in his love, no effort to profile according to race or background or anything else. It’s just grace, and it saves us …Samaritan and Jew alike, Gentile, black, white, Hispanic, and any other distinction we like to think up.
|Aime Morot "Le Bon Samaritain" (1881)|
“Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” Jesus asks the lawyer, and the lawyer is still so repulsed by the answer that he can’t even mention the word “Samaritan.” He just responds, “the one who showed mercy.” Jesus: Go and do likewise. Maybe, then, that’s the final lesson of the parable Jesus is trying to make: namely, that this is actually what eternal life looks like. It looks less like figuring out who your neighbor is and more like learning what it means to be a neighbor. The vision of eternal life, in fact, is not some cloud of happiness in the sky far away, but our imitation of the Great Samaritan Christ here and now, walking along our deserted, descending roads of this tired planet, and taking on the wounds of those we meet…and having them take on ours. Eternal life means following not the restrictions of laws and religion which often prevent us from being involved, but following the road of compassion and love in this world and the next for we really only love God as much as we love the person we love the least.
It is good to be a little counselor every now and then—car or church van, you hash it out—but, the truth be told, when we start making too many distinctions, especially when it comes to people, we begin to lose sight of God’s unexpected grace, a grace that never, ever loses sight of us.
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.