Wednesday, July 17, 2013

A Real Gem of a Story

Scripture for the 8th Sunday after Pentecost includes Amos 7:7-17; Colossians 1:1-14; Luke 10:25-37

The parable of the Good Samaritan is a gem of a story, and like most gems that get worn this one has a setting, a context. Before we admire the diamond, notice how it’s set, the platinum prongs of the opening and closing verses.

A lawyer is testing Jesus. This isn’t unusual in the Gospels: Men with sharp minds trained in the arts of win/lose and in the science of either/or try, from time to time, to trap Jesus into making a public statement that could be used against him, branding him as either a traitor to Rome or unorthodox in his religion.

American poet Edwin Markham wrote the words, but Jesus could have said them himself, referring to his latest encounter with such a lawyer: “He drew a circle that shut me out-- Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout. But Love and I had the wit to win: We drew a circle that took him in.”

Which is precisely what Jesus proceeds to do. I love these lawyer stories. The confronting legal expert tries to test Jesus; Jesus, expert in love, winds up testing the lawyer. What I admire about these stories is what they teach us about the Word of God. We all should expect to be tested, every time we hear the New Testament read. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is good news, but not because it excuses us from having our preconceptions challenged or our responsibilities clarified. The Gospel fulfills the law and the prophets, so it draws us to a love that simultaneously rescues us and requires of us all our heart, soul, strength, and mind. The Good News positions us to both receive and give. And no story better illustrates that than the parable of the Good Samaritan.

We’re still considering the setting. You may be wondering when we’ll get into the story, but not until we settle another question of attitude. Already, we’ve seen that it isn’t just the lawyer who’s tested by this story: we will be, too. And I trust you’re okay with that, willing to agree that we all need to buff up our skills at neighborliness, to open our minds and hearts to a profound lesson Jesus is teaching—that being a neighbor isn’t about how many feet separate me from the occupant next door, or (with apology to Mr. Frost) how intact the fence is between us. Being a neighbor requires knowing when to cross that fence line, and what to do, once we have crossed it.

I’d like to rename this the parable of the good neighbor. I suggest that reasonable shift because I’m uneasy with the implication that this Samaritan fellow is called good in contrast to the typical Samaritan, who must have been bad, a real bounder. Somehow, a good Samaritan, a good Arab, a good Jew, a good Christian is a use of language that opens the door to a closet of scary goblins, like “the only good (fill in the blank) is a dead (fill in the blank). Given what we think we know about relations between Jews and Samaritans (dramatized for us one recent Sunday by the disciples proposing to Jesus that they call for lightning to strike a Samaritan village that didn’t roll out the welcome mat for them), racial hatred and violence are not far off in the wings. Yes, the story demands rethinking by any 1st-century Jew trained by culture to lump all Samaritans as a bad lot. But hello, the more important point is that everyone hearing this story is challenged by it.

And because racial prejudice poisons all neighboring wells, let’s avoid explaining the behavior of the priest and the Levite as evidence that Jews were deficient in compassion because of their religious purity laws. Yes, that has been suggested in some handlings of this parable, and sounds to me like a poor attempt to keep at bay the universal challenge the story poses.

One more thing about the setting, about the lawyer’s motives: first, we’re told that he’s testing Jesus, and second, that it is to justify himself that he asks his timeless question, “And who is my neighbor?”

What does that mean, to justify himself? That he had a narrow view of who his neighbors were, and wanted Jesus to confirm his assumption that a neighbor is a kinsman or kinswoman bound to him by obligation, a member of his own tribe? One commentator insists that this is how a first-century mind would have seen it, because people then didn’t think in abstractions like “all of humanity”. Neighbors lived in a certain neighborhood because they were all of one extended family, period. This lawyer asks Jesus to exonerate him from having to take seriously a radically subversive standard he thinks he might have heard in Jesus’s sermons: that even our nation’s rivals and occupiers are our neighbors.

So this is the old view, that neighbors are given to us by proximity. In the 1st century, the proximity of extended family. In the 21st century, the proximity of choosing to settle in a particular place you like and can afford to live in.

To both these old views, Jesus asserts his challenge: you become a neighbor to someone by choosing to behave in ways that respond to his or her needs. Proximity plays a role, but not just settled proximity: also mobile proximity in the momentary neighborhoods of fellow-travelers. I’d guess that was a truly modern idea for the 1st century, and from what we experience on highways and in airports today, it’s a concept that keeps its revolutionary edge.

If we aren’t into the story by now, we never will be! The road from Jerusalem to Jericho—everyone knew the reputation of that stretch of highway, rife with gangs of thieves. All four of the men in this story have good reason to be afraid, as they walk. Suddenly, one is down. Three travelers come upon him, one after another; two cross the road to avoid him. No bonds of relationship draw them to him, no stirring of compassion moves either towards him.

Until the third traveler notices the victim, and sees him differently than his predecessors have, and in this moment of perception there is born an alliance, a reconciliation between having and having not, a radical awareness that there are clearcut choices to be made, starting with whether to cross the fence line between his own freedom and this victim’s need, between his own good fortune and the unfortunate one before him.

Does he go to him because he cannot imagine living with himself if he does not? Has life bruised him enough to have shaped in him a practical wisdom that realizes how easily the shoe could be on the other foot? Is it possible that this third person simply recognized accurately what he was seeing—a live person, not a dead body; but also what he was seeing was an outcome to his journey every bit as important as whatever purpose had him on that road? Was he gripped by that spiritual awareness we sometimes catch, that the journey is just as important as the arrival at the journey’s end?

The commentator I mentioned uses an intriguing phrase to describe the Samaritan’s choices: he calls them dangerously irrational. Helping members of our own clan or ethnic group has its own logic, as we decide how to distribute scarce resources for instance, and to take care of cousin Charlie today is to increase the likelihood that Charlie will take care of you, one day. But to aim that compassion toward a stranger, that is dangerously irrational.

“Yet he invited his hearers,” says our commentator, “to imagine whether that movement of (compassion) might not open us to the humanity of the stranger, whether the powerful bond of love and obligation might also tie us together across ethnic lines, across family lines and across lines of safety.”

What a timely story to be heard in churches across the nation, as we call for Congress to frame immigration reform that is just, humane, and wise.

And what if we were to picture the victim on our roadside as being this fragile earth, our island home? Think of the excuses that keep us from seeing, and doing, what is needed.

Before we leave this parable, we must catch what it says about God. The actions of the Samaritan are the saving deeds of God in Jesus Christ, who, moved with compassion, bandages our wounds, pours on them the oil of healing and the wine of eucharist, sets us in the shelter of a compassionate community, and pays the price of care and recovery that we cannot have without the free movement of grace.

In the universe we inhabit, God is the good neighbor who shows us how to go and do likewise. It will require of us all our heart, soul, strength, and mind, to love neighbor as self. This is the very heartbeat of the universe.

(The commentator mentioned in this sermon is The Rev. Benjamin J. Dueholm, Associate Pastor of Messiah Lutheran Church in Wauconda, Illinois, whose “Living the Word” article was published in the July 10 issues of “Christian Century”.)