Listen to the sermon HERE.
You may not have gotten out of bed today asking yourself the question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” But I think that in some ways, it’s a question all of us ask—if not out loud, then we ask it by being where we are today—in church. We might ask it especially after weeks like this one, filled with more violence, with more outrage and frustration, and with not much hope. We might not use the same words as the young lawyer, “eternal life,” though we each probably come to this morning with our own search, hope, or desire that yearns with the Eternal. We are looking for something—some kind of resolution, ending, answer, just like the young lawyer in the Gospel. “What must I do?” he asks.
But rather than answer the question directly, Jesus responds with another question. “What does the law [of Moses] say? How do you read it?” The man piously quotes back to Jesus all that he’s been taught: “Sh’ma Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Eḥad.” “You shall 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 your neighbor as yourself.” A good Shabbat-school answer. Jesus says, “You’re right, you’ve given the right answer.”
But then, just as he’s moving away, the young lawyer, “wanting to justify himself,” asks Jesus another question: “And who is my neighbor?”
Here, St. Luke gives us some insight into the young lawyer by explaining that he asks this question, “wanting to justify himself.” Or, as the translation by Eugene Peterson (The Message) puts it, “Looking for a loophole, [the lawyer] asked, “And just how would you define ‘neighbor’?”
Jesus sees what he’s dealing with now. This man asks about his neighbor not out of any real compassion or concern for the neighbor—but in order to justify himself, to make himself look good, to keep making the high grade, to make sure that he’s doing what he needs to do somehow to please God or make God love him. The young lawyer wants clean hands.
And because of this, Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan.
In the story, a man going to Jerusalem is robbed and beaten. A priest walks by but is probably late for an appointment. Maybe he has good reasons for passing on, but whatever those reasons were, they don’t help the poor man on the side of the road.
Next a Levite passes by. Now, the Levites had particular responsibilities, especially related to the synagogue. They were busy people. The Levite might have had very good reasons for passing by, but again, the man by the road is still hungry and hurt.
The Samaritan, however, “moved with pity,” stops. He cleans and bandages the man’s wounds. He puts him on his own animal and takes him to an inn, where he gives the innkeeper some money to take care of the poor guy for a few days.
After telling the story, Jesus quizzes the bright, young lawyer a final time. “What do you think?” Jesus asks, “Who was a neighbor to the one who needed help?” The lawyer replies, “The one who showed mercy,” to which Jesus then says, “Go and do likewise.”
“Go and show mercy,” Jesus says, which is to say, “Go and help others who have fallen into ditches.” “Go and do your work and live your life, but do it all with some understanding, some notion, some perception of what it’s like to be in the ditch.”
We don’t know how the lawyer’s life turned out or what he did next, whether he was able to show mercy, or ever gain the wisdom of the ditch. But I bet it was hard for him. Religious, educated, civically minded, it may well be that the young lawyer had never been stuck in a ditch and never would be. Perhaps he had been protected by family, education, connections, race, and by all kinds of privilege to the extent that there was virtually no chance he would ever fall into a ditch nor much likelihood he might meet anyone who had.
But the Samaritan knew all about ditches. It was easier for him to offer help because the Samaritan had been in plenty of ditches. The Samaritan was viewed as an outsider, a foreigner, a suspect to the majority, someone with odd religious beliefs. To this day, Samaritans are a minority in Israel and thought of as sort of second-class Jews. Though they’re drafted like everyone else into the Israel Defense Forces, in order to be considered “halakhic” Jews, they have to undergo a formal conversion to Judaism. In the Gospel, the Samaritan remembers when he’s been in a ditch. And he remembers being helped out, when someone acted like a neighbor.
Especially on this Sunday, after this week of two high profile killings of black men by police, and an ambush of police by a black man, we can ask ourselves about the concept of “neighbor?” What are we called to do and be, as people of faith?
Last week I quoted from John Winthrop’s sermon of 1630 in which he famously spoke of his strong sense that he and others were being brought by God to the colonies in order to form “a City upon a Hill…” It has been a beautiful and enduring image, but if we are honest, we have to admit that while some have lived on hills, others have been given ditches to live in.
Early on, Native Americans were pushed off their hills, and those who did not die from disease, were driven onto “reservations.” For African slaves brought to this country, slavery was only the first ditch. Laws of segregation, lending policies for home loans, and barriers in education, employment, and social mobility have all been additional ditches. A social construct of race (passed on through families and laws and selective education) has built deeper ditches. Other people came to this country with the same strong feeling of God’s protection as John Winthrop– people from Japan, Ireland, Italy, Africa, Latin America, on and on…and yet, often they have had ditches put in front of them and ditches dug around them.
As people of faith, we cannot settle for life in the ditch. We cannot pass by and pretend not to notice. Christ calls us to see ourselves as the one in the ditch.
The Gospel invites us to see the ditch from several different perspectives. Some of us might be a little like the young lawyer in the Gospel. I imagine him as being protected by his privilege and a long way from most ditches. Others of us might be a little like the Good Samaritan: we have some memories and experiences of ditches that are fresh and perhaps a little raw. And some of us might feel like we’re the one stuck in the ditch. Regardless of where we locate ourselves, the point of the Good Samaritan story, I think, is for us to see ourselves in the ditch. Only after that, can be begin to recognize who is our neighbor and to act like neighbors to one another.
When I identify with the lawyer, in the light of Christ I know to see myself in the ditch involves a kind of poverty—a willingness to notice, name, and recognize the many privileges I enjoy and to understand that they are not of my making. And so, to begin to move toward understanding what it’s like for someone stuck in a ditch, or pushed into one, I can read. I can listen. I can stop trying to justify. And I can pray for God to make me a channel of help, of mercy, and of Christ’s healing.
This fall, our church will read the book by Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. I’ve begun the book, and I’ll tell you, it’s not an easy read. But books like that one can help us to see with new eyes. We can read the work of Cornell West or Ta-Nehisi Coates. We can learn and pray and grow. We can stop talking and trying to justify ourselves, and do the really radical work of keeping quiet and listening.
To those like the Good Samaritan, this Gospel says, “keep on being faithful.” Yes, it hurts. Yes, we’re tired. Yes, it seems like the ditches get deeper and go on for ever. But don’t forget your own past. Be strengthened by it, be empowered by it, and use it to show mercy to another. God told Moses, “What you need is close at hand.” “The word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.”
The Good Samaritan types know that not everyone wants to remember being in the ditch. We can look to political leaders, religious leaders, supreme court justices, friends, and even some family and we see people who we REMEMBER were in a ditch, but they’ve forgotten. They act as though getting out of a ditch happens by sheer willpower and they have developed a defensive amnesia about their time and place of need. Well, the Gospel says: never forget. This was what Elie Wiesel spent his life saying, “Zachor! Remember” Remember the ditches and where possible, don’t let them happen again.
And finally, some of you may feel like the character in the story who’s been beaten and robbed and thrown into the ditch. You’re tired of worrying about your children or grandchildren. You’re tired of wondering when you’re going to get the job you deserve or even be noticed in the ditch, much less helped out. Our Gospel today offers the presence of Christ—with you, in you, and also in others. Don’t give up. Yell a little louder. Be open to God’s spirit of healing in some new way and keep your faith.
In Friday’s New York Times, Charles Blow wrote an opinion piece that I’ve read several times. Other commentators have written angrier, harder truths, but Blow’s piece is offered from the standpoint of a father whose daughter tells him simply that “she’s scared.” He agrees that he’s scared too—but especially scared for our country. He writes about the issues and the difficulties, but then he says this:
I know well that when people speak of love and empathy and honor in the face of violence, it can feel like meeting hard power with soft, like there is inherent weakness in an approach that leans so heavily on things so ephemeral and even clichéd. But that is simply an illusion fostered by those of little faith. Anger and vengeance and violence are exceedingly easy to access and almost effortlessly unleashed. The higher calling — the harder trial — is the belief in the ultimate moral justice and the inevitable victory of righteousness over wrong.… (Charles M. Blow, NY Times, July 8, 2016)
Charles Blow writes as one who has one foot on higher ground while keeping another foot firm in the ditch, so as to extend a hand to help others up and out. It’s a secular voice echoing a Christly calling—for us to be neighbors to one another, remembering when others have been neighbors to us.
Remember that Jesus was taken from the heights of Calvary down to the depths of a tomb, but death could not keep him. Death will not keep us.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.