“The One Who Showed”

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Rev. Jocelyn B. Gardner Spencer

March 26, 2017

Luke 10:25-37

 

We don’t know what was in the heart of the priest.  Some interpretations of this parable assume that he was too stuck-up to notice, too sanctimonious to be bothered with an unknown stranger on the side of the road.  But maybe there’s more to the story.

Maybe he was busy—so thoroughly occupied with his job of caring for the welfare of his people that he believed he could not afford to stop.  Maybe he was in a hurry, on his way to another errand of mercy—visiting a sick family member, or bringing a casserole to an elderly parishioner, or traveling to bless a new baby.  Maybe he was preoccupied with the worries of the world and simply did not notice his surroundings as he walked by, lost in thought.  Maybe it was getting dark, and he could not see clearly into the ditch on the other side of the road.

 

We don’t know what was in the heart of the Levite.  Some interpretations of this parable assume that he was too preoccupied with letter of the law, in all its arcane detail, to feel the stirring of the spirit of the law, which would have led him to help a person in need.  But maybe there’s more to the story.

Maybe he was afraid—scared of the dark, frightened of that lonely stretch of wilderness road, jumping at the slightest sound, sure that every noise was a fierce wild beast lurking in the shadows, ready to tear him limb from limb.  Maybe he was afraid that the injured man had been left in the ditch as a sort of trap, as bait to lure unsuspecting, kind-hearted travelers, and if he stopped to help, as soon as he bent over that bruised body, the robbers would strike again, and he would be their next victim.  Maybe he was afraid that, not being a medical professional, he would not know how to help properly and could actually make things worse rather than better.

 

We don’t know what was in the heart of the Samaritan.  Some interpretations of this parable assume that he was too kind and soft-hearted to pass by any person in need, that he was just one of those people who are more predisposed to compassion than the rest of us mere mortals.  But maybe there’s more to the story.

Maybe he, too, was busy—on his way to an important family function, or taking a long-awaited vacation, or traveling for a big business deal.  Maybe he, too, was afraid—all too aware of his vulnerability out there on the Jericho Road, keeping his head down and his wits about him, carrying his keys between his fingers in case he needed to make a quick-and-dirty escape.  Maybe he was all too aware that his presence would not be welcomed by his Jewish neighbors, or maybe he was as disgusted at the idea of coming into contact with a Jew as most Jews at the time would have been toward him and his Samaritan kin.  Maybe he, like the other two travelers before him, was all too eager to be somewhere else and not the least bit interested in anything that would delay him.

 

It is difficult, nigh impossible, to know what was in the hearts of these characters as they made their way down that lonely road.  The hearts of other human beings are always something of a mystery—whether they are faraway figures known only through stories or the family members with whom we share our lives most intimately.  We never fully know what impulses stir in the depths of another person’s soul—and, for that matter, when it comes right down to it, our own hearts can be rather mysterious, too.  We humans can be a rather enigmatic lot.

But what we can know is how people act.  What we can see is what people choose.  What we can observe is what people do.

We can know that the priest passed by on the other side of the road.  Even if he felt a pang of compassion for the wounded traveler, he chose to leave that man to his fate in favor of whatever else was on his mind.

We can know that the Levite, too, passed by the wounded man.  Whatever his motives or reasons or emotions may have been, he did not stop to aid the person in need.

We can know that the Samaritan did stop.  In spite of any fear he might have felt, in spite of any obligations that might have burdened him, in spite of any prejudices that made him vulnerable or hardened his heart, the Samaritan stopped.  He went to the wounded man’s side and gave him first aid.  He lifted him gently onto his donkey and carried him to an inn, where he continued to take care of him.  He paid for the man’s lodging and care with the equivalent of two days’ wages (which could have been all the money he had on his person) and promised more money if needed on his return.  He committed himself and his resources to an ongoing relationship of care for the man, a stranger whom he didn’t know from Adam until that fateful night on the Jericho Road.

We cannot truly know what any of these characters thought or felt—but we can know what they chose to do.

 

At the beginning of the scripture reading we’ve been engaging in this season, the lawyer who came to test Jesus asked, “Who is my neighbor?”  And, as he so often did, Jesus answered a different question:  “How does a neighbor act?” or, “What does it mean to love my neighbor as myself?”

When we think of the word “love” today, we usually think of it as something we feel.  Love is a sentiment, an emotion, a warm fuzziness in our hearts, a flitter-flutter in our stomachs, an adoring gaze in our eyes.  But Jesus defines it differently here.  We don’t know what was in the heart of the priest, or the Levite, or the Samaritan.  But we do know how they acted, what they chose to do.  Which character was a neighbor to the wounded traveler?  The one who showed him mercy.

In this story, love is not predicated on the emotions in our hearts.  Love is demonstrated by our actions.  So to love your neighbor as yourself—or even to love your enemy, as we are instructed to do elsewhere in the gospels—does not necessarily mean you have to feel warm and fuzzy toward them.  It does not necessarily mean you have to adore them with every fiber of your being.  It does not necessarily mean you even have to like them.  But it does mean you have to choose to act toward them with care, in the spirit of God’s self-giving love.

This is not always easy.  But as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., pointed out, “To ask, ‘If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?’ is to ask the wrong question.  Rather, we must ask, ‘If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?’”

When the Samaritan stopped to help the wounded traveler, he took on personal risk, the danger of being attacked by the robbers or even by the man whom he was helping.  He accepted inconvenience, for he surely had other plans for that evening than tending a wounded man’s injuries.  He bore a cost, both in terms of time and in terms of monetary expense.  When he chose to act toward his neighbor with care, in the spirit of God’s self-giving love, it complicated his life.  He entered into a relationship of care with a person he did not know, perhaps a person he had no reason to want to know.

But if we are truly to follow in the way of Jesus, then we are called to dedicate ourselves to bringing about mercy for all people—through our personal actions, through the choices we make as a congregation, through the policies we advocate for in our community, our state, our nation, our world—even, or especially, for those we don’t particularly like, but are called to love anyway.

 

You don’t have to feel warm and fuzzy about it; you don’t have to adore those neighbors with every fiber of your being.  But here’s the thing:  you just might find that when you act like a neighbor, you start to feel like one, too.

The story doesn’t tell us what happened after that fateful day.  But I like to think that the Samaritan and the Jew overcame the enmity they may have felt and struck up an unlikely friendship.

The story doesn’t tell us what happened after Jesus and the lawyer finished their conversation.  But I like to think that the man who came originally to test Jesus, to try to trap him with a trick question, experienced a change of heart and became his disciple.

We never know what the ultimate outcome of an act of mercy might be.  But whether or not we get to see it, we can trust that every act of mercy, every time we choose to treat a neighbor with care, is an expression of the self-giving love of God.  Every time we act as one who shows mercy, whether readily or resentfully, it is a step toward the building-up of God’s realm, both in the world around us and within our own hearts.

May it be so.

 


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