Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “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.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.” ~Luke 10:25-37
We know this story. We know it well, starting from the very first line. Someone asks the Holy Man a question, not really to learn from him, but to put him on trial, to see if his answer holds up. That it’s a lawyer is almost too perfect—it plays right into our culture’s disdain for them as sharks and ambulance chasers. But don’t laugh too hard. This isn’t the kind of lawyer who shows up in a fancy suit to get criminals off. This is a scholar of God’s law, an expert on scripture, not the US Constitution. He is testing Jesus.
Because Jesus is Jesus, he answers with a question… You know the holy book. What does it say? And the man’s answer is letter-perfect: “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.”
There it is, Jesus says. The secret to life. You have said it. Love the Lord your God with everything you have and everything you are. Love the Lord your God until there’s nothing left! And then, in the emptiness of your poured out love, love your neighbor as you love yourself.
But this lawyerly scholar had a follow-up question for Jesus. He asked, “And who is my neighbor?” And, again, his motivation was not to learn from the Holy Man. Now, his motivation was to “justify himself.” To prove himself right.
I get that. I care about being right. It is an ongoing spiritual challenge. I spend time each day justifying myself. I do it by talking to people who agree with me and arguing with people who don’t. I do it by creating a little echo chamber for myself, with all the voices saying, “Yes, Pat. That’s right. Aren’t you smart/ wise/good!” So I can related to this scholarly lawyer.
So, as an example of me trying to show you how right I can be, I’ll mention now that the Greek word for neighbor means, literally, “one who is near,” or “one who is nigh.” That’s pretty much what we expect. Our neighbors are the people who live around the church, on Main Street and Liberty and Loder Avenues. So, in that sense, his question seems a little odd. Your neighbors are the ones nearby. Obviously.
But because Jesus is Jesus, an not me, he doesn’t give the man an etymology. Instead, Jesus tells a story. “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead” (Luke 10:30).
We know this story.
There is a man. And he is taking a trip of about 18 miles on a road that is notoriously dangerous, because it changes so drastically from a higher to a lower elevation. “A traveler descended from Jerusalem’s height, approximately twenty-five hundred feet above sea level, to Jericho’s depth, some eight hundred twenty-five feet below sea level.”[i] The road provides lots of places for people of evil intention to lay in wait. And the traveler, who is thrown physically off balance by the shifting landscape and rapid descent, doesn’t even see them, until it is too late.
The man is stripped… of clothing, of money, of valuables of any kind. He is stripped of his humanity, as he is beaten, and he is left for dead, like an animal on the side of the road.
I know what it is to be in pain, but I’ve never been beaten. I know what it is to be weak, but I’ve never been left for dead. I suppose you could say I’ve lived a privileged life. Surely, we can identify with the traveler, we who hate to have to walk down streets that feel unsafe. Surely we can imagine his pain, imagine his fear, this man, left for dead.
What will happen? Who will help him? Can he be saved?
Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.
We need to understand: the Priest is the most revered person in the community. The priest is understood to have access to the holiest words, the holiest places, to the Holy One, God, Godself. A Levite is someone with the best possible pedigree, a descendant of the priestly tribe, maybe of Aaron or Moses. If Jesus were telling this story to us here at UPC, what would he say? “A Presbyterian minister comes by”? Or maybe, simply, “A Christian comes by”? In the story, the first ones to come by are people whom the listener has every reason to think of as good and moral, people whom they believe will do the right thing. But the priest and the Levite do not consider the beaten, left-for-dead man to be their concern. He is not their neighbor. They walk on by.
But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity.
Here’s the thing about Samaritans. That word, along with the modifier “Good,” has come into the popular understanding as meaning “A Helpful Person.” But that is not how a Jewish audience viewed Samaritans. They were not trusted. They were hated. They were believed to practice some other religion. They were outsiders.
There’s a story there. Centuries earlier, Jews had lived in a united kingdom, under one king. But politics and insurrection caused a split it into northern and southern kingdoms. The capital of the northern kingdom of Israel was the city Samaria. And because the northern kings didn’t want the people wandering back to the southern kingdom, to Jerusalem, to worship God at the temple, they began building sacred places, shrines, in the northern kingdom. Soon the talk in the southern kingdom was, “Those Samaritans have five shrines… they must have five gods.” And religious superiority and bigotry entered the picture.
Then, both kingdoms were swallowed up, first by the Babylonian Empire, and then the Persian Empire. By the time our story is being told, the stresses of being an occupied people —now by the Roman Empire—have caused the suspicion and bigotry to harden, to the point where, according to anyone who traced their roots to the southern kingdom, no Samaritan could possibly be a good and decent person, let alone a real Jew.
What word could we substitute for Samaritans, to bring it home to our current situation? Someone of some other religion? Muslims, maybe? Someone of another race? As Rachel Held Evans so eloquently put it, the question isn’t, “What does the text say?” The question, rather, is “What are we looking for?” Are we, like the scholarly lawyer, looking into the text to justify ourselves? Or are we looking into it to find healing?
Today I am looking into this text for balm to heal a broken, fractured world, at a time when I’m pretty sure I have no talent whatsoever in the healing department. Today, I am looking for wisdom, at a time when I feel completely tongue-tied. Today, I am looking for a word from God, to whom I hurled an angry prayer on Friday morning, awakening to the news that five Dallas police officers had been murdered in cold blood. I was near despair that morning, because this mass murder, in the wake of two shootings of African American men earlier in the week in St. Paul, MN and Baton Rouge, LA, took place at a peaceful #BlackLivesMatter protest in the city of Dallas, a city that has worked hard to bridge racial divides, to build mutual trust between residents and police officers, and that has succeeded in decreasing police-involved shootings. I was near despair because I knew that this heinous crime would likely only harden the national divide between people who think we have to choose between #BlackLivesMatter and “Blue (or, Police) Lives Matter.”
And so I snarled at God, “If you’re out there, give us some wisdom here. Tell us what to do, because I’ve got nothing.” And because God is God, gave me the gift of the voices of many people wiser than me, including the author of Gifts of the Dark Wood, Eric Elnes. And God said, “Start there. Start with emptiness.”
If the people we instinctively think of as good—people like the Levite and the priest—the people we look up to, if they don’t do the right thing, where does that leave us? It leaves us empty. If the people we have suspected, or reviled, thought of as not-us, not-like-us, not-our-neighbors—if they become the heroes of the story, where does that leave us? It leaves us empty. If someone is just trying to live their lives, to do their job, and they are left for dead, and it makes no sense… where does that leave us? It leaves us empty, so empty we don’t even know what to say or how to pray any more.
But emptiness can be a gift. Our tendency is to fill ourselves up—with news, with information, with opinions and affiliations. But what if, at this moment in our lives together, we are being asked to empty ourselves: empty ourselves of our preconceived notions. Empty ourselves of our need to be right and our one-note solutions. Empty ourselves of our usual loyalties. Empty ourselves of everything until all that is left is a clear space, an open room in our hearts where maybe, just maybe, the Unexpected Love—the Spirit of God—might be able to come near.
And if the Spirit of God can come near to us, who knows what seeds of understanding might be sown in our wide-open hearts? Who knows what new ways of seeing might be born? Who knows, how we might be inspired, by the God who comes near to us, to come near to one another?
The Samaritan, while traveling, came near to the man who had been left for dead. The others had passed by on the other side of the road. But the Samaritan came near. Neighbor. The one who is near, the one who is nigh.
Karoline Lewis, a seminary professor in St. Paul, writes, “What if the Samaritan was ‘good’ because he simply made the choice to come near the almost dead guy in the ditch? To approach him? To decrease the distance between him and the man clearly in need of help?”[ii]
Can the blessing of emptiness help us to do this? Can it help us to come near to one another… especially to those who need our help? Can it help us to see one another’s pain, to look upon one another with eyes of compassion? The task is so overwhelming, it is so large, it makes us want to shy away. But a wise one wrote, “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”[iii]
The Samaritan drew near, and had compassion on the half-dead man. And he cared for him, in every way he was able. And Jesus, being Jesus, asked another question.
"Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”
We know this story… the story of the half-dead man and the Samaritan who drew near and poured out his compassion like oil, like wine, like balm for a broken and grieving world. And we know, so well, Jesus, being Jesus, encouraging us to go, and do likewise, to love the Lord our God with everything we have and everything we are. And then, in the emptiness of our poured out love, to draw near, and love our neighbor as ourselves.
[i] “From Jerusalem to Jericho,” American Bible Society Resources, http://bibleresources.americanbible.org/resource/from-jerusalem-to-jericho.
[ii] Karoline Lewis, “Dear Working Preacher,” at Working Preacher, https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4685.
[iii] The Talmud, Pirkei Avos (Ethics/Chapters of the Fathers) 2:16.