Since Ellis and I bought our home in St. Louis seven years ago, the house just to the West of us has changed hands four times. I sometimes lose track of the names of our neighbors…I hope this says more about the state of our economy and the rising home prices in our neighborhood than it does about Ellis and me as neighbors. I guess you’d have to ask the folks who moved out.
Today’s parable is introduced when a lawyer asks Jesus “who is my neighbor?” We know implicitly, neighboring is about more than proximity. Jesus famously overturns the prejudices of his time in the story. This is one of those moments in the Bible where a lot has been layered over the Bible. The interpretations of two thousand years often lay atop the story Jesus tells, so look closely at the text. We don’t know exactly why the priest and the Levite fail to stop. Preachers have speculated about holiness codes, about an overinflated sense of importance or fine robes which shouldn’t be dirtied. The truth is, we don’t know. The reasons they don’t stop are not in the text. The story is focused instead on the least likely character who becomes the hero.
I’ll return to the Samaritan in a moment, but I want to notice something strange about our Gospel writer Luke’s lawyer. Matthew and Mark have Jesus give the first commandment to love God with all your heart, soul and mind, and the second to love your neighbor as yourself. But Luke gives the commandment to this sharp attorney. Fascinatingly it is the lawyer who tells Jesus, “love God and love your neighbor.” Then after the question, after Jesus’ gives story about the Samaritan, Jesus finishes by asking: “Which one of these three was a neighbor?” the answer is obvious.
The lawyer’s response fascinates me. He doesn’t say “the third one.” He doesn’t say, “the Samaritan” (was even saying the name uncouth?) Instead the lawyer says, “the one who demonstrated mercy.” The one who demonstrated mercy.
Mercy is a word we don’t hear enough today. Mercy gets a bad rap. We don’t like to think of ourselves as needing mercy. Mercy is unpopular, I think, because our society teaches us self-sufficiency is the goal for our society. We judge those who need help. Self-reliance is one of the big lies, one of the awful lies, we tell ourselves. No one makes it through this life alone. No one. We all need a little help sometimes. So today I want to spend some time with the word mercy. What does the Lord require of us but, to do justice, to love mercy, even when doing so makes us humble. It draws us closer to God. Today’s teaching from Jesus centers on the practice of mercy.
The late Rev. Peter Gomes once preached,
“the word mercy suggests an unmerited kindness, the gift of something undeserved. When a judge shows mercy [s]he is not responding to the facts, or to what custom or even justice requires. Full in the face of justice [s]he shows mercy, that is [s]he forebears to do what is expected to someone whom [s]he has in [her] power and who has absolutely no claim upon [her] of any sort, and instead [s]he shows compassion. It is not simply kindness; it is kindness in the face of the opportunity to do otherwise. Mercy is not less than justice done; it is more than justice requires.”
Mercy is more than justice requires. You need to know Samaritans were mistreated by Jewish people. The hatred between the groups, the violence, was famous. Jesus’ hearers might have expected the Samaritan to cheer this Jewish traveler’s death, or at least to feel relief: one less enemy to worry about. Instead the Samaritan shows mercy.
That word mercy for Anglicans historically has been big. Episcopalians and our predecessors in the Church of England used to say before coming to Communion a prayer of humble access. “We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. But thou art the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy…” I don’t love the groveling in the prayer, but I do love the persistent reminder of God’s mercy.
Mercy is the very stuff of God. In the psalms, the word often translated as mercy or loving-kindness is an important one. Chesed in Hebrew functions a bit like the word agape in Greek. Chesed is divine mercy as agape is divine love. Now we don’t know for sure the word this legal scholar used in Hebrew or Aramaic when he answered Jesus, but it was likely this word, chesed. Apologies for all the biblical language. Here is why it is important: When we act with mercy, when we show mercy, we do better than treating one another as we would like to be treated. We do better than the golden rule. When we practice mercy we treat one another the way God would treat us.
Peter Gomes went on describing mercy. Speaking about the fear across the American South during segregation, about white folks afraid of an uprising from black neighbors he says,
It is a normal and justifiable fear. Revolutions are feared because of what the oppressed will now have power to do to the oppressors. Justice is simply what the powerful require of the weak, and what the weak demand of the powerful. If justice is the tool of the powerful however, mercy is the power of the weak. The power of the civil rights movement was not in its capacity to hold the nation hostage and to exact a just and violent vengeance. Dr. King did not appear to the nation’s fears, he appealed to the nation’s ideals and hopes. He took the power to terrify and transformed it to the power to forgive and to love. He was neighbor to the stranger that was America because he showed it the power of mercy
Mercy and Thin Justice
In all our talk of justice, we sometimes lose sight of the power of mercy. Justice, as Gomes uses it here is so very thin. Words can have a whole spectrum of meaning, and on one end of the spectrum. As we’ve found, “Justice” can mean simply the bare minimum the law demands. Justice can mean so little.
I saw a sign a couple weeks ago down at the Supreme Court, when I went to join the protests. “We call you Justices, but where is the justice?” That was one of the tamer signs. Many I couldn’t quote from this pulpit.
We live in difficult times, terrifying times for some of us, and I want to suggest to you that our faith has something to offer. When justice seems so thin, almost nonexistent, our faith has something to offer. Today it may be just one word: mercy.
Sometimes one word is enough. Mercy is bigger than hollow justice. We are invited to practice mercy. To treat one another with mercy, we have to be willing to slow down. We have to be willing to step off the road. We have to be willing to see the complexity, the frustration, the hurt. If we are going to be neighbors, if we treat one another better than the law requires, mercy is the key.
Transforming the Jericho Road
I’ve already quoted Peter Gomes about Dr. King, but I want to leave you with some of King’s own words today as well. Brother Martin used to tell folks that the story of the Good Samaritan was his favorite in the whole Bible. He talked about the mercy that the Samaritan practices as a kind of “dangerous unselfishness.” We could use some dangerous unselfishness in these days.
In a famous sermon at the Riverside Church in New York, King preached these words:
On the one hand we are called to play the good Samaritan on life’s roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway.
Following Jesus means returning again and again to the Jericho roads of life. Mercy asks a lot of us. Even when it seems justice will be denied, even when it is dangerous, Jesus asks us to do better than hurrying along on our way. Jesus invites us to slow down, to walk with the suffering. Jesus asks us to behave like neighbors and to work for transformation.
If you keep your eyes open, there are Good Samaritans everywhere. Even before our state announced it would be the first to enact a ban on abortion, there were funds set up to ensure people could travel to access needed healthcare. Even though guns may be more readily available and harder to regulate, our partners with “Women’s voices raised” are hard at work giving away free gun locks, educating neighbors about how to keep one another safe. Good Samaritans keep working for justice, but justice someday won’t be enough. Good Samaritans refuse to leave anyone along the road in the meantime. That’s practicing mercy.
Today Jesus takes what could have been another legalistic argument, counting insiders and outsiders. Instead when asked “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus gets practical. Your neighbor is the person who treats you with dignity, who treats you with love, who treats you with mercy. You neighbor when you go and do likewise. So go and do likewise.