Luke 10: 25-37
Preached by Rev. Dr. Jason Haddox
George Zimmerman was found innocent of the death of Trayvon Martin yesterday in Florida. He was not found guilty on a lesser charge. He was judged altogether innocent of wrongdoing by the jury. And yet he pulled the trigger that took the life of another human being. No matter what the motivation was, no matter what he imagined he was doing in that moment, no matter what the judge and jury and media have said, nothing in heaven or on earth can undo that act. And it was an act motivated by racial division. Whatever fear and anxiety was at work that day in that neighborhood to bring those events to pass, the divisions and fears of race and class were present. For that is who we are, as a people. It is in the air we breathe. It is part of our life together, part of the culture in which we live. “Us and Them,” however we draw the lines. Have mercy, Lord, for we are sinners in your sight.
This morning Jesus is asked by an expert teacher of the Hebrew scriptures and traditions, “How may I inherit zohn aionion (Greek). The phrase is translated “eternal life”, but it might also be translated “the life of eternity.” The question has to do with the present: how does a person participate in that way of life NOW, never mind sometime later after death. This question is about the Kingdom of God, which Jesus has been proclaiming and enacting all along—how does one enter into that living reality? In other words, how does one live “in the world, but not of the world” as we know it? And is that even possible?
Jesus answers not by listing “Do this, that and the other thing” but by asking another question: “What do you read, O thou expert in the scriptures and the traditions? You know the book as well as I do.” This scholar of the scriptures and traditions replies with words taken from two separate locations in the Hebrew Bible: Love God with everything you are (Deut. 6:4-5); love your neighbor as yourself (Lev. 19:18).” Very good, Jesus replies. You get 100% on the quiz!
But then our resident know-it-all asks another question: “Who is my neighbor?” The implied question-behind-the-question is “Who is NOT my neighbor? Who can I ignore--who am I allowed to cut from the guest list?” Jesus does not answer the question; instead he tells a story.
The idea of a Good (or better, Merciful or Neighborly) Samaritan is, for Jesus’ audience that day, an absolute contradiction in terms. The enmity between Samaritans and the people of Jerusalem and Judea went back for centuries—they had as little to do with one another as possible. They were distantly related, many generations in the past, but now they had no use for one another and often went out of their way to avoid interacting with each other.
Jesus tells a story of a man traveling in dangerous territory, who was attacked, mugged, beaten, and left for dead. Those community leaders, both religious and secular, who saw this man and should have stopped to help one of their own, kept on walking. The person who by all societal norms would have been expected to walk on by, perhaps even with a gesture of disdain, sees what has happened, stops, and goes to great lengths to help the man, naked and half-dead, who had fallen into the hands of robbers. This is scandalous, even disgusting! It’s not supposed to work that way! Both Jesus and his hearers know that—and that is exactly the point.
In telling the story of a Samaritan who does the deeds of a neighbor, Jesus turns his hearers’ treasured stereotype on its head. The Samaritan, the hated enemy of all who heard that parable, embodies what it means to be a person of “zohn aionion”; he is the one who demonstrates what it means to be neighbor; he is the one who does the deeds, and lives in the way, the domain, the eternal life of God’s kingdom, even on an isolated desert road, vulnerable, surrounded by danger and uncertainty. He is not merely being kind to another person (as good a thing as that may be); he embodies God’s kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven. Christ, the Word of God Incarnate, points to one assumed to be utterly incapable of even knowing the truth of God as the only one who understands it at all.
And take note: Jesus himself will shortly be given into the hands of those who will beat him, strip him, and leave him for dead along a public roadside. In a sense Jesus is telling this story on himself. He will be the one, there on the side of the road, beaten and bloodied. Who is it then that will show pity to Jesus in his sufferings? Where does one discover Jesus in his sorrows?
We find Jesus in every place of suffering and sorrow. In all those situations, in all those lives, that are broken and hurting and half-dead. The big obvious ones on the nightly news; the little tiny ones we ignore and hurry past on the street or the sidewalk. Jesus is there, in all of that mess. And that is where Jesus—hiding, disguised as one of the least, the lost, the insignificant and the dead—looks for us to meet him.
Jesus is there even in our own brokenness and pain and death—all the little deaths, on the way to the big final one. And when we ourselves are hurting and broken and half-dead or worse, Jesus comes and finds us, in ways and in the appearance of neighbors, perhaps even Merciful Enemies, who may be surprising, or even distressful or unwelcome to us.
Because we don’t like letting go of control. We want to know who’s in and who’s out. We want to know with certainty where the lines between “Our People” and “Them People” lie. We live our lives trying to manage our own lists of acceptable and unacceptable, worthy and unworthy. “Who is my neighbor?” we ask, along with the expert in the law and traditions this morning. Jesus gives him—and us—no answer, but a story.
I want to tell you a story. A confession, in fact.
In the spring of 2010 I was living in Bloomfield, New Jersey, a comfortable suburban area just a short train ride from New York City. One afternoon I walked downtown to do some errands, and was returning home when I realized someone was walking behind me. I glanced back and saw a young man, in his late teens or early twenties, walking maybe eight or ten feet behind me at about the same speed as I. We were on a sidewalk beside a busy major street in broad daylight. I had no reason to be anxious or nervous, but I suddenly realized that I was both of those things. I wondered as I walked: “Why do I feel uneasy in this situation?” And it hit me like a slap in the face: because of the color of this young man’s skin. I was white; he was black. And that was all it took to cause me to wonder…and I was horrified. Horrified that I had thought such thoughts and felt such feelings, even subconsciously; horrified that there was THAT in me that would create such an imagined scenario. Without a single justifiable reason, I had glanced once over my shoulder at this young man and judged him. I had assumed him to be a potential threat.
I went home that afternoon and cried. For myself, and for him, and for all of us. Because we’ve been trained, you and I, and all of us. “You’ve got to be carefully taught,” as the words of Oscar Hammerstein II in the musical South Pacific remind us—to fear those who are different, who are strange, who are “not our kind of people.” This fear and suspicion of one another is not natural; it is taught and learned and reinforced. And it can be otherwise. It can be different. We can learn to live another way, according to a different set of priorities. Jesus tells the story of an enemy who is a neighbor, to shock his hearers into seeing that the lines we draw around ourselves, to protect ourselves and hold one another at arms’ length are not God’s lines. And then he goes to the cross, where he opens his arms, to show us how generous, how deep and broad and high the wide-embracing circle of God’s love really is.
What is your story? Of a time, a person, a situation, that shattered some belief you had held about “them people”? That caught you up by the scruff of the neck and demanded something—that what you’d always thought, or been told by those around you, could not be thought, could not be held as true, any more? That drew the circle wider than you’d ever imagined it could be?
This is metanoia. This is the place of the turning, where the armor of supposed knowledge we build for ourselves breaks, and the zohn aionion, the life in eternity, the Kingdom of God, can break in and take us over.
My sisters and brothers, may it be so for us. May it be so among us.