The One Who Showed Mercy
By The Rev. Lorraine Diaz
Sunday, July 14, 2019
Reading: Luke 10:25-37
When our church group journeys to Israel next year, at some point we will be traveling on the road between Jerusalem and Jericho that is the setting of one of Jesus’ best-known parables, the Parable of the Good Samaritan. It will be a lot safer for us, thank goodness! In Jesus’ time, the road was known as the “Way of Blood” because it was notorious for robbers, and solitary travelers were especially vulnerable to violent attacks, just like the victim in this parable who was left for dead on the side of the road.
Our group won’t have to worry about being robbed on the road when we go, though. For us, the biggest worry is that the bus might break down and we’d all have to walk the journey up to Jerusalem! With Jericho being about 825 feet below sea level and Jerusalem sitting about 2500 feet above sea level, the relatively short distance of 18 miles makes for a steep incline. Don’t worry, though, we won’t be walking that road! We may have a runner or two who see it as a good opportunity to do some hill sprints!
Another difference between our time and Jesus’ time is the idea of the term “good Samaritan.” It has taken on a certain cultural significance now, even for people who didn't go to Sunday School and who never read the Bible. To say that ‘he or she was a regular good Samaritan’ has come to be used to refer to anyone who does a good deed; someone who is generally a helpful or kind person.
The “Idioms Dictionary” online gives examples of how the term “good Samaritan” is used in contemporary popular culture, and the examples include things like: “The beggar was lying shivering on the road when a good Samaritan came along and gave him a blanket and some warm clothes;” and: “He is really a good Samaritan. Every time he sees someone needing help, he jumps in and helps them.”
In the cultural context in which Jesus tells this parable, though, as far as the Jews were concerned there was nothing good about Samaritans; Samaritans were hated by the Jews, and the feeling was decidedly mutual. There was a centuries-long enmity between them that is still reflected in the tense relationship between Palestinians and Jews to this very day. So the idea that Jesus would tell a parable about a “good Samaritan” would give his listeners a moment or two of hesitation. Even the lawyer, when asked who was the neighbour, does not respond by saying “the Samaritan,” but “the one who showed mercy.”
Jesus himself didn’t actually call the Samaritan “good.” He just set the scene, and then the lawyer – that is, a scholar or expert in Mosaic (OT) Law – who had come to test Jesus was the one to determine that the Samaritan had been a neighbour to the dying man, because he had been the one to show mercy. Well, the lawyer would have known, and clearly did know (because he just said it), that loving and showing mercy to a neighbour was the highest calling of the Mosaic law, and here, Jesus shows that it was someone who was not even Jewish who fulfilled the requirement of the law of Moses, while the religious elite failed. The idea that a Samaritan was the one who would inherit the Kingdom of God, and not the religious elite, would have been unthinkable – even shocking! – to Jesus’ listeners.
Really, though, it makes you wonder: why would a scholar and expert in Jewish law even ask a carpenter, “who is my neighbour?” How could it be that he wouldn’t know? Well, it says that he came to test Jesus; he wanted to catch Jesus in some kind of heresy that he could use against him. So, he wasn’t asking because he didn’t know, but because he doesn’t want to love other people. It was a trick question.
Specifically, he wanted to be able to define “neighbour” in such a way that he only has to love the people he wants to love, or the people who will love him back, the people who are lovely. He wanted to be able to excuse his lack of love for others who he knew he should be loving; he wanted to excuse his lack of mercy and compassion.
But Jesus’ parable begins with two people who, in that context, would have had a perfectly legitimate excuse for not helping: a priest and a Levite. The priest would have daily religious duties in the temple; and the Levite was a member of the tribe of Levi, which was the priestly tribe of Israel, and so even if he wasn’t an actual priest himself, he was an official with religious duties to perform.
For both of these people, the injured man on the road posed a problem. According to Jewish law at the time, if anyone touched a dead body they were declared ritually unclean for a period of time – a day or two – and during that time of ritual impurity, they wouldn’t be able to enter the Temple. So if the Priest and the Levite tried to help the man, and it turned out he was already dead, then not only could nothing be done to help him, but they also wouldn’t be able to perform their important “religious duties.”
But that was not the only “legitimate” excuse they had for not helping. Martin Luther King Jr., in his "I've Been to the Mountaintop" speech, on the day before his death, describes his thoughts when he and his wife traveled that road during their own trip to Israel:
“As soon as we got on that road I said to my wife, ‘I can see why Jesus used this as the setting for his parable.’ It's a winding, meandering road ... In the days of Jesus it came to be known as the "Bloody Pass." And you know, it's possible that the priest and the Levite looked over that man on the ground and wondered if the robbers were still around. Or it's possible that they felt that the man on the ground was merely faking, and he was acting like he had been robbed and hurt in order to seize them over there, lure them there for quick and easy seizure. And so, the first question that the priest asked, the first question that the Levite asked was, "If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?"
If I stop and help this person, what will happen to me? Isn’t it a question we’ve all asked ourselves when faced with a person in need, or someone asking us for help? What will be the consequences – there may be financial, temporal, or even emotional consequences. What will I have to sacrifice, if I help this person in need? My time? My money? My security? My comfort?
It’s not that we don’t care. We genuinely feel bad for people in need, but which one of us hasn’t walked by on the other side, or avoided making eye contact, or changed the channel on the TV, or thrown the appeal letter into the recycling bin?
The problem is, the needs of the world are so great we become overwhelmed! How can we possibly help everyone?
The overwhelming need we see in the world can cause us to build up a callous on our hearts to protect ourselves, even though we still can’t escape that twinge of guilt as we walk by, or turn away. And so, we come up with excuses to let ourselves off the hook, many of them perfectly legitimate. The Priest’s and the Levite’s excuses were perfectly legitimate. We try to think of all the reasons why we shouldn’t help, and we convince ourselves to walk on by. We know we’re supposed to love our neighbour, but like the lawyer, we try to find ways to define “neighbour” in a way that we can help the ones who are lovable, but not get involved with the ones who will inconvenience our lives. When Jesus says, “go and do likewise,” though, this does not depend on the other person being lovable; it’s a call for us to be loving. Love does not depend on the receiver, but on the giver.
In 1993, Reverend Bennie Newton was watching the Los Angeles race riots on TV, which were unfolding just steps from his own home. Horrified by the sight of thugs violently assaulting people, he rushed down to the scene.
By the time he arrived, the mob had pulled a construction worker, Fidel Lopez, from his truck, robbed him, bashed his forehead open with a car stereo, and even tried to slice his ear off. Then they stripped him naked and spray painted the married father’s body. Reverend Newton threw himself over Lopez’s body, yelling “Kill him and you’ll have to kill me, too!”
Shamed back to reality, the crowd dispersed while the minister prayed in the street for Lopez to regain consciousness. When he could not hail an ambulance, Newton drove Lopez to the hospital himself.
Who was the neighbour? The one who showed mercy.
How many of us feel confident that we would have done the same thing? I don’t…I like to think I would have the courage to do that, to rush in and risk my life to prevent such horrible wrongdoing and protect an innocent person under attack; but I am not confident at all that I would. I think I would be strongly inclined to stay safe in my home and not get involved in this violent situation; and I would have a perfectly legitimate excuse. Nobody would blame me; in fact, most people would probably warn me precisely not to go out and help.
Reverend Newton, an admirable man of faith, modeled his actions on the one who did have that courage; on the one who put the needs of others ahead of his own; on the one who showed mercy – Jesus. In telling the story of the Good Samaritan Jesus, in fact, foreshadows the mercy, the kind of self-sacrificial love for the world that he himself will offer before much longer.
Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan to show that God was not just the God of Israel, but the God who created, loves, and extends mercy to the whole world, including the Jews’ staunchest enemies, the Samaritans. The listeners are faced with the question of whether they can look at their most hated enemies – the Samaritans – and see in them a neighbour; to see a neighbour in someone who is different, someone who is an outsider; whether they can see in the Samaritan a person who is worthy of mercy and worthy of love, especially the love of God. Because according to Jesus’ parable the Samaritan did see the injured Jewish “enemy” lying on the on the side of the road as worthy of mercy and love, even though he was not in a position to ask for it or even appreciate what was being done for him.
In Jesus’ parable, it’s important to distinguish that the Samaritan did not grudgingly help someone who was begging him for help. The Samaritan saw a person in need and he took the initiative; he took the first step to extend love, even though the other person didn’t (couldn’t) ask for his love; even though the person couldn’t love him back.
Not only did he take the initiative, the “Good Samaritan” “went the extra mile” with the injured man, which was another of Jesus’ teachings from the Sermon on the Mount. He could have just given the man some water, put a blanket over him, and bandaged his wounds before continuing on to wherever he was going. Even that would have been more than what the Priest and Levite did.
But what he did was give self-sacrificial love. He made personal sacrifices in order to help the person in need. First, he gave up his time, interrupting his own journey to instead go on a different journey to a place he hadn’t intended. Second, he sacrificed his own comfort, putting the injured man on his donkey while he himself walked the treacherous road on foot. Third, he gave his own money. He gave the innkeeper two denarii out of his own pocket, which was roughly the equivalent of two days’ wages for a labourer (probably a few hundred dollars today).
And this, Jesus makes clear, is how God loves us; how Jesus himself loves us, with a love that is willing to sacrifice everything of value for us, right down to his very own life. Even when we were lost in sin, or self-centeredness, when we were wrapped up in our own lives and ignoring God; even when we were living with our backs to God as though He was some kind of enemy, God saw us worthy of His love and took the initiative to reach out to us and give us everything we need to nurse us back into fullness of life.
And so Jesus says to those who would be children of God, “Go and do likewise.” We are called to “go and do likewise.” To give to others the self-sacrificial love that God gives to us. But with all the need in the world, how can we possibly help everyone who needs help?
We can’t, but Christ can. The only way we can “do likewise” is by connecting to Christ. He is the vine, and we are the branches, and all of our power comes from Him. The church, the body of Christ, bonding together can “do likewise.” As individuals, it is impossible for us to solve the problem of the needs around us in our community and in the world. Even if we wanted to, we could become overwhelmed by the needs we encounter just walking from the church to the subway over on Yonge street.
But throughout the world, communities of Christians have taken the initiative to address the needs of those who are most vulnerable. It’s true that sometimes the church has made grave mistakes, and ended up hurting people and we have had to repent of that. But throughout history, the Christian church has done far, far more good for society than harm.
Churches have opened hospitals, shelters for those who are homeless or abused, soup kitchens and breakfast clubs. The very first “Sunday Schools” were not at all the same as what we have now, but were set up to teach children to read who were living in poverty and unable to afford school fees. They used the Bible to fight illiteracy, thus giving these children hope for a better future.
Christians worked together to abolish slavery in many parts of the world and to fight for the rights of women. The social gospel movement in Canada in the earlier part of the twentieth century was responsible for many of the social security programs we now take for granted.
Christian charities like World Vision and Compassion Canada help children in the poorest countries of the world access clean water, medicine and educational opportunities, and are good examples of the care and love being given internationally by so many churches and Christian groups. Another is Water Ambassadors, a Christian charity whose stated mission is: “To respond to the global need for clean water and to reach some of the most remote communities in developing countries in the name of Jesus Christ.”
Our own church has taken many initiatives to serve those in need, including the Churches on the Hill Food Bank, for which all the Christian churches of various denominations came together in the name of our one Lord to feed the hungry in the surrounding neighbourhoods. Many people show mercy by giving food and money or by giving their time to serve the clients or to help with the annual food drive.
Our refugee committee saw the desperate need of families and individuals forced to leave their homelands in order to save their lives and took the initiative to begin the sponsorship process for 3 families. These members of our church community work very, very hard to raise funds and tend to the practical needs of families trying to set up a new life in a foreign country. They secure and furnish homes, arrange for educational opportunities and language training, tend to their health care, often including much-needed dental work.
Our El Hogar team is a group of individuals who go each year to Honduras to help support this school for children who are orphaned and living in poverty, giving them love and mercy and hope in the name of Christ.
While we could easily become overwhelmed if we tried to meet all the needs of the world on our own, there are so many opportunities for us to “go and do likewise” by supporting in a sacrificial way in the Christian missions that are already doing great work throughout the world. Together, in the name of Christ and by the power of the Holy Spirit, we can do so much more than any one of us can do individually.
Christ will put people in our lives for us to serve. We’ll have opportunities to support these initiatives with our time and finances. We’ll also come across individual situations where we have the choice to offer the self-sacrificial love of the Samaritan or not. There will be times when we know someone is ill or grieving or in need, and we’ll have the choice to take the initiative to reach out to them to offer our help, to give of our time, our comfort and our resources to someone else. And you will have the opportunity to be “the one who showed mercy.” Amen.