July 14, 2013

Eighth Week after Pentecost, Year C

But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

This lawyer, also known as a scribe, who is trained to be an expert in the Mosaic Law, stands up to test Jesus and asks him what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus responds with a question, in effect, “What do you think?” To which the lawyer responds with what we know as “The Great Commandment,” to love God with your whole being and your neighbor as yourself. Jesus affirms his answer and says you already know what to do, now go and do it. But the lawyer, as lawyers sometimes do, wants to parse this a bit finer and discover the limits of who his neighbor might be. So Jesus tells him a story to answer his question. But at the end of the story, rather than asking the obvious question, “Who is the neighbor?” Jesus asks a different question, “Which of these three was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” Turning the lawyer’s question back on him. To which the lawyer answers, “the one who showed him mercy.”

One of the best known figures in the New Testament is not a historical person, but a character in a story told by Jesus. Jesus does not give this character a name, but refers to him as a member of a particular ethnic group. This character is identified simply as "a Samaritan."

The people who hear Jesus tell this story are shocked by the identity of its hero. They view a good Samaritan as a contradiction in terms. The Jewish contemporaries of Jesus regard themselves as the good guys and Samaritans as the bad guys. They detest Samaritans, and Samaritans detest them.

This hatred between Samaritan and Jew is already many generations old when Jesus tells his story. You might say this is a family feud, because Jews and Samaritans are distantly related, dating back 700 years to the time when Assyria invaded and conquered the northern portion of Israel and intermarried with the Jews living there.

Jesus shocks his fellow Jews when he tells this story about a Samaritan who is a model of compassion, one who cares for an injured stranger who’s likely one of their own, a Jew beaten by robbers on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho.

"Good Samaritan" is an oxymoron to the Jews, no Samaritan can be good. The story does not scandalize us though because we don’t get the hostility the Jewish lawyer would have felt for the heretical Samaritan whom Jesus makes the hero.

Yet the story does bother us for other reasons. The Samaritan who demonstrates compassion toward the robbery victim we find to be something of a threat. The Samaritan demonstrates that acting with compassion requires that we take risks and spend resources and do so without any guarantees.

His example of compassion may threaten our security, upset our sense of control. We too are on the road from some Jerusalem to some Jericho, and we can’t afford to be delayed. It seems better to be among those who pass by in safety on the other side.

But when we look at the victim’s face — bruised, bloody, unconscious — we are hit with a shock of recognition. That poor face - is our face! We are the victim, attacked by robbers, stripped, beaten, and left half dead. You are there and so am I, lying in the grass beside the road, and so is every man, woman, and child. It’s the human race that’s been mugged and abandoned by the road.

There comes someone to help us. Someone of a despised and alien race. Someone we fear. We want to keep our distance. But he does not fear us. He takes risks in approaching, and spends resources on our recovery with no guarantee we will ever thank him. Even to us, who by thought and word and action may appear to despise him, this Samaritan shows compassion. For once we learn his name. His name is Jesus.

So, you see, Jesus does not simply tell this story. He lives out this story. He is the first and foremost Samaritan.

In his incarnation, life, ministry, death, and resurrection, Jesus approaches us, the human race, sad and sorry sight that we are, beaten senseless and half dead by the robbers of despair, disease, and death. He anoints and bandages our wounds, caring for them at the price of his cross. He makes us members of his body, that we may share his divine life.

He takes us to an inn, a hospital, a place of safety and health, underwriting our expenses out of his abundant mercy, leaves us in the innkeeper’s care, and promises to settle accounts when he returns again.

Jesus takes the risk of approaching us, though the evil powers of his day assault and nail him to the cross. He dares to draw near, though all too often we treat him as an enemy, and through our thoughts, words, and actions we behave as though he were a stranger to us.

Jesus spends his resources to heal us and does this freely. His cross is medicine for the world, his flesh and blood our food for eternal life. And all too often we remain unconscious of this grace.

Jesus does this for us, but the story is not yet complete. Do we recover from life’s assault? Do we ever thank our Samaritan? He acts compassionately, but with no assurance from us. Placed in the inn, we await his return.

It is in that inn we find ourselves on this Sunday morning. He has made provision for us, above all at the welcome table of this inn, this hospital, this place of safety and health.

May we feast and rejoice, thankful for his mercy, eager for his return.

May we show to others assaulted on life’s road what he shows to us: that risky, spendthrift love which asks no return, the love of a compassionate and merciful God.