Sermon preached by the Rev. Lowell E. Grisham, Rector
St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Fayetteville, Arkansas
July 11, 2010; 7 Pentecost; Proper 10, Year C
Episcopal Revised Common Lectionary
(Luke 10:25-37) – 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."
I remember being troubled by this story as a child. It bothered me that the priest walked by the injured man, crossing to the far side of the road. Our priest at St. Peter's in Oxford, Mr. Gray, was one of the nicest people I knew. I couldn't imagine him ignoring someone hurt in the road like that. What kind of priest would be that way? It didn't make sense to me.
And once I was ordained – I was a priest – well, I really didn't like it then. I don't want to be that kind of priest. But am I? Sometimes?
On our pilgrimage to the Holy Land during this past Lent, we looked down upon the famous road between Jerusalem and Jericho. It follows the Wadi Qelt, a deep valley that sometimes turns into a water channel. The path winds through a barren, rocky wilderness, twisting the seventeen miles distance "as the crow flies" between Jerusalem and Jericho. Travelers climb or descend, depending on the direction they are walking, from 800 feet below sea level in Jericho to 2500 feet above sea level in Jerusalem.
In some places the path is fairly spacious and flat, but in others it is constrained by very narrow passages, with overhanging cliffs, and sharp turns that leave a walker blind to what might be just around the turn. There are many places that are convenient for ambush.
In Jesus' day the oasis city of Jericho was a preferred home for many who served the Temple. There were an estimated 12,000 priests who lived in Jericho who took turns serving their two-week duties in the Jerusalem Temple. Many Levites, who assisted the priests in their sacred duties, also lived in Jericho. They would travel between home and Temple via the Wadi Qelt.
Let's leave the geography for a moment, and go back to the conversation between Jesus and the lawyer. Jesus is a rabbi. The word translated "lawyer" really means "scribe," one who is a scholar of the scriptures and whose work is to interpret the Mosaic Law. It was traditional, and a common custom, for scribes and others to question rabbis, both to test the rabbi and to learn from him. It would have been perfectly normal for a scribe to ask Jesus a question such as, "What must I do to inherit eternal life?"
And it was not uncommon for a rabbi to answer a question with a question: "What is written in the law? What do you read there?" A perfectly appropriate question for a legal scholar.
The scribe answers well. First he quotes the famous Shema from Deuteronomy 6 – "Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might." Then he combines that great commandment with the teaching of Leviticus 19 on the love of neighbor. This answer is the correct answer, and might have been given by any scribe or rabbi of the first or the twenty-first century.
But then the lawyer asks for more clarity. "And who is my neighbor?" There is a correct answer to this question as well. The correct, conventional answer to this question is "a member of one's family." Let's go to Leviticus 19 to understand that orthodox answer.
Much of Hebrew scripture is composed of parallelisms. Parallelisms express one idea in two ways. They say the same thing in two parallel forms. An example from the Psalms (119:105): "Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path." One idea expressed two ways. Or from Proverbs (3:1): My son, my teachings you shall not forget and my commands your heart shall guard." Parallelism is one of the most common forms of expression in the Hebrew Bible.
So let's look at the parallelism that expresses the sense of the conventional interpretation of love of neighbor as self, from Leviticus 19. "You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself." That's the first parallel phrase. And the second is like unto it: "You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord."
You shall not hate your kin; you shall not begrudge your people. You shall reprove your neighbor; you shall love your neighbor as yourself. Your neighbor is your kin, your people. Your neighbor is your blood relative. You owe the obligation to "love your neighbor as yourself" to the members of your own family. That's the traditional answer to the question, "Who is my neighbor?"
Now in that day, that answer could include a lot of people. Extended families of three or four generations commonly lived under one roof. And entire communities could make their connections with one another through their genealogies.
It's important to know this, because when the lawyer asked Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?" he expected Jesus to give him the right answer: "Your neighbor is any member of your family." That's not the answer Jesus gave.
"A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho..." As so many had before him, the man fell afoul of robbers. It is an important detail that they "stripped him." You could usually identify someone's origins by their dress. There were distinctive regional cloths and patterns, and even unique village markers of dress. There is no way to tell if someone who is stripped is "one of us" or "one of them." One of my neighbors, my family, or an "other." He is left half dead. Or can you tell whether he is really whole dead?
Enter two travelers on the Wadi Qelt, a priest and a Levite. They are either traveling to Jerusalem to fulfill their scheduled duty, or eagerly returning home after two-weeks' service in the Temple. They know the law. If a priest comes within six feet of a corpse, the priest becomes unclean. If he is headed toward the Temple, and he encounters a corpse, he could not assume his tasks until he went through the lengthy process of purification. If he is headed home and nears a corpse, he must turn around, climb all the way back to Jerusalem, and be cleansed before he can return to his family. It is the same for the Levite. Any listener to Jesus' story would have understood this. Who is the half-dead stranger? Probably not family. Maybe he is actually dead, an unclean corpse. Everyone would have agreed with the caution of the priest and the Levite. Besides, that is a dangerous road. Who knows whether the stranger lying there is just a trap? Are there robbers just around that rock?
"A Samaritan while traveling came near him..." Jesus' words would have thundered like a bomb going off. "A Samaritan." The word was an obscenity to Jews. It was the worst insult one Jew could call another. "You Samaritan!" Nothing could be nastier. The story presumes the man in the ditch is a Jewish man.
Imagine yourself as the man in the ditch. Is there anyone who you really do not want coming by here, seeing you, and offering help? Is there someone that you would rather die rather than to accept help from them? You would rather die than to let them think well of themselves by helping you? A Samaritan.
Or thinking from the other direction. Is there anyone who would rather walk by you and ignore you, letting you die rather than to help you? A Samaritan.
For Vanderbilt New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine, who is Jewish, that person today for her is someone from Hamas. We might imagine that person as an Islamic terrorist. "An Islamic terrorist while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity."
The Samaritan provides first aid and takes the wounded man to an inn. A Jewish inn. A Samaritan taking an injured Jewish man to a Jewish inn... Imagine the Wild West. An Indian brings a scalped white man into the town's hotel. That's risky compassion. Everybody knows Samaritans don't take risks to show kindness to Jews. Everybody knows Al-Qaeda doesn't take risks to show kindness to Americans, the Great Satan.
The story has ended. Jesus looks at the lawyer. "Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?" The lawyer can't say the word. He can't say, "Samaritan." I imagine he answers with clenched teeth, "The one who showed him mercy."
Jesus said to him, "Go and do likewise."
Who is your neighbor? To whom are we called to offer kindness? To whom dare we refuse kindness? Who is not our neighbor? How would Jesus have us answer?
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