Equipped to Serve: The One Who Shows Mercy
March 5, 2017
There is no such thing as a bad question.
Isn’t this what we’ve been taught by our parents and teachers since we were in kindergarten, maybe even earlier? Isn’t this what we teach our own children?
While that may or may not be true, not all questions are equal. Certainly some questions are better than others, wouldn’t you agree?
Here’s the truth: the question you ask will influence the answer you receive. And learning how to ask the “better” questions in life is hugely important. So often, the question is just as important, if not more, than the answer.
In our Scripture passage today, it all begins with a question. A lawyer—that is, an expert in the Law of Moses—stand ups to test Jesus. Right away we get a window into this man’s motive. He wants to have a theological debate. And so he asks Jesus: “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
In classic rabbinic fashion, Jesus answers the lawyer’s question with a question of his own: “What is written in the Law of Moses? How do you interpret it?” Jesus senses the lawyer already thinks he knows the answer to the question he is asking. So he puts it back on the lawyer.
The lawyer quotes from the Shema—Dueteronomy 6:5: “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.” Then he adds this command from Leviticus 19:18: “And you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Sounds good, don’t you think? Love God, love your neighbor. Jesus himself would combine these two commandments and call them “the Greatest Commandment.”
Jesus says, “You have given the right answer; now go do it and you will live.” Do we hear in Jesus’ words a hint of skepticism? An awareness, perhaps, that this man is spiritually prideful. A man whose chest swells with certainty. He is looking for a check list of what he needs to do to inherit eternal life. He gives a good answer, you might even think the right answer, but Jesus says it’s about more than giving the right answer. It’s about how you live. It’s about action.
Then the lawyer asks his second question. “But wanting to justify himself…” Oh, I see. How many times have I done this myself? Wanting to justify himself…wanting to defend himself, make excuses for the way he was living his life. Wanting to prove himself righteous before God (in right relationship with God)…he clears his throat and asks, “And who is my neighbor?”
My friends? My family members? People who think like me and believe like me and look like me and act like me? Even though the Law of Moses was clear in certain parts that God’s people were called to welcome the foreigner, the immigrant, the refugee—the “Other,” the Jewish community had placed limits on their circle of concern. “Love of neighbor” had been reduced to “folk just like us.” And no doubt this lawyer was doing that already…and probably doing it really well!
So here we have the lawyer asking two questions:
What must I do to inherit eternal life?
Who is my neighbor?
They’re good questions. But are they the right questions? Or might there be “better” questions?
Jesus answers his questions by telling a story—this famous story of the Good Samaritan. “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho…” Hold on: Who is this man? What’s his name? What was his race or ethnicity? His religious affiliation? I want details, don’t you?
But Jesus doesn’t say. He just says “a man was going down the road…” The famous and very dangerous 17 mile road from Jerusalem, where the Temple is, to Jericho. He is jumped by robbers who strip him, beat him beyond recognition, and leave him unconscious and as good as dead. Two of the primary ways you identified the nationality and ethnicity of a person in the ancient world was by the clothes they wear and the language they speak.
But here this man lies, beaten and bloody and stripped of anything that would self-identify him or put him in “a group.” It’s nondescript. But could that be the point? Here is a man stripped of everything and shown simply to be a human being. A human being in need.
A priest passes by, on his way home from Jerusalem where he likely just completed his religious duties at the temple. The priest at least sees him, but steers to the side. Perhaps he was concerned that he would be defiled and made unclean by coming into too close proximity with a person nearly dead—and who knows what the nationality of this man. What if he is a Gentile? A sinner? According to religious codes (spelled out in the Sirach), God himself detests sinners and so a “good man” would not compromise his “goodness” by helping a filthy sinner.
Then comes a Levite. The Levite does not have the same religious responsibilities of the priest, but he is still a religious person who needs to avoid being defiled. Unlike the priest, the Levite not only sees the man but actually approaches him. But he does not do anything to help the man. Perhaps even more than the danger of religious defilement, the Levite is afraid of other robbers who may mug him and do the same to him. And who’s to say it’s not a trap? A scam? He fears for his own safety and security. So he keeps going.
Then comes the Samaritan. And this is the real shock in the story. You would expect a Jewish layperson—that would be the right progression: a priest, a Levite, a Jewish layperson. Never would you imagine a Samaritan. Samaritans were “half-breeds”—hated by the Jewish community. They were considered heretics—bad people. There had literally been centuries of hostility between Jews and Samaritans. It’s funny how often it’s the people who are closest to being like us who can become our greatest enemies.
But to the lawyer’s shock, it is the Samaritan who turns out to be the hero. He sees the man (like the priest and Levite), approaches the man (like the Levite), but then does what the other two failed to do. He is moved with compassion (talk about how this is about gut-wrenching response to the suffering of others) and takes enormous risks to help the man. Rescues him. Binds up his wounds, pours oil and wine on them. Takes the man to an inn and generously pays for him to be cared for.
Now, who do you think the lawyer would have identified with in this story? Not the priest. Not the Levite. And certainly not the despised Samaritan. Who’s left?
The unnamed man who fell between robbers, was stripped, beaten and left for dead. The man in the story who is in NEED of being rescued. Jesus confronts this lawyer’s sense of self-righteousness and spiritual pride…as he confronts all of us.
Do you remember the lawyer’s question that got this whole thing started? “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Well, what’s problematic about his question?
You don’t “do” something to “inherit” anything. It’s a contradiction of terms. An inheritance is something you can only receive as a gift because of the relationship you have with the giver.
The lawyer, confident in his own self-righteousness, thought he could earn eternal life by obeying God’s commands—even a command as important as the greatest commandment. What he couldn’t see, however, is that he was just as much in need of mercy as those whom he looked down upon as “sinners.” Jesus, in effect, is radically redefining the question. Instead of asking, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” the better question is this:
“What has God done to make me a worthy heir of eternal life?”
The answer: He is the One who shows mercy. How? By sending Jesus. One way to read the parable of the Good Samaritan is that Jesus is casting himself in the role of the Samaritan in the story—the outsider, the one who would be despised and rejected by his own people—who comes to us, and in an act of risky and vulnerable love, rescues us in our place of need, woundedness, death.
This man could not win God’s mercy. There is no checklist of things he must do to gain it. It can only be received as a gift of God’s grace through faith. The lawyer is the man on the road who fell among robbers. And so are you and I. We, every single one of us, are desperately in NEED of God’s mercy in Jesus.
The season of Lent has this recognition at its heart. Which is why the whole practice of confession and repentance is central to these forty days of making the journey with Jesus to the cross and the bright hope of Easter. For centuries, Christians have assumed a posture of humility, especially during Lent, and prayed the simple prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
We all sin and fall short of God’s glory. We are all wounded, lying on the side of the road, spiritually dead, in need of God’s mercy to come and rescue us, forgive us, bind up our wounds and make us whole.
And how does God show us mercy? How does he come to rescue us?
Like this: Jesus is not just the Samaritan in the story, but he also is the man who fell among robbers. In fact, the Samaritan is not the main character in the story. The main character is the man who fell among the thieves. I agree with the pastor and writer Robert Farrar Capon, who insists that the Parable of the Good Samaritan, like the Parable of the Prodigal Son, has been misnamed. It should be called “the Parable of the Man who Fell Among Thieves.”
This is how God’s rescue has come to us in Jesus. This is how God has shown us mercy. Not in success and victory as the world thinks of it. But in Jesus’ own suffering, rejection, and death. Will he not be the one who would fall among thieves—one on his right and one on his left—pinned on a cross, stripped naked, beaten beyond recognition, betrayed by all who loved him? This is what mercy looks like: a Savior on a cross with outstretched hands who says, “Father, forgive them.” In the words of Pope Francis: God’s mercy has a name, and it has a face; and that name and face is Jesus.
To receive such incredible mercy calls for a response on our part. As those who have been shown mercy, we are called, as disciples of Jesus, to show mercy to others.
And so Jesus radically reframes the lawyer’s second question, too. The lawyer asked, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus says, “Here’s the better question: Who became a neighbor to the man who fell among the thieves?”
In other words, the question is not, “Who do I have to show mercy to?” The question is now, “Am I becoming the kind of neighbor, by God’s grace, who shows mercy to any and every person in need?” And to whom am I specifically being called to love with mercy that Christ has shown me?
It is because of Christ’s mercy given to us that we are now forgiven, transformed, and equipped to be a neighbor to all others—to show mercy. We live a life of showing mercy, compassion, caring for others…not to win God’s mercy but because God has already shown us mercy. And this is what it means to take up the cross and follow Jesus. This is what it means to be a disciple. How did Dietrich Bonheoffer say it? I remember: “Once a man has truly experienced the mercy of God in his life he will henceforth aspire to serve.”
Mercy changes you. And it changes the way you see, feel and act towards others. Especially those who are most vulnerable and in need in our communities, nation and world.
As we begin the journey of Lent, we’re going to be focusing on Christ’s call, as those who’ve received mercy, to be a people who “henceforth aspire to serve.” To be a people who serve God and others by showing mercy.
And this call is not easy. It is not safe. It is risky. It is messy. And it is uncomfortable. Jesus will lead us to those who are not like us. And he will call us to love those whom are difficult to love, even those we consider enemies.
But the way you become more and more a person of mercy, a Christ-like neighbor to anyone in need, is simply by getting into action and doing it. You practice. You act like a neighbor. Even if you don’t feel like it.
There is no such thing as a bad question. But there are better questions. And sometimes learning to ask the right question is just as important, if not more, than getting the right answer. So let me offer you what I would consider “better” questions for you to ponder and wrestle with today:
In what ways are you trying to justify yourself before God? What would it look like for you today to simply receive this gift of mercy, to acknowledge your need for Christ’s love and grace, and to let him draw near and bind up your wounds?
And secondly, to whom is God calling you to be a neighbor and show mercy? What is one way you can get into action by showing mercy this next week?
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.