Who is on the Side of the Road?

Written for Saint Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 8th Sunday after Pentecost + July 10, 2016

Readings: Deuteronomy 30:9-14; Colossians 1:1-14; Luke 10:25-37 (Focus: Luke 10:25-37)


This week the parable of the Good Samaritan is too real. This week there are too many people bleeding on the side of the road, and there are too many people passing by.

“Here we are. Again.” That’s how Bishop Elizabeth Eaton began a video she released this week.“Here we are. Again. Just days apart, two African-American men were shot by police.”

Just hours after the ELCA released that video on Thursday night, news of even more violence flooded our phones, TVs, and radios: in Dallas five police officers were killed and seven wounded, two civilians were injured, and their attacker is dead.

My Facebook newsfeed has been full of reactions. Reactions of friends who are black and tired of feeling hopeless and unsafe and unheard. Reactions of friends who are white and wondering what they can do. Reactions of friends who know and love police officers and are worried for their safety.

Worst of all: these words are too familiar. They echo words from reactions to the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson in 2014 and the violent aftermath. They echo reactions from the killing of Emmett Till in 1955. They echo reactions to lynchings throughout our nation’s history.

Bishop Eaton’s message continued: “This is an all-too-frequent occurrence in our country, and I think it’s because we can’t see. We can’t see each other as fully children of God, and we tend to look at each other through the lens of suspicion and fear: communities of color wondering what an encounter with the police will bring; police and others in law enforcement automatically suspicious, it seems, of communities of color. We can’t see. And we need — we need to open our eyes.”

So maybe it’s a God-wink (as Pastor Metee would say) or a God-smack (as Marge Fottrell would say) that today’s gospel reading is the parable of the Good Samaritan. Most of the time when we hear this parable, we immediately think of acts of charity: bringing cans of soup and jars of peanut butter to a food pantry or stopping to help a stranger in need; we might think of organizations that have been named for this parable, like Samaritan’s Purse or the Good Samaritan Orphanage. And, yes, this parable does encourage us to charity and mercy. But I think its main point is to make us open our eyes and see each other differently. To see the people on the side of the road differently, for sure, but also to see ourselves differently.

Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan in response to a particular question. A lawyer had approached him and asked, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” — but that’s not the question that prompted the story. At that point Jesus basically responded: “You’re an educated man. What’s written in the Bible about this?” Sure enough, the man quotes Deuteronomy 6.5: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength,” and then Leviticus 19.18: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” And Jesus said, “Right answer! Good job.”

But the lawyer wasn’t satisfied yet. The Gospel says that, “wanting to justify himself,” he asked Jesus a follow-up question: “And who is my neighbor?” Who exactly am I obligated by God to love as myself?

Loving someone as we love ourselves is hard. It’s hard even with the people we really do love of our own accord, like our spouse or our children. And it can be even harder to love someone as we love ourselves when we have no love-feelings or family duty to them: strangers at the grocery store, or somebody who works in the same building but never really interacts with us. And then there’s the question of people we really actively dislike: people who mess up our plans, or who oppose us in debate…or war. There are people from other cultures and religions, people who are so different from us that we can hardly think of them as “us.” Surely the word “neighbor” implies more of a connection than all that. Surely there is a smaller circle of people God asks us to love as we love ourselves.

So the lawyer asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” — “a polite way of asking ‘Who’s not my neighbor?'”[1]— and Jesus responded with the story of the Good Samaritan.

But notice that at the end of the story Jesus didn’t ask, “Now do you see just who is your neighbor?” Even though that was the question the lawyer had asked, Jesus asked a different question to get to the moral of his story: “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” The lawyer replied, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said, “Go and do likewise.”

It almost reads like Jesus ignored the man’s question. Couldn’t he have said something clear, like, “Everyone is your neighbor, you schmuck,” instead of telling this story and asking a backwards question?

But if Jesus had done that, the lawyer may have walked away unchanged. The lawyer asked his question from one perspective, but Jesus didn’t answer from that perspective. Jesus’s question made the lawyer see himself and the world differently.

The lawyer asked a question that sounded like he was trying to better understand God’s commands, but he was still just thinking of himself and what was good for him. He was still seeing the people around him as an extension of himself. Who is my neighbor? Who am I required to love? Who can I get away with not caring about? Who’s in my circle, and who is out? That’s not love. That’s still just self-preservation.

Jesus’s story and question made this man see things differently. The obligation was not other people’s to fall into the circle of “neighbor” or to be lovable. The obligation was the lawyer’s: you be the neighbor. You go into the world and show mercy. This is not about defining them; it’s about defining you. If you are walking in God’s way, you will be the neighbor, you will be merciful. You will see all people through eyes of mercy.

In the aftermath of politically divisive tragedies like this week’s — the murder of African-American men, the murder of police officers, violence done to innocent bystanders — we too often fall back into the lawyer’s original way of seeing the world: self-preservation mode. We hole up. We refuse to consider different opinions or to give credibility to experiences different than our own. We want to keep the pain and the danger as far away from ourselves as possible, and so we ask, “But who is my neighbor?” and try to delineate who it is, exactly, that we are obligated to love as we love ourselves: whose point of view we are obligated to understand, whom we are obligated to show mercy. Surely not everyone.

And then we deny our own fundamental belief that all lives matter when we refuse to try and understand the cry “black lives matter,” to understand that that cry comes from the side of the road and out of the experience of watching so many people pass by while suffering goes on and on and on. If the phrase “Black lives matter” bothers you, try hearing it as a question, a plea from the side of the road: don’t black lives matter, too?

Maybe all that rhetoric makes better sense on a local, personal level. The Franklin homepage published a story this week about a local African-American attorney. After this week’s tragedies, he posted on his Facebook page: “We can figure out how to act later, but I just wanted to know – do y’all care? Do you know that I identify with these men, and do you see that?”

As Christians, we are called to see. To hear the cries from the side of the road. To be the neighbor, to show mercy — generously. Abundantly. We are called to change perspectives: to leave behind the perspective of the Levite and the priest who pass by — their perspective of self-preservation that asks, “If I stop to help, what will happen to me?” and to take on the perspective of the Good Samaritan — the perspective of mercy that asks, “If I don’t stop to help, what will happen to him?” [2]

In the political sphere and in the media, people may argue: Who is right? Who is wrong? Who deserved what? Who is justified?

But for Christians, the question ought to be much simpler than that: Who is on the side of the road? How can we help? How can we show mercy?


Notes:

[1]  Amy-Jill Levine, “Go and Do Likewise,” America, September 29, 2014. Online: http://americamagazine.org/issue/go-and-do-likewise

[2] The questions of the Levite/Priest and the Samaritan are taken from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speech “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” delivered April 3, 1968, Mason Temple (Church of God in Christ Headquarters), Memphis, TN. Full text of speech available at http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlkivebeentothemountaintop.htm [Quoted in Levine, “Go and Do Likewise.”]