They do nothing. They don’t ask if he’s ok. They don’t leave him food. They simply keep moving. They act like they didn’t see.
How many deaths will it take til he knows that too many people have died? -Bob Dylan
We can give the right answer and still be wrong. Such is one of the many profound lessons in the story of the Good Samaritan.
The Lawyer had the right answer. He did. Love God and love neighbor with all we have. That’s the right answer. But he wanted a loophole. We want loopholes. He wanted to vindicate himself. He wanted to be free of the burden of God’s love. And the burden of God’s love is the burden of compassionate kindness (aka mercy) and a thirst for right relationship (aka justice). I’ve said it before… a theologian by the name of Jon Sobrino said that mercy and faithfulness can only be known when tested.
Burdens and thirst will test a playa.
So Jesus stopped the theoretical exercise of what it means to love our neighbor. Jesus stopped our appeals to scripture to justify our apathy. Jesus stops our appeals to wack theology that vindicates us and our malice…. and he told a parable that forces us to consider the true stakes.
Scripture without Love Is Meaningless.
Much ink had been spilled over the motivation of the Levite and Priest. For centuries scholars have debated why they didn’t help. Even MLK gave his opinion. He thought the brothers were scared. He once said that they thought about themselves and what would happen to them if they stopped. In other words, the priest and Levite may have thought they would get suckered or robbed too. King said, they failed to ask the more important question: “what will happen to this man if I don’t help?” King said the question of (God’s) love, the question of compassionate kindness is not “what will happen to me if I stop and help?”–the question is “what will happen to others if I don’t stop and help?”
Questions concerning the priest and Levite’s motivations abound. But I don’t want to go there today. You see, I’m starting to think and understand their justifications were as pointless as their occupations. Their justification for why they didn’t stop were empty, and their occupation as priest and Levite were empty because they, like the lawyer, should have known the command to love God and neighbor. And here is what they reveal: scripture without love is meaningless. Some Christians quote scripture and have the “right answers” but will justify why we don’t see ourselves in a desperate refugee. Those who preach the love of God are sometimes mum when blatant injustice and suffering humanity stare them in the face. There can be all sorts of reasons why we don’t speak or act. Some of them are legitimate. But even the legitimate becomes illegitimate in the face of suffering, even the suffering of strangers. Some Christians and well-meaning folk use the justifications of nationalism and “law and order” to excuse ourselves of the burden of compassionate kindness. But those justifications are just as empty as our title of Christian or “well-meaning.” If being concerned with the suffering of human beings–no matter their origin– makes me unpatriotic, then fine. I’d rather be unpatriotic than unchristian. I’d rather be unpatriotic than inhuman.
“You shall have no other gods before me.”
If the price of admission to any group means to deny the worth and suffering of others, then, that group is not worth the price of admission.
“Love your neighbor as yourself.”
And who is my neighbor?
We don’t know who the man is that fell into the hands of robbers. Jesus withheld his personal info on purpose. Jesus wanted that man who was robbed to remain a stranger. We really don’t know him. We don’t know if he’s bad. We don’t know if he’s good. We don’t know if he’s a family man. Don’t know if he’s a thief and is getting robbed after he robbed somebody. We don’t know if he’s Jewish. We don’t know if he’s American. We don’t know if he’s Samaritan. We don’t know if he’s Honduran. We don’t know. And that’s the point. We don’t know people’s stories. We don’t know what folk have gone through and the first way we seek to get out of love and mercy is by painting the unknown in broad strokes. We’ll slather paint on an opaque person from a distance instead of letting them reveal their colors to us from up close. Jesus didn’t give us any information concerning the man because he knows us… some of us would try to find every reason to justify his fate in order to excuse ourselves from helping him.
The world’s mercy is only concerned about lesser evils.
We know the motivation of the robbers. They wanted his possessions. But here’s something that’s easy to miss. They could have killed this man. But they didn’t. They had the power to kill but they didn’t. That’s a form of the worlds “mercy.” It’s a faint comparison to God’s mercy because this mercy must commit violence in order to show it was lenient. It’s the kind of mercy that says, “be thankful I didn’t take all your lunch money.” It’s the mercy that says, “be thankful I only gave you one black eye. I coulda given you two.” It’s the mercy that says, “be thankful I only gave you 10 years instead of 20, even though these charges are trumped up.” It’s the mercy of saying we have these men, women, and children we are separating from one another but at least “we are providing shelter.” This is the world’s “mercy.” It’s Pilate saying Jesus is innocent while simultaneously flogging and gouging out Jesus’ back. And Pilate says to the leaders in Jerusalem, “See how merciful I am! Instead of killing this innocent man like you want, I’ll simply torture him!”
This is the worlds mercy. It’s not concerned so much about what’s good and what’s sustainable. The world’s mercy is really only concerned about lesser evils. It’s concerned about evil and not what’s compassionate or right. And this emaciated mercy carries a lot of weight in our world. It’s called “common sense.” But just because it’s so familiar and so seemingly right doesn’t make it right. You can have what appears to be the right answer and still be wrong.
We seek to vindicate ourselves. We become complacent and apathetic with the lesser evils and say, “well, it could always be worse.” That’s true. But we should also add… “the world should not be this way. We should and can get better.” A person who can only say “it could always be worse” but never says “it should not be and it can get better…” this person is full of the world’s wisdom and has not yet fully embraced God’s love. A person who only says, “it could always be worse” will never fully embrace Jesus command to “Go and do likewise.”
The mercy of God is concerned with the greater good, not simply lesser evils.
There is wisdom in counting our blessings. But there is folly in ignoring the world around us just so we can count those blessings. You see.., that’s what the priest and Levite did. Ultimately, they ignored. They proceeded as if this man and his half-dead condition was extraneous… was negligible… they didn’t think it mattered and so it wasn’t worthy or consideration. And even if it did matter, his suffering wasn’t enough to jeopardize the blessings of the Levite and priest.
Lord have mercy upon us.
But the Samaritan… the Samaritan exemplifies God’s love and the love we should have. God’s love is merciful. And the mercy of God is concerned with the greater good, not simply lesser evils. The Samaritan was not content with simply the survival of the man who was robbed. He wanted the man to be whole and fully recovered. You see the Samaritan was not satisfied with lesser evils. He desired the situation to be transformed. He desired the situation to be turned around. He desired the man to be made well. He wanted resurrection. He wanted the pain of the man to be alleviated. His love wanted the man to sleep in a bed at night. He wanted the man housed and not homeless. He didn’t balk at the preexisting condition of the man’s injuries and administered health care free of charge. He didn’t hide behind “law and order” to veil his disdain and fear. He had compassion on the stranger.
God has compassion on us when we are estranged from God. Whether it be pain, misery, death, illness, oppression, and/or absurdity… whatever keeps us estranged from God… whatever makes us strangers to God, God seeks to overcome those boundaries.
That’s what salvation is… God’s consistent and ongoing will to overcome the multiple boundaries that separate us from God and each other.
And that’s what God’s love is: a force of attraction to be reckoned with that draws us together, shatters empty justifications, and gives us life right now and in the age to come.
Faith, hope, and love