One Who Caused Mercy

Sermon on Luke 10:25-37

Psalm 25:7-9 Gracious and upright is God; therefore God teaches sinners in God’s way. God guides the humble in doing right and teaches God’s way to the lowly. All the paths of God are love and faithfulness to those who keep God’s covenant and testimonies.

Introduction

Mercy seems lacking at many twists and turns of life. Mercy nearly feels out of place as a characteristic. It’s got that distant vibe of something that once was but isn’t anymore; it’s gone archaic, become a relic of ages past, no longer a functional aspect of our modern human society, something we’ve evolved out of. Mercy feels out of reach, like grasping oil with the hand; like something slippery, of divine substance locked in noncorporeal estates of spiritual realms.

When was the last time you experienced mercy? When was the last time you acted merciful?

The tragic thing about our distance from mercy is that it’s an exceptionally human characteristic and action. It doesn’t exist in our world if it’s not performed. Mercy, simply, is not getting what one deserves to get, most often in terms of punishment and consequences. Mercy is an action, a definite and precise action of refusing to condemn another’s actions. It’s the opposite of revenge. Mercy is born from compassion; when extended, mercy turns into forgiveness. All of this of the human realm.

Mercy doesn’t exist in nature. Nature is beautiful and majestic, it’s worthy of honor and respect, care and love. But merciful? Nope. Nature’s laws work themselves out as they will, irrespective of persons. For mercy to exist and be experienced, it must be brought into the world from one person to another; no one stumbles into a pool of mercy. We receive it; from my hand to yours or your hand to mine. Even in the presence of the law, mercy exists, because law serves love and love serves the neighbor and therein is mercy.

It’s an essential element of the fabric of thriving human community. Without mercy, the other will grow more and more into a threat. In an environment and atmosphere where everyone one must fight for their own, claw their way to survive, and be wary of all dangers, mercy cannot exist. It will be suffocated and strangled; for lack of air and light, it will cease to grow. Sadly, that community will cease to be justifiably described as human. Where mercy is lacking, love is lacking, and where there is no love there cannot be human life.

Luke 10:25-37

Now, wanting to justify himself, he said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” … [Jesus asked the lawyer] “Which of these three it seems to you has become a neighbor of the one who fell in with the robbers?” And [the lawyer] said, “The one who caused mercy with him.” And Jesus said to him, “You go and you, you do likewise.” [1]

(Luke 10:29, 36-37)

Our gospel passage is quite familiar to us. One so familiar it warrants pause and reflection. I think we might be missing something crucial in the parable if we don’t slow down. Believe it or not, it’s these parables of Jesus that simultaneously define and substantiate the life and presence of the church; and continue to do so if we listen today.

So, Luke, the master story-teller, sets the scene: Jesus is approached by a lawyer-priest[2] who wishes to test Jesus. What must I do to inherit eternal life? Jesus responds, In the law, what is written? How do you read it? I imagine Jesus smiled, loving him, knowing full well the intention of the lawyer-priest. All teachers of God’s word should be tested. I think we read into this moment our obsession with hierarchy and silent compliant obedience. There’s actually nothing wrong with this exchange; there’s nothing wrong with Jesus being tested. The only risk here is that the one testing may find themselves failing their own test.[3]

The lawyer-priest’s answer to Jesus summarized the law: love God with your entire self and your neighbor as yourself. So far so good. You answered rightly; do this and you will live, says Jesus. But then, the lawyer-priests shifts gears[4]—wishing to justify himself—and asks Jesus, annnnnnd who is my neighbor? Again, I imagine Jesus loved him and smiled in a way that spoke to an oncoming encounter with God.

Jesus proceeds to lead the lawyer-priest to the answer by telling a story about an unknown[5] man who fell in among robbers, was beaten, stripped of his clothing, and left for dead (ἀφέντες ἡμιθανῆ). Then, a priest walks by and seeing the man left half-dead on the road passes by on the other side (ἀντιπαρῆλθεν) of the road. Later, a Levite does the same thing. Then a Samaritan comes along, sees the man, and felt compassion (ἐσπλαγχνίσθη) and went toward (προσελθὼν) him with the intent to minister to his wounds and generously care for him. Jesus stops and asks the lawyer-priest, Which of these three it seems to you has become a neighbor of the one who fell in among the robbers? And everything changes.

The lawyer-priest is cornered and must answer: the one who caused mercy with him. In a beautiful and stunning way, the lawyer-priest is forced to confess that his conception of what defines a neighbor is painfully narrow: neighbor isn’t geographically defined, isn’t defined by agreement of interpretation of God,[6] but by love and mercy.[7] It’s compassion that makes the Samaritan stand out; had he just passed by his Samaritanness would’ve meant nothing.[8]

Again, I’m compelled to point out that it’s not that the lawyer-priest is confessing that the Samaritan correctly identified that the half-dead man was his neighbor (this is how we normally interpret this parable). It is not that we recognize others as neighbors, but that we act neighborly.[9] Thus, Jesus’s injunction at the end to go and do likewise isn’t a throw-away mandate, but rather this: the one who acts as a neighbor loves the neighbor by showing mercy and thus loves God. This is the point of the law, in other words.

This is the point of the parable: one cannot love God and cross by on the other side of the road while someone lies half dead in the gutter.[10] You might be able to recite the law and believe it, but if you can cross by and ignore someone who is suffering, well then…it begs the question. Love of God and love of neighbor knows no boundaries[11] when it’s you charged with the love of God to act neighborly.[12] Mercy creates neighbors and is the evidence of love for God.[13]

Conclusion

Whether or not this lawyer-priest rejected this premise or agreed to it is uncertain; but one thing is: he couldn’t leave that moment unchanged.[14] Neither are we left the same. The lure of the parable is to reconsider yourself: are you merciful? And, the harder question: do you love God? You can come here and worship all day long; you can sequester yourself in retreat upon retreat, covered deep in silence and prayer, but if you do nothing out of mercy, out of love, then you do not love God. You can know all the dogma and doctrine well, but if you have not love, you are just a clanging gong, says Paul. You can wear all the fancy robes, light every candle, and say the eucharist, but if you have not mercy for others who are suffering, you serve yourself and not God.

If you never step foot in a church, and you express mercy and compassion with those who suffer, you love God. [15] You can deny God’s very existence and yet that you love and have mercy on your neighbor makes you that much closer to God than those who claim to love God but hate their neighbor.[16] Why dare I say this? Because God is love. To love and have mercy for and with others is evidence of God and God’s spirit living in the world, even more so than any stone building or wood table.

God is the force and thrust of love and mercy in a world that is bent in on itself, a world dying for its own insatiable desire to feed its ego, a world killing itself because it believed the lie that it has no purpose. God is the force and thrust of love and mercy in cacophonous noise of humans clamoring for more isolation and exclusion, more me and mine, more death and destruction. That love and mercy might still yet exist means God is alive.

Please remember this, beloved, God is not dead; we are. But, also, hear this: our hope rests in the mercy and compassion of the One who raises the dead into new life. This hope, this claim is our religion,[17] our story, our myth; dare we believe it? Dare we follow this God, this Jesus the Christ of Nazareth who brings mercy and compassion so close to us, we’re not only bathed in it but it recreated by it? Dare we live like this God is real? I hope so; too many people are dying in the streets as we walk by on the other side.

God have mercy. May we have mercy, too.


[1] Translation mine unless otherwise noted.

[2] Joel B. Green The Gospel of Luke The New International Commentary on the New Testament Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997. 427. “When it is recalled that priests functioned as experts on the law when not performing their priestly duties at the temple, this adds to the drama of the unfolding encounter – not least since the ensuing parable will have as one of its primary characters a priest returning from duty at the temple (v 31). That is, within the socio-historical context imagined by the narrative, the identification of this lawyer and the temple staff of the parable may be more immediate than normally thought.”

[3] Ernesto Cardenal The Gospel in Solentiname Trans. Donald D. Walsh. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2010. 332. “LAUREANO: ‘In trying to catch Jesus in a trap, he was the one who fell into the trap. Jesus makes him say things he doesn’t do.’”

[4] Justo L. Gonzalez Luke Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible Eds Amy Plantinga Pauw and William C. Placher. Louisville, KY: WJK, 2010. 138. “He uses theological debate as a means to avoid obedience. Just as it is possible for a church body to postpone decision by referring matters to committees, so is it possible for a church and for individuals to postpone obedience by seeking further clarification. Quite often, what the Lord requires is clear; but the cost is also clear, and so we ask more and more questions.”

[5] Green, Luke, 429. “The choice of opening, ‘a certain man,’ constitutes a powerful rhetorical move on Jesus’ part. In light of the debate surrounding the reach of love, grounded in how one reads Leviticus 19, the impossibility of classifying this person as either friend or foe immediately subverts any interest in questions of this nature. Stripped of his clothes and left half-dead, the man’s anonymity throughout the story is insured; he is simply a human being, a neighbor, in need.”

[6] Gonzalez, Luke, 139. “The first is that the exclusion of the Samaritan is not only racial or ethnic. It is also religious. From the point of view of the Jewish doctor of the law, the Samaritan was a heretic, one who did not serve God properly. …Now it is the Samaritan heretic who is the obedient servant of God. Thus the parable has much to say about recognizing the action of God in those whose theology we may find faulty-in itself a very valuable lesson in these times of theological ad political polarization.”

[7] Cardenal, Solentiname, 332, 333. “OLIVIA: ‘Your neighbors are all of humanity, that’s what that fellow didn’t know, that his neighbors were everybody.’” And “OLIVIA: “He gave him as an example a person of another race and another religion so we can know that everybody is a neighbor. He gave as an example one who wasn’t a neighbor but just the opposite, an enemy.’”

[8] Green, Luke, 431. “As a result, what distinguishes this traveler from the other two is not fundamentally that they are Jews and he is a Samaritan, nor is it that they had high status as religious functionaries and he does not. What individualizes him is his compassion, leading to action, in the face of their inaction. Having established this point of distinction, his status in comparison with theirs becomes shockingly relevant, for it throws into sharp relief the virtue of his response. For the same reason, his actions condemn their failure to act. Unlike them, he has compassion. and this is the turning point not only of his encounter with the wounded man but, indeed, of this entire narrative unit (vv 25-37). The Samaritan, then, participates in the compassion and covenantal faithfulness of God, who sees and responds with salvific care. The parable of the compassionate Samaritan thus undermines the determination of status in the community of God’s people on the basis of ascription, substituting in its place its place a concern with performance, the granting of status on the basis of one’s actions.”

[9] Gonzalez, Luke, 139-140. “The second is that Jesus’ question at the end is not, as one might expect, who realized that the man by the roadside was a neighbor, but rather which of the three who went by was a neighbor to the man by the roadside. If that is the question, Jesus’ final injunction to the lawyer, ‘Go and do likewise,’ does not simply mean, go and act in love to your neighbor, but rather, go and become a neighbor to those in need, no matter how alien they may be. It : is not just a matter of loving and serving those who are near us (which is what ‘neighbor’ means) but also of drawing near to those who for whatever reason— racial, ethnic, theological, political-may seem to be alien to us.”

[10] Green Luke 425-426. “That the practice of God’s word is the unit is obvious from the repetition and placement of the verb ‘to do.’ The lawyer inquires, ‘What must I do?’; following their exchange, Jesus responds, ‘Do this’ (v 25, 28). In this way the first segment of this unit…is bound together with references to praxis. The question of the identity of one’s neighbor leads into a further exploration of appropriate behavior, however, with the conclusion drawn by the lawyer himself. The one who was a neighbor, he acknowledges, is ‘the one who did mercy’. Jesus responds, ‘Do likewise” (v 37). Jesus’ closing words, then, do not summarize the parable of the compassionate Samaritan (as though the purpose of the parable were to present a moral obligation to act in such-and-such a way). Rather, they return to the original question of the lawyer ‘What must I do to inherit eternal life?’ The parable thus serves a hermeneutical function. It interprets the summation of the law provided by the legal expert.”

[11] Green, Luke, 426. “By the end of the story, Jesus has transformed the focus of the original question; in fact, Jesus’ apparent attempt to answer the lawyer’s question turns out to be a negation of that question’s premise. Neighbor love knows no boundaries.”

[12] Cardenal, Solentiname, 333. “FELIPE: “It seems that instead it’s the one who serves that’s the neighbor.’”

[13] Cardenal, Solentiname, 335. “ELVIS: ‘The fact is that in your neighbor there’s God. It’s not that love of God gets left out, it’s that those who love their neighbor are right there loving God.’”

[14] Green, Luke, 427. “In his Galilean ministry, Jesus had worked to exterminate those boundaries that predetermine human interaction; what was begun there will continue to characterize his message on the way to Jerusalem. His portrayal of a Samaritan as one who embodies the law, and whose comportment models the covenant faithfulness of God—and whose doing stands in sharp contradistinction to the practices of temple personnel on the road—serves this wider motif as it obliterates the construction of human existence sanctioned by the religious establishment in Jerusalem. Although Luke does not document the response of the lawyer, he nevertheless shows the degree to which his encounter with Jesus, if taken seriously, would destabilize the world of this lawyer and challenge him to embrace the new world propagated through Jesus’ ministry.”

[15] Cardenal, Solentiname, 334. “LAUREANO: ‘The people are the wounded man who’s bleeding to death on the highway. The religious people who are not impressed by the people’s problems are those two that were going to the temple to pray. The atheists who are revolutionaries are the good Samaritan of the parable, the good companion, the good comrade.’”

[16] Cardenal, Solentiname, 335-336. “That’s why Jesus somewhere else says that the second commandment is ‘like the first,’ and in this parable he shows that the two are fulfilled by fulfilling the second. And that’s why too, when the rich young man asks him what he should do to be saved, Jesus quotes to him the commandments about neighborly love, without mentioning the one about love of God.”

[17] Sölle, Bread Alone, 50. “Critics of religion (who at the same time must of necessity be critics of poesy, which portrays man’s search for the absolute) take their stand on their belief in progress. They believe that science will put an end to man’s countless and inexhaustible wishes because on the one hand it fulfills these wishes in a limited way, and on the other hand it also exposes them as illusions. The big question, however, is if it isn’t just the very fulfillment of some wishes and hopes that makes man’s thirst for a final fulfillment even greater. Indeed, research in the field of primitive religions and millennial movements teaches us that magical and real expectations continually evolve into wishes for emancipation from colonial rule and for a new identity, thirst for riches and justice, so that religious behavior cannot possibly be divided into spiritual and worldly components. A purely spiritual part is just as unthinkable as a purely materialistic part. Ultimately, the questions of religion which develop into complex religious systems in the so-called higher religions become increasingly more comprehensive, and the claim they make becomes increasingly absolute and incapable of earthly fulfillment.”

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