The Call to Mercy

Featured image, The Good Samaritan, Vincent Van Gogh

Proper 10 Year C   14 July 2019 . Amos 7:7-17                                                          Linda Mackie Griggs

Prophets are not always what we expect. Amos was “a herdsman and dresser of sycamore trees”—a shepherd and farmer from the village of Tekoa in the southern kingdom of Judah, who did his prophesying in the northern kingdom of Israel in about the 8th century BC. He declares that he is “…neither a prophet nor a prophet’s son”—in other words he is a bi-vocational prophet: not one who had been trained as such (as some prophets were), but one who had been called through vision (and probably unwillingly), away from his home and farm to speak the truth in the centers of power. His message, like those of all prophets, is an urgent one; to wake people up to the Dream of God.

Amos was an enemy of the people. Or so said Amaziah the priest as he tried to shoo Amos out of Bethel, saying that he had offended the king, and that people could not bear his words—words that declared the consequences of their callous disregard for God’s call to justice and compassion for the suffering.

Prophets speak from a place of love and grief. They see a system—an institution, a community– broken, that has lost its way–and they seek to bring it back to its senses—to remember, to repent, and to reconcile. As counterintuitive as it may seem, prophets are not completely outsiders. As Richard Rohr says, prophets speak from the edges of the inside. They know the community to which they preach well enough to see and critique where it has gone astray, and to call it back to itself. To reawaken.

Prophets are not always who we expect. Today on the southern border of the United States the prophets have been as bi-vocational as Amos: Lawyers and doctors and journalists and photographers who have sounded the alarm about the conditions in the detention camps, especially for the children. We know what we know because they speak, and, like Amos, they refuse to shut up. They call us to remember who we are and who our neighbors are.

“Who is my neighbor?”

Our questioner in Luke’s Gospel seeks to test Jesus, and learns, among other things, that one should never ask Jesus a rhetorical question unless one is prepared to come away humbled. Actually, it’s an excellent follow-up: the lawyer has shown himself to be well versed in his Torah and knows the two greatest commandments; that you should love the Lord your God and your neighbor as yourself. His second question gets to the heart of the matter, which is how do love of God and love of neighbor weave together in terms of how we treat people, particularly the suffering and the most vulnerable? How we perceive them—as neighbor or as not-neighbor– is going to be a crucial factor in how we live out the interwoven commandments of love of God and love of neighbor.

The thing is, the lawyer in the story has asked, “Who is MY neighbor?” He asks a question about his own personal ethical responsibility. And that is the way most of us have heard this parable from the time we were children. We learned that the story of the Good Samaritan is about how we as individuals should be kind and caring to people, especially people in need. And this is a good lesson. But Jesus’ response, if we take a deeper look, is arguably more prophetic than it is personal.

But Jesus, like Amos, is neither just a prophet, and certainly he is not just a prophet’s son. The way in which he calls and recalls people into the Dream of God through parable is to prompt us to ask two questions: “Where is God in this story?” And “Where am I (or where are we) in this story? “ It is in how we perceive the answers to these questions that we discover how God convicts us and seeks to awaken us today.

So let’s think first of the road.

Making a journey along that road is treacherous. Desolate, arid, rocky, no more than scrub for shelter, and hot. The sun beats down mercilessly. A traveler along this road is at risk both from the elements and from those who prey upon the vulnerable.

The priest and the Levite are good people—devoted to God, diligent in their work in the Temple, and well versed in Torah. They live responsible lives and take good care of their families—they tithe and give to charity—they are well respected in the community. When they see the wounded man in the ditch—bleeding and broken—left for dead—they both pass by. Perhaps they are worried that they are at risk of violating Torah’s purity codes—after all, they are good responsible people. They have a job to do, and members of their own community to care for who depend on them. They follow the rules—of the Temple and Torah. So they avert their eyes. They move on.

The Samaritan is a good person too—devoted to God and dedicated to his community. But to the Jews he is an outcast—the enmity between Samaritans and Jews was deep and longstanding. Regardless of reason, the important point here is to see him as a despised outsider—go ahead and see him as anyone you find to be questionable, abhorrent, even, and you will see where Jesus is going here. The outcast sees the man in the ditch. He knows the rules, and he knows the risks. Still, he can’t avert his eyes. So he stops.

In this parable Jesus wasn’t just talking about individual behaviors. He was talking about an institution that had lost its way. An institution that had become so enamored of its own purity that it had forgotten God’s repeated call in Scripture to care for the vulnerable and the stranger. Jesus was saying, as he often did in his preaching, that it was the outsider, the outcast, the enemy of the people, who “got it right.”

Who are we in this story? Samaritan? Priest? Levite? If we’re honest? Or have we ever been the one in the ditch, watching through our bruises as people pass by, ignoring our pain and desolation? Grateful for even a small measure of mercy and care, even from the most unlikely source?

And where is God in this story? Is God standing a little to one side with a clipboard, checking off who gets it and who doesn’t? Is God the healing presence of the innkeeper who offers a safe place to nurse the wounded traveler back to health?

Or is God in the ditch? Is God found there with the broken, the bleeding, the fearful and the forsaken?

The prophetic perspective takes us into new territory, inviting us to inhabit multiple roles in this parable, even (especially) if they don’t fit comfortably. It calls us to ask difficult questions of ourselves and our institutions. Who are our neighbors and what is our responsibility to them? How do we balance competing needs of different groups of neighbors? How do we as baptized Christians, as a church, and as citizens, live faithfully into our promise to respect the dignity of every human being?

Writer Amanda Brobst-Renaud calls this story the Parable of the Compassionate Samaritan, and I think it’s a better, more nuanced title than the Good Samaritan. The word ‘compassionate’ invites us into ‘feeling with’, which is essentially the meaning of the term.  And we’re not just invited to inhabit the compassion of the Samaritan, but also the kindness of the innkeeper, the desolation of the stranger in the ditch, even (and perhaps most important) to enter the shadows of Levite and Priest as they wrestle, as good people do, with the competing priorities that pull them to one side of the road, or the other.

God is not found at the edges of this story, nor is God in just one place. God inhabits spaces within and beside each character in the parable: in the mercy of the Samaritan, certainly; the healing kindness of the innkeeper, absolutely; and the wounded stranger in whose eyes we see reflected the gaze of Jesus. But perhaps most unexpectedly we find God walking beside Priest and Levite—the good churchmen, the responsible citizens, just doing their job—God walking with them along the road, loving them and grieving for them—calling them to see the one in fear and pain, and to stop. To wake up—to remember who and whose they are, and to turn back. God is there, calling and waiting.

Jesus said, “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.”

That is the heart of the matter.

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