"Who Is My Neighbor?" – Luke 10:25-37
Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “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; and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”
But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ 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.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”
So, the parable of the Good Samaritan is one of those oldies, but goodies – maybe the oldie, but goodie – from the host of Jesus’ parables – the one we’ve all heard so much it may have lost its punch, over the years. I mean we’ve learned to serve it up sweet and good and nice for the kids in the Sunday school classroom, but we forget to add the hard stuff back in for the grown-ups in the sanctuary too.
And this week – the last few days, really – it hit home in some harder, holier ways than usual, because of what’s been going on in our country. Please bear with me as I lay some groundwork for where I’m headed with some statistics.
Did you know that the average graduation rate for white kids in the 2011-2012 school year was 85%, but that the average graduation rate for black kids that same year was only 68%?
Did you know that, in 2012, 40% of black people who applied for a mortgage were turned down, but that only 12-15% of white people who applied for a mortgage, with similar qualifications were turned down?
Did you know that with drugs like cocaine, hallucinogens, marijuana, and unprescribed pain killers white people are far more likely to use than black people? (17.1% v. 9.9% for cocaine; 46% v. 40% for marijuana; 15.2% v. 10.6% for unprescribed pain killers) (More black people use crack than white people, but only by 1.5%)
Did you know that within the last 5 years, 40% of the prisoners in state prison – for drug offenses – were black and only 29% were white?
Did you know that length of jail/prison sentences for people of color are typically 20% longer than the sentences are for white people?
In the flurry of blurbs and blogs and tweets and posts about the racial crisis in our country that persists, I saw video of a sociologist – a white woman, for what it’s worth – in a lecture hall full of, I’d say a couple hundred students, many of them white, ask any white people there to stand if they would like to be treated in our culture and society the way that black people are treated in our society.
You might imagine – because I’m guessing we’d have the same result here – that no one stood… not one person… out of hundreds.
And the sociologist’s point was to say that we know enough about the way people of color are treated in our society – their status, their struggle, and so on – that we aren’t willing to be treated that way ourselves, if given the choice. Which begs the question: If we aren’t willing to be treated that way ourselves, why are we okay with continuing to allow it to happen to others on our watch?
By the way, our black brothers and sisters know these statistics and they know none of us would stand when posed with that question, which is why they’re suspicious when we pretend that “all lives matter.”
Which brings me to the hard, holy questions raised by today’s Gospel and Jesus’ parable of the Samaritan. All of this begins and ends with questions, after all. That lawyer gets the ball rolling with a question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus asks him a couple questions in return: “What is written in the law? What do you read there?”
The lawyer answers correctly – “love the Lord with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength…and love your neighbor as yourself” – but then he asks another question: “But who is my neighbor?” And after that tale about the sad sack who gets robbed, beaten, left for dead and all the rest; the story about the priest and the Levite who pass him by and the Samaritan who finally stops to help; Jesus wraps it all up with yet another question. Not a moral. Not a sermon. Not a lecture. But a question: “Which one was a neighbor?”
The answer, of course – finally something even the lawyer couldn’t deny – is, “The one who showed mercy.”
And in light of recent events – the shooting in Louisiana, the shooting in Minnesota, the shootings in Dallas, the shootings in Orlando – we are in need of some mercy, people. We are being called to not only ask ourselves some more of the same hard questions we’ve been asking for generations, I think we’re being called – by the bodies very literally lying on the side of the road – to do more than just answer the questions, but move and be moved by the compassion we proclaim, to acts of mercy, like the Samaritan in Jesus’ parable.
What I mean is, Facebook posts and Twitter tweets alone aren’t going to change things. Even the most earnest of prayer vigils and marches down Main Street aren’t going to change things, all by themselves. God knows sermons alone – no matter how many or how well they are preached – could never be enough. Don’t get me wrong, all of it is something – posts and tweets and prayers and protests – they aren’t nothing. They are motivated by love and they are expressions of compassion, and that’s a beautiful, faithful thing, for sure.
But I read not long ago that compassion is one thing – it’s a holy, faithful, gut feeling – and it is good. But compassion isn’t mercy. Mercy, someone smarter than me has said, is compassion in action. In other words, the priest and the Levite in Jesus’ story could very well have felt sincere, faithful, loving compassion … even as they walked by on the other side of the road; or scrolled through their Facebook feed; or changed the channel; or flipped through the newspaper. The Samaritan, though, showed mercy. He expressed it. He was moved to do something. He put his compassion into motion, and loved his neighbor, as a result.
When Martin Luther King, Jr. taught about the Good Samaritan, he suggested that the priest and the Levite – the righteous, God-fearing, Chosen Ones who should have known better and who should have done differently – asked the wrong question as they saw and walked by the dying man on the side of the road. King suggests the big question in their heart of hearts was all about themselves: “What will happen to me if I stop and help?”
The Samaritan, though, King says, asks the better, faithful, merciful question: “What will happen to him – what will happen to the other – if I don’t?”
That’s the kind of compassionate question we can ask to move us to mercy. “What will happen to him, or her, or them, if I do nothing?” Whether it’s Philando Castile, Alton Shelton, the 5 officers in Dallas, or the 49 men and women at that nightclub in Orlando, I think we’re being called to get to know our neighbor, so that we will care about what might happen to them if we continue to do less than enough, or nothing at all.
I wonder how many of us have had conversations with people of color about what we really think or wonder or doubt or fear about the whole “Black Lives Matter” movement. And what it means to them, or not.
I wonder how many of us have had conversations with people of color about how or why or if they are fearful of being followed by a police car, in a town like New Palestine.
I wonder how many of us have had conversations with a police officer about what makes his/her job scary or safe or rewarding or not.
I wonder how many of us have had people of color in our kitchens, or in our classrooms, or in line behind us at communion often enough to really get to know them.
(If you don’t know or can’t find a person of color to have these conversations with, that’s precisely the problem and kind of my point.)
Because the sad truth is we don’t know enough of our neighbors, if we count our neighbors the way God does – as anyone and everyone beyond these walls, beyond the city limits, and beyond the comfortable, familiar social circles of life as we live it. And until we do… until we see “them” as “us”, like the Samaritan did, we won’t be moved to the kind of merciful action God invites us to.
I started out talking about Sunday School and the sweet and good and nice ways we tend to teach what would, could, should be harder lessons for the rest of us. And I remembered that oldie, but goody kind of Sunday School song, too, that sounds sweet and good and nice on the surface: “red and yellow black and white, they are precious in his sight, Jesus loves the little children of the world.”
Simple and sweet as it sounds, there’s a hard lesson there we’re still trying to learn. Jesus does love the whole lot of us – “red and yellow, black and white” and everyone in between. And when we start crossing the street, like the Samaritan did; taking some risks, like the Samaritan did; acting in love, like the Samaritan did…
...when we start living more like the Samaritan – more like God does, in Jesus – compassion will become mercy; mercy will become love; and that kind of love for one another is God’s hope for the sake of the world.
Sources for the statistics on racial disparities in the U.S. include the United States Sentencing Commission, the Bureau of Justice Statistics, and the National Center for Education Statistics.
Several elements of this sermon were very much inspired by Amy-Jill Levine's chapter on the parable of the Good Samaritan in her book Short Stories by Jesus, particularly the insight about the difference between "compassion" and "mercy," as well as the interpretation of the parable by Martin Luther King, Jr.