Readings (Track 1)
Back in 1964 Bob Dylan sang “There’s a battle outside and it is ragin’ / It’ll soon shake your windows and rattle your walls…” Today, between the January 6 hearings and the recent Supreme Court decisions, we might wonder whether the 60’s were just the warm-up act.
So what’s our role as Christians? The parable in today’s Gospel is a key part to any Christian answer.
Recall what lead up to the parable… “But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’” The question assumes that some are my neighbor, that some are not. This is likely a near-universal assumption. Consider our pronouns: What does “we” mean if it doesn’t contrast with “they”? Consider the role of language (accent, vocabulary, etc.): after a few words we’ve instinctively slotted the speaker as one of us or them. Clothing, zip code: so many ways of slotting people into us or them.
So: who qualifies as my neighbor? That’s the conversation the lawyer wants to have. And Jesus’ parable is designed not to answer that question, but to blow it out of the water. At least two elements accomplish this: First, the cast (Priest, Levite, Samaritan [The Samaritan the classic “Other”; “Be a good boy or a Samaritan will…”]. Second, Jesus’ closing: “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”
Now, if we pull back the camera, there’s an obvious question. A few weeks back we heard Paul say “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” Haven’t we just replaced these contrasts with “Christian and non-Christian” so that we’re back where we started?
A response to that question requires two hands. On the one hand, the NT is clear: saying “yes” to Jesus is fundamental. On the other hand, if that “yes” motivates anything other than love, it’s no longer Jesus to whom I’m saying yes.
Here’s the thing. Jesus’ “love your enemies” isn’t simply one element in his teaching; it captures his Father’s modus operandi throughout the Bible.
His Father’s modus operandi: we meet this in today’s first reading from Amos and repeatedly in the coming weeks with the Old Testament lessons from the 8th & 7th C. prophets. The Northern Kingdom (Israel) and Southern Kingdom (Judah) are turning their backs on God, oppressing the vulnerable. Those two actions are two sides of the same coin: I turn my back on God and—surprise—I’m no longer in solidarity with all those who bear God’s image, but with those who bear my image: same skin color, dialect, etc. Anyhow, Israel and Judah: they have made themselves God’s enemies. So for God all the good and easy options are off the table, and God struggles to find a way to stop the madness and to begin laying the foundation for a better future.
And it captures Jesus’ modus operandi. Two weeks ago we heard James and John offering to call down fire on a Samaritan village that—they thought—had not given Jesus a sufficiently enthusiastic reception. So Jesus finds himself for neither the first nor the last time among his enemies.
Any two-bit god can surround themselves with friends; Jesus’ God is constantly seeking out his enemies.
Our Eucharistic Prayer reminds us of this weekly. For example, Prayer A: “to reconcile us to you, the God and Father of all” or, again, “Sanctify us…and serve you in unity, constancy, and peace.”
To stay with our liturgy for a moment, every week there’s the Confession and Absolution. So the divide between Christians and non-Christians isn’t between friends and enemies of God. On our good days we Christians are allowing God to continue the life-long work of transforming us from enemies into friends.
In sum, that’s one thing the parable is doing, messing with our notions of “us” and “them.”
The other thing the parable is doing: highlighting compassion.
“But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity [compassion].”
Words matter. It turns out that in the New Testament the Greek verb translated ‘have pity/compassion’ is used exclusively for Jesus, the two exceptions being in Jesus’ parables. Compassion, the Gospel writers tell us, is fundamental to how Jesus navigates this world. And this, in turn, shapes their understanding of how we follow Jesus.
So, in the parable compassion is the turning point in the story. And if we read the parable as an allegory of the divine-human history, it is the turning point in that history: this Samaritan God finding us and caring for us on the Jericho road. We hear that turning point in our Eucharistic Prayers. What is the start of Eucharistic Prayer A if not an extended description of compassion?
“Holy and gracious Father: In your infinite love you made us for yourself; and, when we had fallen into sin and become subject to evil and death, you, in your mercy, sent Jesus Christ, your only and eternal Son, to share our human nature, to live and die as one of us, to reconcile us to you, the God and Father of all.”
Today so much undercuts and deadens compassion—and nothing more effectively than the us/them dichotomy. We need this parable—particularly in an election year, in which the political parties are pulling out all the stops to motivate us, but usually not toward greater compassion.
What this sermon boils down to: an invitation to use Jesus’ parable as a lens through which to view the world we’ll encounter in the coming week. Us and them. Notice how often this gets encouraged, the subtle ways it can distort our identity. Look for opportunities to enact William Temple’s claim: “The church is the only institution that exists primarily for the benefit of those who are not its members.” Compassion. Notice all that deadens it. Look for opportunities, however small, to practice it.