Preached on Sunday, July 10, 2016 at All Saints' Episcopal Church, Glen Rock, NJ. The Scripture readings this sermon is based on can be found by clicking here. To listen to an iTunes audio podcast of this sermon, click here.
We come together today with a great many questions on our hearts. What is happening in our country; in our cities and towns? Why are we killing one another? Are we moving forward, toward a better future for our children, a more perfect union; or are we returning to some sort of Wild West, shootout-at-the-OK-Corral past in which both justice and injustice comes from the barrel of a gun? A time in which the redress of our grief and our grievances comes from the barrel of a gun?
What is wrong with our society that we should come to this? Who or what is to blame? How can it be fixed? What will it take for us to live in peace with one another?
Likewise, our gospel reading today is one of questions, difficult questions, tricky questions, controversial questions that often pitted one part of society against another. A lawyer, seeking to trip Jesus up, asks him a question. Jesus responds with a question. The lawyer answers, and then poses a second question to Jesus, one of the most contentious questions of the day: “Who is my neighbor?”
Judaism, like virtually every culture in the world, then and now, was marked by boundaries. There were tribes and classes, distinctions between men and women, Jews and gentiles, slave and free. These past few weeks, we have been reminded of the boundaries in our own society, between gay and straight, Muslim and Christian, police and citizen, black and white.
And these tendencies in us to circle the wagons, to mark others as just that, as ‘other’, they contradict the admonitions in Scripture that we love one another and treat one another with respect. The Hebrews in particular, were called to welcome and respect and even love the foreigner, the stranger in their midst, so it says in Exodus, and again in Leviticus and yet again in Deuteronomy, ‘because you yourselves were once foreigners in the land of Egypt.’ Like us, Israel was a nation of migrants and refugees, who were, in turn, called to harbor the poor, the tired, and the huddled masses that came to their shores, and that knocked on their doors.
So, when the lawyer asks, “Who is my neighbor?” he’s posing one of the most debated questions of the day. All the religious leaders, the Levites, Priests, Pharisees and Sadducees all had answers to the question, “Who is my neighbor?” And very often the answers given were used to qualify somewhat the admonitions in Scripture to respect the other; they were often designed to divide ‘us’ from ‘them’, to preserve privilege for some, and to deny it to others.
Jesus’s response is a parable, the parable of the Good Samaritan. A priest and a Levite fail to do their duty by a suffering fellow traveler on the notoriously dangerous road from Jerusalem and Jericho. Then along comes a Samaritan -- an outsider, a heretic, an enemy. At this point in history, there was a deep divide between Jews and Samaritans. That divide was a theological one, primarily, but one exacerbated by geography, and national and tribal identities. Samaritans were part of the ‘chosen people’ or had been, but ones who did not recognize the primacy of the Temple at Jerusalem or the Torah read there. Much like the conflicts between Sunni and Shia Muslims, and like the violent conflicts between Protestant and Catholic in our own history. Very many of the religious authorities in Jesus’s day would have told you that a Samaritan was decidedly NOT his neighbor.
But, lo and behold, it is the despised Samaritan in the parable that exemplifies the tenets of Jewish law. He more than exemplifies them; he excels at them, nursing, housing, and underwriting the recovery of the wounded traveler. After telling the story, Jesus asks the lawyer, ‘Who is the neighbor in this story?’
And here’s another measure of the depth of the animosity between Jews and Samaritans in the lawyer’s response. The lawyer can’t say the thing that Jesus is trying to get him to say. He cannot bring himself to say, ‘The Samaritan is the neighbor’ for to do so would contradict all of his training, all the cultural and religious biases he’s received in his lifetime. He cannot bring himself to equate Samaritan with neighbor; instead he says, “The one who shows mercy.” And Jesus tells him go and do likewise.
I wonder if he ever did. He’s had an encounter with one of the most enigmatic figures of his time who challenges some pretty strongly held cultural norms. I wonder if the lawyer was ever able to bring himself to ‘do likewise’ or if he retreated into his old prejudices, and his old way of thinking and acting.
Malcolm Gladwell, author of many bestselling works on human history and social psychology including ‘The Tipping Point’, has a new podcast called ‘Revisionist History’. In the first episode of the series he talks about a concept that sociologists are talking about called moral licensing. What happens is that occasionally, very occasionally, the strictures and boundaries of our societies are briefly lowered; and a single individual is admitted into a space where heretofore her kind was barred entrance. Once this happens, people feel better about themselves. They’re able to tell themselves that they are not quite so bad anymore. They are no longer sexist or racist or anti-Semitic, or anti-Muslim. They’ve cured themselves of their ills. The admission of that one individual gives them a kind of moral license as good people.
What often happens next is what’s intriguing. Some will continue to challenge their attitudes and change their beliefs and behaviors, continue to move forward. But others will feel exempt from the sins they were once accused of, and then begin to act in ways that unleash the unconscious prejudices and hatreds and rage that are still there, just below the surface, imbedded in the structures of society -- while closing that briefly open door that admitted the one exception to the rule, which, we know, goes further in proving the rule than otherwise.
Gladwell talks about women in his podcast; the Victorian painter Elizabeth Thompson who disappears from art history after a triumphant debut; and the Australian prime minister Julia Gillard. Gladwell ends the episode with a list of countries that have had a single female political leader followed by an unbroken succession of male leaders.
If Gladwell is right, then maybe it is getting worse, at least in some quarters. That might be why the tone and temper of our public life has coarsened in recent times; why expressions of racism and homophobia have escalated since the election of President Obama and the legalization of same-sex marriage. (I’m reminded of a book by journalist Susan Faludi from the early 90s, that looked at the response to nearly 30 years of second-wave feminism; her book was titles ‘Backlash.’) Maybe this is why the hate has become so bitter and at times, so deadly.
What will you do in the wake of these recent days? Will you follow Jesus instruction, will you go and do likewise as the Samaritan, or will you go and do likewise as you have always done? Will you seek to deepen your understanding of the problems we face, the problems that we are more starkly aware of now; or will you turn your back on the painful truths that lie underneath the violence, and the retaliation?
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King preached on the parable of the Good Samaritan in New York at Riverside Church in 1967, almost exactly a year before his murder. He said this,
On the one hand we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life's roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life's highway.
True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.
You know, in the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus tells us who every one of the characters is, except the victim, the wounded and suffering traveler. Was he a Jew, a gentile, even a Samaritan? It doesn’t matter. It didn’t matter to Jesus and it shouldn’t matter to us. The victim of the Jericho Road might be a man selling CDs outside a convenience store in Baton Rouge, Louisiana; or a motorist with a broken taillight near St. Paul, Minnesota; or a police officer protecting a peaceful protest in Dallas, Texas.
Friends, by some manifestation of the divine will, these are the times we have been born into. These are our days. That simple fact, in light of the gospel of Jesus of Nazareth, calls us to help those who have suffered most along the Jericho Road that cuts through our society. And once we know something about the suffering of those who fall victim on the Jericho Road, what they face day to day, how they struggle; and once we have aided in the recovery of those victims of the Jericho Road; then it will fall to us to rebuild the Jericho Road to make it a pathway of peace, a highway of justice, a safe passage for all who travel on it, whomever they may be.
We will have to work hard, harder than those who would drag us back. Our duty as the Body of Christ in this world at this very moment is to make the Jericho Road a safe place for all who travel there; a place where everyone who starts their journey gets to finish it, at Jerusalem or Jericho or wherever they choose to go. ~Amen+.
© The Rev. Mark R. Collins