It’s not a pretty story about being kind to people. Put it back into its context, in which Jesus is asked the question, not by a devoted disciple seeking enlightenment, but by a cynic trying to trip him up, looking for a gotcha moment to discredit the Messiah.
“Who is my neighbour?” he asks, and Jesus launches into a rant, told in the form of the traditional three-part folktale. He tells the man, in so many words, “Even the Samaritans know how to treat people like human beings. Even they would not be so crass and arrogant as to ask, ‘Who do I have to bother to care about?’”
There is a strong, stale odour of ethnic division, inequality, and tension behind the choice of a Samaritan as the hero of the story; all the better to demonstrate that quality of keeping his humanity that the third man works out of. He is a human being to the man laying by the side of the road, because he sees that man’s full humanity, laid out and bleeding out before him, and he is moved with compassion, fellow suffering, because he recognizes their kinship, fellow humans, made in the image of one God. Despite their history, humanity saves the day.
But it is not a pretty story. Do you remember, a few years ago, a woman’s body was left on the side of the highway a few miles from here? A motorist called it in. When the police rolled by, they thought they were seeing a deer carcass, and went to take their lunch break. They failed to see her humanity. A second caller reported the body almost an hour later, leaving us to wonder how many more passed by without seeing, without heeding her. When ODOT arrived to clean up, they found a third motorist, waiting with her body, the third caller. Finally, someone who saw her clearly in all of her humanity, and stayed with her, through the end of the story.
It’s not a pretty story. Jesus is on the offensive, angry. It is as offensive a story, in fact, as his whole, “Love your enemies,” piece.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven.” (Mt 5:43-35a) Love your enemies, because the old ways of dividing ourselves into those whom we claim and those whom we kill, those ways are not working. They do not bring us to life. They bring death daily to our doorstep.
We have not covered ourselves with glory this week in America. We are not even the heroes of our own stories today. Instead, three separate instances of gun violence have shown how deeply divided we are from one another’s humanity.
In the first two, in separate incidents on consecutive nights, men were shot to death by police officers, and disturbing camera footage brought home, literally into our homes, the faces of those numbers we see but do not read, or read but do not recognize: that our criminal justice system from top to bottom, from the sterile death chamber to the very streets we walk and drive upon, the system is failing African Americans, and especially young black men. There is a strong, stale odour of ethnic division, inequality, and tension behind these videos. And too many of us have passed by too often, failing to see humanity falling by the side of the road.
That was two. Then on Thursday, a military veteran took his knowledge of weaponry and his easy access to it onto the streets of Dallas. While a thousand people peacefully demonstrated their right to be seen, their right to have their humanity recognized, their lives to matter, and while officers protected and policed and served that right, stood guard over their bodies and their voices and their lives, that’s when one man chose to shoot and kill five public servants right there, wounding several others.
When we divide ourselves into those whom we claim and those whom we kill, we bring death daily to our own doorstep.
In the story that Jesus told, the Samaritan man recognized the humanity of the man lying in the road, left for dead by bandits. That same Samaritan man knew that his own humanity demanded something of him. To love his neighbour as himself, he had to treat them both as human beings made in the image of God. He had to recognize the need of his neighbour, and he had to recognize the nobility of his own soul. He had to call upon his human ability for humility before an enemy, love before a stranger, sacrifice for the sake of justice and of mercy.
In a story stale with the odour of ethnic violence and division, Jesus poured out oil and wine, his own blood, for the sake of our humanity, because somehow he saw himself in us, in his humanity.
“Go,” he told the lawyer, “and do likewise.”
The story of the Samaritan, of the Levite and the priest and the man left for dead, by bandits hiding in the shadows; that story is told for one purpose: to answer the one who asks, “With whom should I be bothered? Who is deserving of my care?” Which lives matter?
And into a story stale with the odour of violence, Jesus pours out oil and wine, his own blood, for the sake of his humanity, for the sake of our humanity, made in the image of God, saying “Go, and do likewise.”
It’s difficult to describe this as a beautiful sermon, but it is that.