We know the man has an agenda, we just don’t know what it is. He is a lawyer, an expert in religious law and tradition, who for some covert reason has been sitting in with Jesus’ disciples. listening to Jesus’ teachings.
Yet Luke is clear. There is something going on with him. The man has an agenda. Jesus is teaching, and the man, Luke says, stands up to test Jesus.
“Test.” The only other time this word for test is used in Luke during temptation story. Jesus is in the wilderness, tempted by the Devil and Jesus cites Deuteronomy, saying, “You shall not test the Lord, your God.”
That is our clue–whatever this is, it is not an honest question. It is a trap, a slight of hand disguised as a question.
“Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Jesus is on to him already and deflects the question back to the man with two of his own. “What is written in the law? What do you read there?”
The lawyer responds, combining two Jewish teachings into one, “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.”
Jesus gives the man kudos and prepares to go on his way.
But the religious expert has a follow-up question. Luke says, “but wishing to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
Perhaps it’s an honest question. Maybe, the veil lifted for just a moment to ask a real question. And the lawyer wants to know where he stands. Who’s my neighbor? Or is it, “who exactly do I have to love?”
To answer the question, Jesus tells a story.
A story we all know; one that’s so familiar we lose sight of its radical nature.
There was a man, Jesus said, traveling on the 15 mile road from Jerusalem to Jericho. It was one of the main ways across the Judean Desert. The road was steep and dangerous, notorious in Jesus’ day for bandits, with plenty of hiding places for thieves waiting to ambush travelers.
The man, unidentified by race, class, nationality, or religion, is overtaken by robbers. He is stripped, beaten, robbed, and left half dead alongside the road.
The man is seen by not one, but two travelers–a priest and also a Levite, who would have been a worker at the Temple.
One might think he were lucky to have such upstanding citizens to happen upon him in his time of need and to find him in such a state. Only both of them, upon seeing the poor, bruised man, near death, go out of their way, scurrying by on the opposite side of the road.
We know in storytelling that in groups of three it’s the third one that breaks the pattern, the third one is the good one, the hero. Goldilocks and the three bears–too hot, too cold, and the third one–just right.
One would expect the third person to come into the story to be the hero, to step in and do what’s right.
And eventually a Samaritan stumbles across the injured man has pity on him. He bandages the man’s wounds, tending them with oil and wine, hoisting him onto his animal, taking him to an inn, putting him up with his own money, for the injured man’s care.
But this third man, a Samaritan, is not an expected hero. Samaritans and Jews have a long held animosity. They are connected by ethnicity and history, but divided by religious beliefs and practices. Jews would have looked at Samaritans as semi-pagans. You Harry Potter fans, think Mudbloods. Yet the Samaritans would have thought of themselves as the true descendants of Israel.
For Jesus’s hearers there would be no such thing as a Good Samaritan. That would have been an oxymoron. And no Jewish person would look to a Samaritan for a moral example. A depiction of a Good Samaritan would have clashed with world views, stereotypes, and self identity.
At the end of the story Jesus turns to the lawyer and asks a final question, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”
Notice, Jesus tweaks the question the lawyer had asked him. No longer “Who is my neighbor?” but now, “Who was a neighbor?”
See the difference?
Asking who is my neighbor, is all about limits and boundaries, who’s in and who’s out. Identifying who is our neighbor misses the point of the parable. Asking who was a neighbor puts the focus on the lawyer himself. In what way is he living Is he embodying the best of his own religious tradition?
Jesus is offering a challenge to the lawyer–you don’t get to apply the label of neighbor to anyone.
But what you can and should do is see whether or not you are being or you are failing to be a neighbor to someone else.
Jesus says don’t identify your neighbor–be a neighbor. There’s a difference.
This has been a painful week, in a long string of deadly weeks. We were already reeling from a gay nightclub shot up by a lone gunman, targeting gay Latinos. And then came terrorists attacks in Baghdad, Bangladesh, and Saudi Arabia, targeting Muslims at the end of Ramadan.
And then came two video tapes of black men shot and killed by police in disturbing situations. And even as difficult conversations were being had across the country around issues of race, policing, and systemic racism, a lone gunman targets white police officers in Dallas. In a horrific attack at the end of a peaceful march and protest, five police officers were dead.
So many people I’ve talked with these past few days seem bewildered, despairing, wondering if we as a country are slipping into a chaos we cannot control.
And I have struggled to know what to say to you today. As people of faith how to we think about such events? How do we speak of them? And what do we do to bring about God’s realm of peace our world so desperately needs?
I was reminded this week of the writings of Thomas Merton, 20th C. Trappist monk, writer of contemplative spirituality. Writing in 1963, in Kentucky, in the midst of civil rights movement, even as disturbing violence was perpetuated toward people of color, Merton wrote what he calls, Letters to a White Liberal. In it he speaks of his uncertain time as a “providential hour,”a kairos moment, Merton borrows a Greek term. Kairos (as opposed to chronos, or calendar time). Kairos – the appointed time, or right time, a fitting season or opportunity, pregnant with possibilities
Merton writes these thoughts when police dogs are lunging at black children in Birmingham, when Martin Luther King, Jr. was thrown in jail, before the Civil Rights Bill was passed, when Citizen Councils and lynchings haunted the south.
And instead of despair, he saw a kairos moment. There was no going back, the protests would continue, civil rights for African-Americans would be won. But that, he said was only the first step. In this kairos moment was the opportunity for white folks to awaken and see, in Merton’s words “the cancer of injustice and hate which is eating white society and is only partly manifested in racial segregation with all its consequences, is rooted in the heart of the white man (sic) himself.”
Merton saw in those days, so fraught with unrest and fear, the possibility for spiritual redemption. He issued a warning that rings true this week. If such spiritual reflection and complete reform of the social system did not take place “the moment of grace could pass without effect.” Destruction and hate would take root. (1)
Merton’s ability to see a moment of grace in difficult days gives me hope. Perhaps in the rawness of these times, when it is nearly impossible to look away from injustice, there is an opportunity for redemption for us.
How does that happen?
First off, we who are white Christians need to shut up and listen.
We need to listen to the stories of those who have been beaten and bloodied and left on the side of the Jericho road.
We need to listen to the painful stories of those who in their suffering and need have been passed by, neglected, dismissed, devalued, unloved.
We need to shut up, and we need to listen.
We can’t truly listen to these stories if we’re busy denying the circumstances.
We can’t truly listen if we’re intent upon defending ourselves from the label of racism.
We can’t truly listen if we brush away the sufferings of others.
We can’t truly listen if our first reaction is to make excuses for dehumanizing behaviors, or if we look to blame victims for the violence perpetrated against them.
White Christians need to button our lips and listen to people of color speak of their experiences.
This is not a Democrat or Republican thing–it’s a white America thing.
Newt Gingrich, former speaker of the house, whose politics paved the way for the Tea Party’s ascendancy said this week, “It took me a long time, and a number of people talking to me through the years to make sense of this…If you are a normal white American, the truth is you don’t understand being black in America….[White Americans] instinctively underestimate the level of discrimination and the level of additional risk.”(2)
Listening to voices of color, hearing pain, anger, fear, frustration is not easy. It makes white folk uncomfortable. Because if it’s true, even if just a portion of what we hear is true, then for us to be a more just, compassionate people, change needs to happen. And change not just around the edges, but systemic change.
We need to keep our mouths shut and listen
And if we don’t have friends who are people of color, we need to be listening even harder. We need to be reading widely and deeply to voices different from our own. And we need to be asking ourselves why we don’t know people of color as friends or colleagues. And what does that say about us, our experiences, the communities in which we live?
For much of my life, I have lived in places much more racially and ethnically diverse than Puyallup. Indeed, sixteen years ago, moving here, even just from Tacoma was a culture shock. The good news is Puyallup is changing, becoming much more diverse than previous generations. Our children and grandchildren here are experiencing life in a much richer environment with race and ethnic diversity much greater than in years past. And that’s a good thing. It’s cause to celebrate and it should be motivation for us to work even harder.
Thomas Merton called on white Christians to practice “Christ’s kingdom of humility.” And by humility he means to listen first. And learn how we are imprisoned by racism, too.
Listening with a sense of Christ’s humility doesn’t mean you don’t support members of law enforcement. It doesn’t mean that we will see the world exactly the same as those who are sharing do. Or that we will all agree on the solutions.
Listening to voices of color, to people who are witnessing to their own oppression is about acknowledging our common humanity. It’s about standing alongside someone in their suffering. It’s about bearing one another’s burdens.
And it’s about an understanding that we are members of a faith tradition, that claims to follow a person of color, who was persecuted, who was tortured and who was executed by the political and military authorities of his day.
We as white Christians need to listen, listen hard, listen actively, listen with open hearts, listen with humility and compassion.
And secondly, we need to be actively rejecting divisive tribalism and moving toward contemplative action.
Back to the story in Luke. The lawyer answers Jesus’s question in an odd way. Did you notice? Jesus asks, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” The lawyer responds, “The one who showed him mercy.”
He cannot bring himself to name the man as a Samaritan. Who was a neighbor to the man in need? It couldn’t possibly be a member of a social group he has demonized, not someone he has labeled as other, dangerous, evil and ungodly.
Who was a neighbor to the man in need?
a member of ISIL? Al Qaeda?
a Black Lives Matter protester?
a police officer?
He can’t bring himself to say.
Clarence Jordan, the great Southern Baptist writer, co-founded Koinonia Farm in Georgia in 1942. Koinonia Farm was an intentionally integrated Christian community working for social justice, peace, and economic benefit of poor whites and blacks in the south.
He was the author of the Cotton Patch Gospels, in which he transposes the gospels from the Greek into Southern vernacular and setting. So, Jerusalem is Atlanta, and Jericho becomes Albany.
In his retelling of this story, the lawyer is an adult Bible class teacher; the priest is a white preacher; the Levite is a white Gospel song leader; and the Samaritan is a black man.
“Which one of these three, would you consider to have been your neighbor?” Jesus asks.
To convey the difficulty the lawyer would have had saying Samaritan, Jordan has the adult Bible class teacher reply by reflexively starting to say the N-word, but he catches himself in mid syllable, and then says, “the one who treated me kindly.”
Jesus responds, “Well, then, you get going and start living like that!”(3)
Who is it that we most fear?
Jesus is breaking down those barriers, forcing us to look into our own hearts. Who are we defining as outsider? as other? as non-neighbor? What are we doing to that individual or group when we do that?What violence are we perpetrating with our divisions?
Miguel De La Torre writes of a trip he and other church members took in the desert near the Mexican border. They were bringing lifesaving supplies of water and food for people attempting to cross the border. Migrants are usually fearful and hide, afraid of border patrols or of vigilante groups. So the church members will call out in Spanish, “We have food and water. We have medicine. We are with the church. Do not be afraid.”
On this occasion, one of the church groups on patrol saw migrants running away. The group was not very fluent in Spanish and their words were misunderstood. Suddenly the migrants stopped running, came back to the church group. And they said, “We don’t have much food or water, but what we do have, we’ll share with you.” The migrants had misheard the announcement of assistance as a cry for help. Yet, they were willing to share from their own meager resources, with those who had much
De La Torre writes, “We went into the desert to be like the Good Samaritan only to be humbled when we actually came across Jesús.” (4)
Part of our response to the divisions in our communities needs to be sustained reflection upon the ways in which we are a part of the divisions, how we are labeling others.
And to recognize those actions and words which are divisive do as much violence to who we are as individuals as it does to the people on whom we are slapping labels.
We cannot be true, authentic selves if we are participating in a society that is actively oppressing those who aren’t like us, if we are refusing to see the face of Jesus in the face of the Samaritan, the Syrian refugee, the black homeless man selling CDs outside a convenience store.
If we cannot recognize our common humanity, we are just as imprisoned and we are just as burdened down by the racism in our society as people of color.
And we need to focus on the bigger picture: Fix the road.
It’s all well and good to bind of the wounds of those who have been beaten down. But as Martin Luther King, Jr. reflecting on this story wrote,
A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies.
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. (5)
Yes, we need to focus on ourselves…are we living as good neighbors, are we embodying the virtues of compassion, kindness and generosity? But at some point, we need to be asking the tough questions:
Why are these tragic acts of violence still happening?
Why are people of color, particularly African American men incarcerated at a disproportionately higher rate than whites?
How can we work to spread reforms of police departments such as are happening in the changes in the Dallas police department? To lower excessive force complaints, increase community policing, focus on de-escalation techniques?
A columnist with the Seattle Times referenced a conversation he had recently with Ron Sims, former King County executive, a Baptist minister, WSU regent, a successful Seattle African-American politician. As an aside in the conversation, Sims said he had been pulled over while driving in the city 8 times. Most recently, the officer approached him, didn’t tell him what he’d done wrong, but the first words out of his mouth were, “Where are you going?” (6)
I’ve been pulled over once in Puyallup in 16 years, once, for a taillight that was out.
We need to ask the question why police officer fatality rates are correlating to public gun ownership rates. Why states with the lowest gun ownerships have lower rates of officer fatalities than states with higher public gun ownership? (7)
We need to ask tough questions.
And we need to have an honest and open discussion of America’s love affair with guns and violence.
These are days when it is easy to lose hope. When despair moves in, it often blinds us to alternative ways of being in the world.
Jesus does not offer us a 5 point plan on how to create sustainable neighborhoods. But what he does do is try to shock us out of our complacency, to pull the rug out from under our prejudices, and to push us away from a way of being in the world which flourishes in an us against them mentality.
Stop trying to figure out whom I want you to be kind to…and start being kind.
A Minnesota journalist, Ben Garvin, tweeted this week a picture of a note left outside the Montessori school where Philando Castile worked. In a child’s scrawl and crayon drawings, the child was trying to make sense of the death of a beloved cafeteria employee: “I rilly rilly miss you.” And ended the note with “You have rainbows in your heart.”
— bengarvin (@bengarvin) July 8, 2016
In days such as this one,
and in the days to come,
may we all strive to be just like that…
to have rainbows in our hearts.
(1) Merton, Thomas, Seeds of Destruction, American Book–Stratford Press, Inc., (1961) p. 64-65.
(2) Quoted in Los Angeles Times, July 8, 2016, http://www.latimes.com/politics/la-na-trailguide-updates-1468001199-htmlstory.html
(3) Jordan, Clarence, The Cotton Patch Gospel: Luke and Acts, Smyth & Helwys Publishing, Inc., (2004), p. 37-38.
(4) De La Torre, Miguel A., The Politics of Jesús: a Hispanic Political Theology, Rowman & Littlefield, (2015), p. 37-38.
(5) King, Jr., Martin Luther, quoted in Prophetic Politics, by David S. Gutterman, Cornell University Press, (2005), p. 90.
(6) Westneat, Danny, The Seattle Times, July 8, 2016, Living while black? Even Seattle’s Ron Sims counts 8 cop stops. http://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/driving-while-black-even-seattles-ron-sims-counts-8-cop-stops/
(7) See More police officers die on the job in states with more guns, by Christopher Ingraham, The Washington Post, July 8, 2016. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2016/07/08/more-police-officers-die-on-the-job-in-states-with-more-guns/