by Ellen Sims
texts: Deuteronomy 30:11-14; Luke 10: 25-37
A lawyer asked Jesus how to have eternal life. Jesus said, “You know the answer. Love God and neighbor.” Hoping to satisfy the law in the most minimal way possible, the lawyer persisted: “Who exactly is my neighbor?” And Jesus told a parable. After the sorrowful week we’ve had, I wonder what that parable would sound like if we asked Jesus that question this morning
. . . .
A man was “driving while black” down the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. Officers in a patrol car noticed a broken tail light, maybe. For some reason the black man “fell into the hands” of those who would eventually rob him . . . of his life. He “fell” into a whirlpool of contradictory orders, split-second decisions, and mounting fears. He was stripped . . . of his rights. Then the robbers of the peace fell from their training into reptilian reflex, fell from appropriate caution to aggression. One of them shot four times. The robbers took the man’s life as helpless loved ones watched just inches away.
In the aftermath of the death of Philando Castile, priests and pastors saw the story on the evening news. Some may have passed on by that image of a black body bloodied from an officer’s gun, passed on by the sound of a girlfriend demanding justice; passed on by the emotional tidal wave of a community in shock and foreboding. Some seem to have grown numb by now to such stories.
Another group of religious folks paused long enough to take it in, to imagine the grief of the young man’s friends and family and the school children where he worked, the terror growing among parents with black sons and among communities who already distrust the police. These religious folks weighed the waste of another life on the scales of justice. And were ashamed. Or angry. But they, too, were able to pass on by—at least in the sense that they disavowed their own power, complicity, and responsibility. They felt sad. And told some people they felt sad and wished the system could change. And by simply feeling rather than doing, they passed on by.
Now we, my friends, are seeing in this moment many bodies on the side of the road. We can turn our heads now. Or we can feel bad about it. Or we can be the good Samaritan who is the unexpected neighbor to the murdered man. We can realize that we are living in the current Roman Empire, which has been promising us a phony peace—Pax Romana—maintained by violence and a worship of weapons—even though we know God’s Empire promises peace only through renunciation of violent actions and words. But if we choose to enter this Jesus story, we must be neighbor even to those who’ve done harm. Life is not as simple as one parable.
The day after Philando Castile was murdered, five peacekeepers in Dallas who were protecting the right of peaceful protest and who put their lives on the line for others were gunned down. Many others were injured. Violence begetting violence, yes. But in this second modern parable we can see the police as the beaten man left for dead and in need of a good Samaritan.
Parables like the ones Jesus told are simple, stark, short. One key point. We, too, prefer simple stories, even when we’re using them to make sense of a complicated world that we want to divide neatly into opposing groups: the robbers versus the beaten victim; or the Jewish priests and Levites versus the non-Jewish and highly despised Samaritan; the lawyer who tried to wrangle out of Jesus permission to care for a limited group of people versus Jesus who insisted on giving “neighbor” the widest definition and giving us responsibility for the widest swath of humanity.
But in the real world where encounters happen unscripted by a storyteller teaching a specific lesson, the rule of mercy requires us to hold people of opposing perspectives together in one embrace. And to realize that our sources of information are imperfect, especially when news is fresh. My point here is that we can condemn police violence—and the deaths of police officers supporting peaceful protest. That’s God’s way of loving this world. We move along the path toward compassion when we grieve for the police officers who died in Dallas even as we grieve the flaws within police forces and racist systems.
In Jesus’s parable one body is wounded, one priest and one Levite ignore him, and one Samaritan gives aid. Jesus was not condemning all religious people or glorifying all Samaritans. Just so, in our modern parable we can’t generalize all police officers as either the robbers or the victim. And those labels are inadequate even for the individuals.
Let’s recall that Jesus, who spoke forgiveness to his own executioners, would require us to have compassion for the police officer who shot Philando Castile while we grieve for the lives that have ended while in police custody–regardless of whether or not those arrested made mistakes leading up to their deaths at the hands of police. We can show compassion along with commitment to finding the truth in these events and rectifying a broken system. This stance is neither “soft” on crime (to love those suspected of or imprisoned for crimes) nor “soft” on oppressors (to love law enforcement officers who’ve made terrible errors in judgment and/or who may be racists).
We are blessed to be part of a faith community diverse in race, socio-economic circumstances, sexuality identities, political persuasions, and personal and professional experiences. Some of us work or have worked within the criminal justice system. A recent book study has heightened our concern about racism within our state and national criminal justice systems. Rightly so. But we can honor the work of dedicated public servants even as we expose and remedy systemic problems. We can guard against careless words that paint all public servants with the same brush–just as we listen to groups like Black Lives Matter or critiques of the criminal justice system without feeling personally attacked.
We are to love our neighbors. That means, according to Jesus, anyone in need. That means the person we least want to find kinship with.
Reducing this week’s news from Baton Rouge, St. Paul, and Dallas to stories about the good guys versus the bad guys is irresponsible. Remember that Jesus was prompted to tell an interpretable parable because a lawyer was trying to get assurance that he owed mercy only to a limited group. Instead, Jesus told a parable to enlarge the lawyer’s concept of neighbor and his sense of responsibility.
Sadly, there’s no way to bring Philando Castile back with oil and bandages, no way to carry five dead officers to an inn for healing. There’s no magic word a Samaritan hero can use to single handedly end racism, reform police forces, stop violence, restore communities, enact justice.
But there is a powerful word spoken in the climax of today’s parable, a word full of hope: mercy.
The meticulous lawyer who wanted to retreat to bloodless laws instead of complicated relationships and obligations said it. Jesus confirmed it. The story that frames the parable ends with the word “mercy.” Eleos in the Greek. It can also be translated as compassion and good will joined with a desire to help. Eleos is not pity devoid of action. When Jesus asked who was neighbor to the beaten man, the lawyer said it was the one who showed eleos. And Jesus responded, “GO and DO likewise.” Mercy is not a feeling. It’s an action.
How can you and I act to bind the wounds of the bodies on the road? How can we possibly learn the merciful work of being neighbors in a racialized and weaponized nation? Our Hebrew Bible reading for this morning assures us that God’s commandments are “not too hard” (Deut. 30: 11) and that “the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart” (Deut. 30:14). The way forward is not impossible. And the answers are already within us.
I’m inviting you now to begin this search for the answers God has placed near us and in us by sharing preliminary thoughts about how we as a faith community might be the Good Samaritan in a violent and racist world. We will make more time for continuing this conversation in the days ahead.
O God, whether our neighbor’s skin is black or his uniform is blue, we know the blood that runs is red, and the tears you shed are crystal clear. Because you see clearly that each of us is neighbor to one another. Teach us to be neighbors and see neighbors. Amen