The Man Who Wanted to Live
(Jesus said to the lawyer), “Which of these three
(The priest, the Levite, the Samaritan),
Do you think was a neighbor to the man
Who fell into the hands of the robbers?’
The lawyer said, “The one who showed him mercy.”
Jesus said to the lawyer, “Go and do likewise.”
We think that this morning’s gospel reading is about a good Samaritan, a despised figure in ancient Israelite culture, and about a stretching of the word “neighbor” to include anyone encountered in need. And, of course, it is that, though not merely that, nor even mainly that, if for no other reason than that the Samaritan, who serves as an example of what it means to be a neighbor, is a fictional character, just as the robbers, the beaten up man, the priest and the Levite are all fictional characters created by Jesus to help a lawyer learn what it means to live a human life under God. For the lawyer, in encountering Jesus on a 11village street, took the chance meeting to ask Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life, a serious question if ever there was one. Jesus, who loves answering a question with a question, asks the lawyer what it says in the Law, meaning the first five books of the Bible. The lawyer, joining a text from the Book of Leviticus with a text from the Book of Deuteronomy, says, “Love God and love thy neighbor.” It’s a brilliant summary answer, and Jesus, recognizing it as such, does not hesitate to commend the lawyer, telling him, “You have given the right answer,” and then Jesus adds the clincher, “Do this, (do this), and you will live.” Unfortunately for people like me, who spent most of my life in the classroom and in my study, it is not enough simply to deal with answers, one must also “do” them. The lawyer, who is, after all, a lawyer, one who knows how to read a text closely for loopholes, and knowing that the Leviticus text seems to limit the definition of neighbor to one’s kin or at most to one’s people, then asks Jesus a nice lawyerly question, “who is my neighbor.” To which Jesus responds with the now famous Good Samaritan story, apparently imaginatively created on the spot, concluding with yet another of Jesus’ questions, “Which one of these three,” Jesus asks the lawyer, “was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” The lawyer gives the only response possible, “The one who showed mercy,” leading Jesus to his concluding admonition, a repetition of what he had said before, “Go and do likewise,” only this time Jesus does not add, “and you will live,” though that is certainly understood.
This little story from the Gospel of Luke raises so many questions that I hardly know where to begin. What about the robbers? Did they go unpunished? What about the robbed man, stripped and beaten, left half dead? Did he deserve that fate? What about the priest and Levite, highly regarded religious figures in Jewish culture, “good” people, how could they just “pass by,” showing no mercy? Jesus seems unconcerned about these kind of questions that so trouble our minds, so trouble our faith, questions of unpunished injustice, questions of undeserved suffering, questions of “good” people not doing good. No, Jesus seems focused on only one thing, what should a person do when encountering another in need, and he connects what we do with whether we live or not. “Do this” --- show mercy, show care, show concern to the other in need --- “and you will live,” Jesus says, “you will live.”
It’s as if Jesus turns us all into Nicodemus, who --- I’m sure you all remember --- upon being told by Jesus that he needs to be born again was puzzled because he had already been born. And we, hearing Jesus say that if we show mercy we will live, can only be puzzled: for do we not already live? Do not the priest and the Levite who “pass by,” whatever we think of them, do they not live? When we think of human beings, when we think of human lives, do we not think of them as full of possibilities, for good and for bad, and for everything in between. Do we not think, when we think of human decision making, that there is the possibility of error, that we make mistakes in our life, grievous ones sometimes? When two police officers in Baton Rouge wrestle a black man to the ground and shoot multiple bullets into him; when a police officer in St. Paul stops a car for tail light infractions and then shoots the black driver as he reaches into his pocket for his wallet, some of us might think that perhaps black lives don’t matter enough to these officers; when at a peaceful protest march in Dallas, snipers shoot and kill five white police officers, some of us might think that these black snipers by meeting violence with violence are not overcoming evil but only impelling a spiral of evil, but I doubt that any of us would want to say, as Jesus suggests, that these police officers, these snipers, like the violent robbers in this morning’s gospel story, were not living. They seem all too terrifyingly alive to us.
So how are we to deal with the puzzle left to us by Jesus’ words, “Do this and you shall live.” Well, we could ignore them, or forget them, or interpret them away by saying, “Oh, it was just a slip of Jesus’ tongue, or a slip of Luke’s pen, that Jesus meant to say, ‘Do this and you will have eternal life.’” Well, even though the gospel text doesn’t say that, we could say that. Nothing stops us. After all, the human mind is a veritable factory of interpretations. But I would not say that: for this reason. If we stick to Jesus’ puzzling statement, “Do this, (show mercy), and you will live,” we get a profound insight into human existence, and into our relation to God.
Consider this: if we let the puzzle remain, if we let ourselves think that Jesus wants us to think that just by living we may not be living, then we can only conclude that Jesus wants to puzzle us, or, rather, he wants to make us a puzzle to ourselves, he wants to awaken us to the fact that to be human is an issue for us human beings, requiring understanding, or rather self-understanding; and the reason for this, certainly for Jesus, lies in the biblical phrase that we are created in the image of God. We live when we live out what it means to be created in God’s image --- and that requires, first of all, disclosure to ourselves as beings in God’s image, and it also requires an understanding of that disclosure. We all exist, so to speak, before we are disclosed. We all need disclosure.
I think here of something Donald Trump said (according to The New Yorker) to one of his biographers: “I don’t like to analyze myself,” said Trump, “because I might not like what I see.” So what would Trump see if he analytically looked. He would see, to take only one example, a person who advocated torture of suspected terrorists and the killing of the families of terrorists. As many point out, that would be against American values, but deeper than that, as this morning’s gospel story implies, to not care about the life of others is against who we are as beings who want to live as human beings; it is against our being which is a being unto care; it is closing ourselves off from our being; it is losing our being; it is even selling our being as Elijah said to Ahab in the Old Testament reading some weeks ago.
How can we know this? I mean aside from Jesus talking this way, Elijah talking this way, how can we know that this is true? Surely we can only know it subjectively, internally, by looking deep inside ourselves, into our feelings, and finding ourselves, as Jesus said the Samaritan found himself, “moved with pity” at the sight of another in need, though that other was a stranger, even an alien.
Sisters and brothers in Christ, when we ask ourselves what it was that drew the Samaritan towards the half dead man, while the priest and the Levite passed by, shall we not say that it was the very depths of his being that so drew him, that it was the ground of his being, that it was Being Itself, God, who in faith we say is love; that when we find ourselves drawn towards goodness, do we not confess that it is God who draws us to goodness, who moves us to pity --- and do we not give thanks to God for so doing.
We know only too well, from all the killings this past week, not only the two black men and the five police officers, but the forty killed in Baghdad by a suicide bomber, and who knows how many more in the ongoing fighting in Syria, let alone all the killings past and future that we can expect, (do we not know only too well) what a failure we human beings are at being human. And yet, even with all these killings this week, we have grounds for living in hope, partly because we see the great nation-wide outpouring of grief from these killings, a sign of human caring if ever there was one, but also because we confess, from the very depths of our being, that the ground of all beings, God, is love, mercy, forgiveness, compassion, and that ground is patience itself, will stay with us, never giving up on us, always calling us, drawing us towards goodness, telling us, as Jesus says, that if we do this, if we care, we will live.
Thanks be to God for this great mercy.
Thanks be to Christ.