Pentecost 8C Luke 10:25-37
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on us all.
I believe many of us have prayed this type of prayer this week. Perhaps over the past few weeks. During the times of our lives when things are going well, the phrase, “Lord, have mercy,” certainly has meaning, but not the same kind of depth that it seems to cry out from when we know and witness suffering. This is true perhaps most especially true when we feel at a loss as to what we can do to end the suffering.
I remember a little game we used to play as kids called Mercy. Two people would lock hands, weaving our fingers together, and try to bend one another’s hands backwards until the other said Mercy! Mercy, I hurt too much to continue with this.
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on us all.
Each week, we gather together and pray for God Almighty, for Jesus Christ, to have mercy upon us. We ask God for mercy for all the ways in thought, word, and deed that we did too much or not enough. For the sake of your Son, Jesus Christ, have mercy on us. Then we sing a whole litany, asking for God’s mercy, for peace, salvation, peace of the whole world, for the whole church, for unity for all people, for our congregation specifically and for help, salvation and comfort for each one of us. It’s called the Kyrie and it’s called that because of the congregation’s refrain: Lord, have mercy. Kyrie: Lord. Eleison: have mercy.
When we pray the prayers of the people, we most often end each petition with Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer. As the people of God have done for centuries, we call to God for the much needed gift of divine mercy. As far back as there are writings about the early Christian church, there is mention of this litany: Lord, have mercy, Christ have mercy. The people of God crying out to God for mercy.
In the simplest sense, when we are in pain, we cry out for mercy for the same reason a child would cry out “mercy!” to end the little game. I cannot continue with this pain. But what really is mercy and, perhaps most importantly, what is God’s mercy? According to the dictionary, mercy is, among other things, an act of kindness, compassion, or favor. It is a synonym for grace. Our gospel lesson may also give us some clues about divine mercy, both what is given to us and what we are to grant others, since it includes an act of mercy in a story told by Jesus.
Our text begins with a lawyer, an expert in Jewish law, asking Jesus a question. “Teacher,” he says, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” And, in good pastoral care style, Jesus responds with a question. “Well, what do you think?” You’ve studied the law, what do you read there?
His answers come straight from two of the big books of Law in the Old Testament. Deuteronomy 6:5, You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Then Leviticus 19:18 You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord. That’s it! Jesus says, Yup, you’re right. Do that and you’ve got it.
Now, I have to say that I completely get it when this Lawyer asks his next question. Who is my neighbor? Maybe lots of us would ask that question. Sometimes, I like to think that we would ask out of a desire to understand Jesus better, but the truth is that we might ask “who is my neighbor?” to see what was expected of us, who we actually have to love. Lawyer asks who is his neighbor, to justify himself, to justify his actions.
And Jesus, as he typically does, responds with a story. A man was traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho and ran into some trouble along the way. Criminals found him, took everything he had. Even the clothes off his back! Beat him and left him for dead in the road. Now, first, a priest comes by. Surely, this guy will help out the unfortunate traveler! But nope, he passes right on by, not only passing him up but crossing the road to get away from the beaten, half dead man. Then, a Levite, we can think of him as a man who works at the church. Of course, he would stop and help the man. But no, he too just walks on by on the other side of the road.
So here he lays, naked, beaten, robbed, helpless in the road. But then, a Samaritan comes by. No one who heard Jesus’ story would ever think that a Samaritan would ever do anything to help out someone in need. While Samaritans did believe in God—in YHWY—just like the Jews, they didn’t do it the “right way”. They didn’t follow all the laws and regulations and didn’t even worship in the right places! At least, as far as the Hebrews were concerned. Yet surprisingly, the Samaritan stops. He cleans and cares for the wounded man, binds him up, even puts him on his own donkey, takes him to an inn and, the next day, tells the innkeeper to take care of the man. The Samaritan promises to pay back anything the innkeeper spends to help him out. The Samaritan did not cross the road to get away from the man. He stopped and helped him.
So, Jesus asks the Lawyer: Who Was The Man’s Neighbor? The one who showed him mercy is the Lawyer’s reply. There you go, Jesus says. Now, go and do the same.
This is mercy. To show compassion for our neighbor, regardless of whether or not they are like us or are our friends; to help someone in need; to not pass by on the other side of the road; to be good to others; to be kind.
This is what we are asked by God to do. To love our neighbors as much as we would ourselves and to do so by showing kindness, compassion, help, acknowledging our common humanity and to show grace.
Now, when you hear Jesus’ story about the Good Samaritan, what is the picture you see? I know that I think of some nice guy who was in the wrong place at the wrong time and was taken advantage of. He’s just walking along minding his own business. And, for no good reason, this innocent man is attacked! Beaten by criminals within an inch of his life and stripped of everything, even his dignity. Surely, he didn’t deserve this! Though I’ve never been beaten, robbed and left for dead in the middle of the street, I certainly have had bad things happen to me that I didn’t deserve. Haven’t we all? Bad things happen to good people every day. Oh, won’t someone please stop and help this poor man! Attacked out of the blue, this nice guy, please help him! And, honestly, at some points in my life, I see myself as the Good Samaritan, stopping and helping the poor guy. Taking care of this innocent person who has been so badly treated.
But, the truth is, Jesus never tells us anything about this man. In fact, a description of him is conspicuously absent. We know nothing about him. Was he a nice guy? Was he a righteous man? Was he himself a criminal? A physician? A murderer? Was he an innocent man or was he a man guilty of all kinds of crimes and sins who deserved a good beating and some kind of poetic justice was served by robbers taking money he had stolen from someone else?
The story reminds me of the first time I donated blood. I wasn’t the only first time donor there either. The woman in the chair beside me was also giving blood for the first time. She was talking to the nurse about where her blood was going to go. She wanted to know if she could specifically request where it would go. “Someone in particular?” the nurse asked. “Oh, no not really, but I just don’t want it to go to waste.” She replied. “I don’t understand….” the nurse was confused, “the blood goes to whoever needs it.” “Well, there are just SOME people I wouldn’t want having my blood,” the woman said with a superior tone of voice. “I mean, I wouldn’t want to be responsible for helping out some drunk driver or criminal!” “Madam,” the nurse said, “there is no way to put restrictions on who gets your blood. It goes to whoever needs it.” “So, you’re telling me my blood could go into some gang member’s body! I thought you used this to save babies and children and people like that—not just anybody! Oh, no, I’m not going to do that! Take this needle thing out of me! You’re not using me to save someone who doesn’t deserve it!”
Sometimes, even if we don’t mean to do it or even realize we are doing it, we see God’s mercy and God’s greatest commandment to us in the same way this woman saw her blood donation. We don’t want to think about God forgiving, loving, giving gracious mercy to just anyone, especially someone who doesn’t really deserve it. Or doesn’t deserve it in our limited, not-all-seeing, not-all-knowing judgement of others.
And perhaps even more so, we don’t like the idea of God telling us we must love and be compassionate towards everyone. It is hard. We are scared. They are different. They do not look or sound or think or believe like we do. They shouldn’t have been in that neighborhood. They have different political views than I do. They shouldn’t have dressed like that. They are on the wrong side of some issue that seems really important to me. They might hurt us. They might reject us. We just don’t know how.
God does not say we are to love our neighbors because it is easy. We are to love and show mercy, kindness and compassion to all of our neighbors because God loves us and loves them, too. It is also no accident that these two commandments are linked together by Jesus. Loving God and loving our neighbors are two parts of a whole heart lived in Christ.
In Jesus’ parable, any one of a hundred different things could be factual about that man. The truth is that his righteousness, worthiness or lack there of is completely irrelevant to Jesus. In the parable he tells, the man is shown tremendous mercy, regardless of what he was or was not. In fact, the kind of person he was is so irrelevant to the mercy he received that Jesus did not bother to even include it in his story. He received it simply because he could not have lived without it.
God’s mercy finds us in the middle of the road, beaten bruised and humiliated by life, sometimes because of the damage done to us by others and by the world. Things that none of us ask for or seek out. And sometimes because of our own choices, decisions, or mistakes. This is the mercy that God shows us and it is the mercy we are called upon to show others. It is the mercy we cry for so desperately and it is the mercy the world cries out for now. And God gives us gracious mercy, not because we do or do not deserve it but because we need it. We all need it. We need it from God and we need it from one another.