The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
The Wrong Question
Every day we log on, or turn on the TV, or pick up the newspaper to find yet another bleeding, hurting, desperate person being passed by – a young black or blue body gunned down, a lonely gay or lesbian teen contemplating suicide, a desperate refugee longing to survive. And still the question rings out in our country, our culture, our world: “Who is my neighbor?” And it is always the wrong question. It is the wrong question because it is a question in search of an exception, an excuse, a reason not to love. It is the wrong question and we have to stop asking it.
The lawyer in today's Gospel begins with a test. And the test quickly becomes something else all together. Because it always does. Jesus, I think, tries to make love very simple for us; but in doing so, it complicates it terribly. It seems simple because of the lack of distinction: love God and love people. There are no exceptions, no asterisks, no complicated formula. But then the demands of love find their way in our real lives in the real world, and those demands slam into our prejudices, and biases, and all our precious hatreds, and well, then love feels far from simple.
As Jesus does with his parables, today's story, commonly called the Good Samaritan, at first follows predictable literary conventions. Until it doesn't. And by the end the story has twisted and the listener is exposed. And nothing is the same.
And so, following that pattern, it begins predictably: it is no surprise that one might be ransacked on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho because while a lot has changed in two thousand years our savage human violence remains shockingly intact. The road was notoriously dangerous: a sharply descending trail with turns, twists, and tricky terrain that obscured the thieves who tormented travelers. And, unfortunately, it is no surprise that the thief left the victim in the road to die because while a lot has changed in two thousand years our ability to dehumanize our brothers and sisters remains shockingly intact.
Now it initially might have been mildly surprising to the listeners that a priest ignored the dying man. And again perhaps mildly surprising that the Levite also passed by. But the crowd would have expected a third character to enter the story – the old rule of three thing – and would have expected that person to be the hero. And so probably at this point they expected Jesus' story to be a critique of the clerical class – the story ending with an ordinary member of the tribe of Israel as the hero. And to a crowd of ordinary Jews that story would be well-received and affirming while reminding them to be nice, to be good. It would be a predictable morality tale, a good, if not forgettable, story.
But this is Jesus and this is a parable. And so there must be a twist.
You might remember our Gospel reading from two weeks ago. On that Sunday, we heard another story from Luke's Gospel, a story that is found in the previous chapter. In the story Jesus arrives in a Samaritan village and they reject him; they want him gone. The rejection, the lack of hospitality, enrages two of Jesus' disciples, James and John. They hate Samaritans and this episode makes them so angry that they ask Jesus for permission to wipe out that entire Samaritan village. And, of course, Jesus rebukes them and they continue their journey.
And yet here, almost immediately after Jesus is slighted by Samaritans, a Samaritan makes an appearance in his parable – an unexpected appearance as the one character who was moved with pity, the model of love and mercy. The crowd was expecting to find a good Jew, a brother or sister, someone who looked and acted like them, in that heroic role, instead they find their enemy. It's quite a twist.
“Who is my neighbor?”: it is the wrong question. It is the question we ask when Jesus makes us uncomfortable. It certainly didn't matter to the man dying on the road. Every person who walked by could have been his neighbor.
I have a story of my own. I'm not saying it is as good as Jesus', but it's a good story. In my story the priest doesn't pass by on the other side of the road. My story takes place on the other side of the pond. There are no treacherous paths; no bandits; no Samaritans. But there is a priest – the rector of a suburban parish. This priest was quite openly opposed to homosexuality and often used the parish newsletter to disseminate his message to his parish. That's bad enough, except the members of that congregation were not the only recipients of that newsletter. It was also sent to the other local Episcopal clerics. I know that because I was on the mailing list. And you can trust me when I say: his message was never subtle.
In my story there is also another priest – the rector of a downtown parish, in the heart of the city, not terribly far from the suburban parish with its suburban rector. She too was on the mailing list; she too received that monthly newsletter. She was a lesbian, in a long-term, committed relationship. And the rector of the suburban parish knew she was a lesbian, knew her partner, and yet still sent her those newsletters containing his hurtful anti-LGBT rants.
One day, the suburban rector's wife grew very ill; she was diagnosed with an aggressive form of leukemia. It was a desperate situation – life and death. Her very small chance of survival depended on finding a bone marrow donation match.
The priest from the downtown church found out about this desperate situation – she was on the newsletter mailing list, after all. And so she organized the bone marrow donor registration. And she donated her marrow. And she recruited people across the diocese to register. And after his wife died, that priest, a lesbian, whom that suburban rector had preached against from the pulpit and in that newsletter, well, she held him while he cried. And he whispered to her a thank you. Because when life was desperate, she showed him mercy. And for at least a moment, he no longer saw her as a lesbian, but as a sister. For at least a moment, nothing else mattered. When he and his wife were hurting, the rector of the downtown church was a neighbor to him.
I wish I could tell you, that event completely changed the way he looked at the world. It didn't. It didn't change his views of gays or lesbians. But that was never the goal. The downtown priest never expected anything in return. She just saw a person who needed to be loved. And so she loved him. And that matters. A lot.
To a man dying on the side of the road, to a person in desperate need, the world looks different: no longer seen through prejudices and hatreds. All of those things that divide us, race, ethnicity, gender, religion, sexual orientation, sexual identity, or political affiliation, all of those things that we use to justify the borders and boundaries and fences we construct, mean much less than a person's willingness to show mercy. Because the person dying on the road doesn't need a lecture, just a hand. The person dying on the road is not a symbol, but person in need of another person.
“Who is my neighbor?” is the wrong question. It is the wrong question because we don't choose our neighbors. They are just there – bleeding in the streets, beaten and battered, victims of racism and violence and all of those hatreds to which we cling so selfishly. They are just there – desperate for mercy, in need of love.
We don't choose our neighbors. But we do choose whether or not we will show mercy. And we do choose whether or not we will offer love.
The lawyer starts the conversation with a question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” But Jesus never answers the question. Because once again, the lawyer asks the wrong question. There's nothing we can do to earn God's love. There are no exceptions, no asterisks, no complicated formula. There are people. And there is love. And God just loves us.
Go and do likewise.