Luke 10:25-37 – November 16, 2013
The evangelist Luke tells us that one day a certain lawyer—an expert in the Law of Moses–asked Jesus a searching question, “Who is my neighbor?” He wanted to “justify himself,” we are told. (Who doesn’t?) In response the Lord tells the parable of the Good Samaritan. And when he had finished, Jesus has a searching question of his own—“Which of these three, do you think—the priest, the Levite, or the despised Samaritan—proved neighbor to the man the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” The lawyer replied, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”
Go and do likewise. Easier said than done! Mercy isn’t even easy to define, when it comes down to it. No word in English means precisely the same thing. But it is worth the effort, because for those of us who seriously wonder—What should I be doing to follow Jesus?—mercy brings us as near an answer as we are going to get.
So what exactly is mercy?
There are a number of English words that mean nearly the same thing—there is pity for instance, a feeling of sorrow for another’s pain. And there is compassion, which comes closer to mercy than pity because it requires some “ethical imagination,” the ability to think yourself into a painful situation of another and conjure up for yourself the anguish you have not felt. In the parable that Jesus tells, the Samaritan saw the man who had fallen among thieves lying next to the road and he “had compassion.” He felt for or, more exactly, with the victim.
But the story doesn’t end there—with a feeling. It certainly could have ended with the Samaritan feeling sorry for that poor blighter lying in the ditch. It is entirely possible to feel pity and still pass by on the other side of the road. Mercy, however, is more than a feeling. You can feel compassion, but you have to show mercy. It may be accompanied by an emotion, with pity or compassion—it often is–but it is never just that. Mercy is an action.
And feelings are not actions, beloved. To think they are is one of the deepest flaws present in our modern way of thinking, beloved. For all of its harshness, we live in a sentimental society, where emotion is greatly valued for its own sake. We have the misguided notion that if we feel something deeply we have done something worthwhile. I have to include myself in this. When I read about the devastation wrought by a typhoon in the Philippines–thousands and thousands homeless and starving–I feel a surge of genuine pity for their suffering. As a father I can imagine myself in the position of those parents who are grieving for their children, swept away by the fury of the storm. I feel compassion—and that’s nice. Compassion costs little or nothing and can be emotionally quite satisfying. And having finished feeling sorry, I can safely turn the page of my newspaper, take another sip of my coffee, and congratulate myself on being a good person.
You have done that too—we all have. We are people entirely convinced of the value of our own feelings.
But having felt pity or compassion we have not shown mercy. Feelings are not actions. The writer of the Book of James asks: “If a brother or sister is lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?” (2:15-16)
What good indeed? None whatsoever.
Mercy is not sentimental. It requires us first of all to see other human beings realistically and soberly, not as things but as actual persons, like ourselves. In Jesus’ parable the Samaritan saw a man lying beaten and bleeding next to the road. The priest and the Levite, who had passed that way earlier, had also seen the same man. But what they saw was a disagreeable object lying by the side of the road, possibly a corpse, a potential source of ritual impurity and something to be avoided. The Samaritan, however, was prepared to see the victim differently, because he himself was someone whom life had beaten up. As a member of a hated minority, the Samaritan in Jesus’ parable would have experienced prejudice and racial discrimination. He too was a victim of injustice.
Having suffered injustice ourselves, however, is no guarantee that we will respond to injustice when we see it done to others. The Samaritan might have shaken his head oh so sadly and signed—“What a pity! I know how unjust life can be.” We all enjoy dwelling upon how badly we have been treated, and–let’s face it–life can certainly hand us the rough end of the stick. But going out of our way to bind up someone else’s wounds requires a degree of forgiveness for whatever hard knocks life has handed us. We have to let go our self-pity in order to show mercy.
The Samaritan knew nothing whatsoever about the character of the man who lay unconscious by the side of the road. He may have been good or bad. That doesn’t matter for mercy. Judgment isn’t up to us–showing mercy is. It begins with seeing real people in need, and then it deliberately takes a step toward righting life’s injustices, of which we ourselves are the victims. And when we bind up their wounds we bind up our own.
Mercy is deliberate; it is the decision that makes it mercy.
You can feel pity without meaning to. You can experience sympathy on an impulse. You can do kind things spontaneously, without thinking, but you have to “show” mercy. It requires of us a conscious decision—or rather a series of decisions—to go further and further out of our way—to get closer and closer to those who are in pain. The Samaritan went to the victim by the side of road and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine, the first aid of that time and place. Then he put him on his own beast. Then he took him to the inn and paid the innkeeper to take care of him. Each was a deliberate action that carried him further and further out of his way–and got him in deeper and deeper.
He became more and more involved in the life of the man he didn’t know. He did that not because the man he found by the road particularly deserved his mercy, but because the Samaritan found mercy in his nature–as do we. It is gift of God pure and simple. It is how God shares himself with us. We call it “grace.” But we have to make the decision to allow God’s mercy to flow through us into the world. So Jesus says to the lawyer—and to us, by the way–“Go and do likewise.”
The Old Testament sings praises for the God who shows mercy to the children of Israel, his chosen people. But it took a long time for the children of Israel to reconcile themselves to the idea that that in response they should act mercifully. And even then they strictly limited mercy, as if it were something supremely precious—which it is. Down to the time of Jesus the limits of mercy remained a living question debated among experts on the Law of Moses–How far does mercy go? Should mercy extend beyond the Jewish community? What about “bad” Jews? Did it extend beyond the Chosen to righteous non-Jews? But it surely couldn’t reach to “trash”–like Samaritans, for instance? That is the source of the searching question the lawyer asks Jesus–“Who is my neighbor?”
It is still a searching question.
We also tend to measure out our mercy in teaspoons. We are happy to extend mercy to people like ourselves. But what about people we find reprehensible? So we might well ask ourselves–How far does my mercy go?
I got boxed into a space in a parking lot the other day by a SUV with a bumper sticker that read—“Water-board Liberals.” I think it was an attempt at wit, but the humor was lost on me. Jokes about torturing people leave me a little flat, I must admit. And then maybe it wasn’t intended to be funny at all. Maybe the driver would really like to torture and kill fellow Americans. That impression was reinforced when she stepped out of her vehicle and appeared to be everything her bumper-sticker implied she might be—coarse, rude, hard-looking.
How far does my mercy go? Because I happened to be thinking about that question just then, I asked myself—Is this woman deserving of my mercy?
It is a peculiarly Gospel idea, beloved, that God shows mercy not just to one family or religious group, not just to the deserving or the elect, but to the entire human race, without exception. And it is the idea that we should show mercy, not just to people like ourselves, but to people we might well detest is what makes the teaching of Jesus so radical and his example so difficult for us to follow. That God loves the people we despise is the single Christian doctrine that is most difficult to believe.
God is merciful, nevertheless, and his mercy flows through us to the whole world. But showing mercy does not come naturally to us. “Go and do likewise” is not an easy command to obey. Kindness and cruelty come easily, directly from our emotions, from pity and anger, without a second thought. But to follow the command of Christ to show mercy requires consideration. You have to think about it, beloved. And it frequently requires overcoming something deeply felt—our sense of injured pride, our prejudices, and our own painful history.
That is why mercy has to be a lifetime’s work. None of us will ever be really good at it. It is a fresh decision every time we are confronted by someone who needs our mercy. Yes or no. And if we choose yes, it is a “cold” decision, made in the light of God’s love for the world shown for us in the death of Jesus on the cross, and not a “hot” one, made on the basis of our feelings
So I have to like the person to whom I show mercy—or pretend to? Come on now, you’ve got to be kidding! God does not require any of us to play at being hypocrites!
But he does require us to be merciful—or try our damnedest. The promise of Jesus—“Blessed are the merciful for they will receive mercy”—has dark implications for the merciless. For myself it means that I am called to show mercy not just to the people who plaster hateful sentiments on their bumpers but to those who actually do torture and kill in the name of their own twisted political and religious beliefs—or just for the hell of it. Only because they are actual persons like myself, not things, and for no other reason.
People only become human for us gradually, as we get closer to them. They start out like a distant figure moving toward us far down the beach, just a pencil mark on sand. Then slowly, as we approach each other, they begin to take on a human form, with arms, legs, and a distinct body, male or female. And only when they are quite near do they attain a face–plain or beautiful, old or young, distant or smiling. People become human for us gradually. They all start out as things, and only slowly do they become human for us. It is our business, beloved, to get close enough for us to recognize in those who suffer the image of Christ.