Sermon for the Fifth Sunday After Pentecost, July 14, 2019 – The Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas

ASEP Sermons

Amos 7:7-17+Psalm 82+Colossians 1:1-14+Luke 10:25-37

A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance, an evangelical mega-church pastor was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise, a U.S. senator, when he came to that place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But an undocumented Guatemalan woman while traveling came near him; and when she saw him, she was moved with pity. She went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then she put him on her own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day she took out what money she had, gave it to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.” Which of these three, 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 him, ‘Go and do likewise.’ (Luke 10:30-37, paraphrase)

We can grow so accustomed to hearing this story that it fails to shock and surprise us. Oh, yeah, of course the good person in this story stops and helps the one who needs it, and the bad people walk on by.

But that’s not really what is happening!

The priest and the Levite who are passing by, crossing to the other side, are doing exactly what the law requires them to do. This person lying in a ditch would have been unclean according to Jewish law, and a priest or a Levite would not have been caught dead tending to such a person. It was a law, and the person asking the question of Jesus about who is his neighbor is a lawyer. Jesus is making an unmissable point that the law sometimes misses the need for mercy.

A Samaritan, on the other hand, would not have the same requirement to follow the law of the Jews. Samaritans were outsiders, anyway, so what difference would it make if that person touched someone who was ritually unclean? None at all.

In my version of this parable, I’ve chosen someone whom many Americans would regard as unclean: an undocumented woman from Central America traveling along her way. It’s doubtful that such a woman would have means to pay some innkeeper, but it doesn’t really matter. Choose your outsider, your vilified one: a white supremacist, a predatory lender, a chronically homeless person. The litmus test for Jesus is not any descriptive that categorizes you. It’s whether or not you show mercy.

This word for “mercy” is interesting. In Hebrew, the word for God’s mercy, God’s unfailing loving-kindess, is chesed. This was translated into the Greek translation of the Hebrew bible as ἔλεος. And it’s the same word that’s used in Luke 10:37, ‘The one who showed…mercy.’ God’s mercy is undeserved, unmerited, and everlasting. Our mercy is to mirror God’s in the way we respond to others. It doesn’t matter if it’s deserved or merited. Our job as followers of Jesus is to show mercy, even to those we find distasteful, those we do not like, those we’d rather avoid, those we regard as unclean.

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27) is a combination of Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18 and has come to us as the Summary of the Law: God and neighbor. You can’t have one without the other. You cannot say that you love God without also loving your neighbor. And that doesn’t mean your neighbor across the street, according to Jesus. That means the one lying in a ditch who doesn’t look safe.

This week marked the second anniversary of the Ku Klux Klan rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. A small, sad little band of white supremacists in robes and hoods descended on Charlottesville to be met by more than 1,000 counter-protesters. I was among them. I learned a lot over the course of that summer, and the most important lesson I learned was to place at the center those who were being oppressed. Those who were the targets of hate. I was not especially an object of the Klan’s attention. No, that would be people of color and other minorities, including sexual and gender minorities. If their lives and their stories are placed at the center, then it drives the response. So, along with my friends and activist colleagues, we planned our response to the Klan and the August Unite the Right rally to place ourselves between those who were the targets of hate and those who perpetrated it. It wasn’t about us. It was about our neighbors.

When the lawyer asks Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” (10:29), he isn’t just trying to trap Jesus. He is placing the neighbor apart from himself, that other person. In effect, he is the center of his story, and the neighbor is on the outside.

When Jesus finishes his parable, the question he asks is, “which one was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers? (10:36). He places the neighbor at the center, the focus of attention, not the one wondering who that person might be. It’s a subtle but important shift. If the questioner needs a definition of who is his neighbor, then he is also looking for a definition of who is not his neighbor. According to the law, there is a limit to who that neighbor is. According to chesed, to ἔλεος, to mercy, there actually is no limit.

There is a sign located near the old Cook County Hospital in Chicago with a quote from scientist Louis Pasteur. It reads:

One doesn’t ask of one who suffers: what is your country and what is your religion? One merely says, “You suffer, and that is enough for me. You belong to me and I shall help you.[1]

In that summer of 2017, the University of Virginia hospital received the injured on both sides of the rallies: white supremacists and Neo-Nazis as well as innocent counter-protesters. And those whose duty it is to provide medical care to anyone needing it found themselves moving from one to the other without distinction, from trying to revive Heather Heyer to caring for those whose violence contributed to her death. Did it give them pause? Of course, it did. Yet they provided what care they could because that is what their vocation requires of them.

So does ours.

When Jesus finishes this story with, “Go and do likewise,” (10:37) we are on the hook for real. There is no circumstance where we are the center of the story unless we are the ones who are lying in a ditch or locked in a cage without our parent or living on the street or hated or despised for who or what we are. And those of us sitting on this side of privilege have no excuse. Our neighbor is anyone who is need of mercy, our mercy. The mercy given us by God to share with a world that seems to have forgotten the word.

This lawyer in our parable was not a bad guy. He wanted to do the right thing, and he thought Jesus was leading people astray. Yeah, he thought he was asking a gotcha question with “who is my neighbor?”, but he got taken to school in a way he could not have seen coming. Remove yourself as the subject of the sentence and place yourself as a verb. You are the one who shows mercy. The subject, the object is anyone who has need of it.

So let’s go and do likewise.


[1] Someone shared a photo on Facebook.

ASEPSermon for the Fifth Sunday After Pentecost, July 14, 2019 – The Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas