The One Who Showed Mercy

“For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life.” Romans 5:10

One bit of family lore passed through the years from my childhood is the story of the afternoon when, at three or four years old, strapped into my car seat alongside my brother in the backseat of my parents’ VW Beetle, I acquired the toy with which I wanted to play by grabbing it forcefully from my brother’s hand and declaring: “Amos, Jesus says share! Psalm 13:10”. Hearing this story recounted at dozens of parties through the years, it is inevitable that someone will make the predictable, yet still cringe-worthy comment that anyone who could manipulate Scripture to fit her purposes at such a young age was destined to become a preacher.

As a pastor, that accusation haunts me in ways that hold me accountable to my work, particularly on weeks like this one where the lectionary delivers a familiar story with easy-to-moralize themes. It catches me in my desire to stand in the pulpit and tell the congregation to whom I will preach this weekend who I believe is the neighbor in the ditch to whom they should be attending. Maybe those migrants in concentration camps on our border. Or the 27% of children in our local community living in grinding poverty while the newspapers celebrate booming economic development and “the most progressive city council in the South”.

I find myself using this text to write bossy finger-pointing “Jesus said” sermons in my head, directed towards extended family members with off-color jokes on vacation last week, or those parents at the PTA meeting trying to do what’s “best for their child” without regard to who is left behind, and practically every member of our current political administration. Remembering how easy it is to manipulate Scripture to fit my purpose finds me and reminds me that the only thing that I’ve accomplished by writing a sermon in which I get to be Jesus, righteous and holding the keys to the kingdom, or by writing a sermon where those who live, think, tithe, vote, and act like me get to be the Good Samaritan suggests that I am nothing more than the feisty lawyer. I’m working to justify myself, the brand of religion I practice, and my own love of certainty about who is “in” and who will most definitely not be seated near me at the desert table in heaven.

Having over-familiarized this story by reducing it to “helping others” and “Good Samaritan” laws, it’s easy to miss the scandal that Jesus introduces into this story by using a Samaritan as the hero. We should be careful not to minimize the very real animosity that existed between Jews and Samaritans. Jesus’ invocation of a Samaritan man unearths generations of deep-seated family rivalry, violence–a history of tit for tat retribution between two groups who have since the 8th century B.C. gone back and forth adding hurt to hurt. Most Jews would rather have been left for dead than helped by a Samaritan. And yet, in this story, it is the Samaritan who rises above prejudice and bigotry, crosses a deep gulf of division, and offers persistent, costly generosity and undeserved mercy to his enemy.

As I think on this radical act and the scandal of grace that it inserts into this story, another brave “enemy” comes to mind as the words that are recited weekly following the prayer of confession in my United Methodist tradition taken from Romans 5 begin to rattle around in my brain.

Hear the good news: Christ died for us while we were yet sinners. That proves God’s love for us. [For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life.]. In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven.

How many times has the act of the One who rose above prejudice and bigotry, crossed a deep gulf of division, offering persistent costly grace and undeserved mercy been spoken over my life, raising me out of the ditch and healing my wounds?

This story begins with a question: “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” One might think that a lawyer, usually so picky about words, might have figured it out. An inheritance is something that is received and not earned. Before we are ever “the one who showed mercy” we are always ones who have already been shown mercy. My own inclusion at the Table of grace is a reminder that it is only because Jesus blew the boundary-markers and the litmus tests of folks like lawyers and priests and Levites to smithereens and was a neighbor to me that I can stand and proclaim anything in the name of Jesus.

The call to show mercy in this story remains—to migrants on the border, and children living in poverty, and many other hurting and vulnerable people that we know. We don’t inherit eternal life by “doing” the right things to the right people just the right number of times, but by remembering that Jesus was first neighbor to us. He let us in when we came to him seeking refuge though we didn’t have our papers straight. He shared with us the riches of heaven when we stood before his Table like a beggar.

Remembering this, how could we not “go and do likewise”?

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