Not ‘Who?’ but ‘How?’

by David Baer, March 5, 2017

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Text: Luke 10:25-42

There’s a scar on my knee from something that happened when I was in sixth grade. I was new to the school that year and I got put in a class of kids that had been together since third grade. As I look back on it, that classroom was a little bit like Lord of the Flies. Somehow I managed to find shelter in a group of friends that huddled together against the in-crowd, a gang of five brash, dominant boys, but others weren’t so lucky. At least two kids from our class moved to other schools because of the bullying. So one day I was using our classroom computer when the teacher stepped out. Greg, the leader of the bullies sauntered over. “Your time’s up,” he said. I held my ground, ignoring him. “Did you hear me?” he insisted. “Get up!” But I didn’t move. He physically picked up the chair I was sitting on and tried to turn it over. In the process I spilled out and sliced my knee against a jagged bit of metal on the underside of the chair.

The teacher returned to the classroom to find the two of us standing there, and me with a deep, gushing cut on my knee. She started interrogating us about what happened, and Greg began offering up oily denials of his involvement. I’m not sure how that whole situation sorted itself out, because the teacher very quickly decided that my medical situation needed to take precedence over whatever the appropriate discipline was going to be. “Can someone go with David down to the nurse’s office?” she asked. And to my surprise, a kid named Brian stood up. Brian hovered on the edge of the gang of bullies. His special talent was figuring out what you were most insecure about—your voice, your appearance, a schoolboy crush—and then insulting you mercilessly. I wasn’t sure what he was going to say or do as we made our way down the hall, the blood dripping down my leg. But Brian softened in a way I’d never seen before.

“I saw what Greg did,” Brian said. “It wasn’t right. I know I hurt people with my words.” (He actually said this.) “But that went way too far. Are you OK?” he asked. He was genuinely worried about me. I carry a lot of regrets from that year of school—I know I could have been a better friend to the kids lower in the pecking order than myself. When I became an adult, I started to wonder about the responsibility the adults in that school bear for the creation of an environment where so many of us got physically and emotionally hurt. (There was never any consequence for Greg for what he did to me that day.) But I also carry from that year the surprise and gratitude I felt experiencing compassion coming from such an unexpected source.

Someone once asked Jesus how he might inherit eternal life. “Follow the scriptures,” Jesus says, “What do they tell you?” “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind; and love your neighbor as yourself,” says the lawyer. “You’ve got it!” says Jesus. “Do this and you will live.”

But the lawyer can’t resist. He asks another question: “Who is my neighbor?” But that’s the wrong question. If you ask that question, you’re looking for limits. You want someone to draw a boundary for you and say, “The people in here are your neighbors, and everyone else is out.”

So Jesus doesn’t answer that question. Instead he tells a story about compassion coming from an unexpected source. A man going down a lonely highway is set upon by thieves, stripped of his clothes and possessions, beaten, and left for dead. If the man is conscious at all, his hopes are dashed as first a priest and then a Levite—fellow Jews—pass him by. When a Samaritan happens down the road, his heart must have sunk.

It’s odd that Jesus would think to put a Samaritan in the role of the hero. After all, he’s just come through Samaria, and while he was there he couldn’t get a hotel room or a table in a restaurant. Every door was shut to him, simply because he was a Jew making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, the holy city of the Jews. Jews and Samaritans despised each other’s holy places. They saw each other’s customs and scriptures and worship as corrupt, even though they each served the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. But the suspicion and hatred between Jews and Samaritans was so great that even basic hospitality was out of the question. In Jesus’ very recent experience with Samaritans, he found nothing especially compassionate or caring about them.

So the punchline here, the fact that it’s a Samaritan that stops to rescue the victim, is shocking. If Jesus had told the story with the roles reversed, if he had made the Samaritan the victim, then maybe that would have been OK. His hearers would get to imagine themselves as heroes, doing for that no good Samaritan what they could never believe he would do for them. But that’s not the story Jesus told. Jesus asks something almost completely impossible—that we imagine what it looks like to see someone we hate and fear—someone deserving of our hostility and scorn and suspicion—moved to compassion. The story only works because of the shock value of making the Samaritan the hero. Merciful treatment from the very person we expect to be hostile and unforgiving is the kind of neighbor-love that leads to eternal life.

Sometimes love that makes a difference comes from an unexpected place. There’s a podcast I listen to called “Invisibilia.” On it the hosts look for stories that show the hidden forces that shape the world we live in. There was this one episode called “Flip the Script,” which began with a story about an attempted robbery. Someone broke into a home where a party was taking place. The man threatened the guests with his weapon, and things looked as though they were going to end badly, until another guest, Christina, offered him a glass of wine. Why don’t you join us? she suggested. We’re celebrating. “It was like a switch,” said one of the guests. The man drank his wine and ate his cheese, and then he said, “I think I’ve come to the wrong place.” And then he asked for a hug. And he walked out of the house without hurting anyone—though he did take the glass of wine with him.1

“Go and do likewise,” Jesus tells the lawyer. What he’s asking is that we turn and show others the same script-flipping love he’s already shown us. Forgetful, self-absorbed, self-concerned, we fail to love God with the full measure of love God deserves. We fail to honor the people around us that carry God’s image. The hostility and alienation we create give us every reason to expect that, when we fall into distress, God will treat us harshly and without sympathy. But in Jesus God overturns our expectations, carrying us to safety, and sparing no expense until we are nursed back to health. How do I inherit eternal life? the lawyer wanted to know. It’s about getting caught up in a story where the expected hostilities are flipped upside down, where a shocking act of kindness meets a deep need, where expected enemies heal instead of hurt. May God grow your heart, flip your script, and guard and keep you for life eternal. Amen.

Footnotes

  1. “Flip the Script,” Invisibilia. 15 Jul 2016. http://www.npr.org/2016/07/15/485904654/read-the-transcript. Accessed 3/5/2017.

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