MERCY AND POWER
Two weeks ago I talked about “sentences”, moving ahead in our Christian faith. Last week I talked abut “rewards.” This week I want to talk about mercy and power.
In today’s Gospel passage from Luke, Jesus tells the story of the man who had fallen among thieves and was helped by a Samaritan. The story of the Good Samaritan has found its way into our culture. Hospitals are named “The Good Samaritan Hospital.” Usually such a hospital has as part of its mission medical help to the less fortunate. We also have “Good Samaritan” laws, some of which went into effect following the Kitty Genovese murder in New York City in which the cries of the young woman were ignored. Now it is a crime to walk by certain instances of obvious distress. In various states there are cars or trucks that patrol the highways looking to give help to those whose car has broken down or who have been in an accident. Those emergency vehicles are called “Good Samaritan” trucks.
So this passage has been used over the years to encourage the helping of others, charitable acts and good deeds.
It has also been used to beat up on the clergy and the pious. Adherences to liturgical niceties, ritual proprieties and things religious have been pillared in the stock of hypocrisy. So too those who have been Bible thumpers and strict adherents to the Law and the prophets (the Levites) have been disparaged.
This passage has also been used to ridicule lawyers.
Indeed, it is a fascinating story. As we noted two weeks ago, there was great enmity between the Jews and the Samaritans. The Samaritans broke away from Israel following the divisions under the kings who succeeded Solomon. The Samaritans kept the Law but rejected the prophets. Their holy city was not Jerusalem. So the story is set in the context of divisions, conflicting tribes and enmity.
As He was traveling, a lawyer asks Jesus what one must do to inherit eternal life (in effect be saved). The lawyer is “testing” Jesus. Jesus asks the lawyer what is written in the Law. He answers from Deuteronomy, “thou shall love the Lord your God…. and your neighbor….” “So do it!” Jesus replies. But the Lawyer works in New York and replies, “Who is my neighbor?”
Jesus replies by telling the story of The Good Samaritan. At the end of the story Jesus asks, who was the “neighbor” to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” The lawyer answers, “the one who showed mercy.” “Go and do likewise,” Jesus replies.
You probably have your own Good Samaritan stories, but I am going to tell you my favorite one. My father-in-law, Paul, was a gnarly old Irishman who had grown up in Hartford in the early twentieth century. He used to deliver milk from horseback as a boy. Later he worked in insurance for “the two Hartfords.” He could remember when factories posted signs in their windows, “Irish need not apply.” Paul was a good Democrat, Irishman and Catholic. Much to the chagrin of his wife and daughters, Paul was also intolerant of Blacks. He hired Blacks, worked with Blacks and had Black friends. Even so, sadly he was a bigot. Because of hard living Paul suffered from emphysema and much of his latter years were spent battling lung infections.
Well, “It was a dark and stormy night.” Paul decided he needed a widget. So he drove out to Sears at Corbin’s Corners in West Hartford. On the way back his old Thunderbird stalled and died. Paul got out and tinkered under the hood, getting soaked. Nothing worked. So he got back in the car. Another car pulled up behind him. A big Black man came up to Paul’s window and said, “Can I help you?” “Car won’t start,” Paul said. “Pop the hood,” replied the Black. They both fiddled with the carburetor. Nothing worked. “You are soaked,” said the Black. “Get in my car.” Reluctantly Paul got in the man’s car. “I’ll take you up to the gas station and arrange for someone to come back and get your car,” volunteered the stranger. After they did that, the Black said, “You are shivering. Wrap this blanket around you. Where do you live? I’ll take you home.”
Meanwhile, back at the homestead, my mother-in-law and her daughters worried where my father-in-law was. Suddenly there was a knock on the door. They opened it. Standing there was a tall Black man holding my father-in-law in his arms. “This man is very sick,” he said. The Black came in, deposited Paul in a rocking chair, and said, “His car stalled. He should go right to bed.” “Its upstairs,” my mother-in-law said. He picked up Paul, carried him upstairs, dumped in his bed, came back down, and left.
Ten days later the man called and asked if Paul was all right! My mother-in-law never got the name of this “good Samaritan” stranger. Paul never again said a prejudice word against Blacks.
Some Early Church Fathers in their interpretation of the story of The Good Samaritan suggest that the man who fell among thieves was the Church and the Good Samaritan, the one who showed mercy, was Jesus. Perhaps they were right. Of course the story encourages charity and good works. Of course it judges the religious who are too caught up in the structures of liturgy and purity. Of course it skewers the lawyers and theologians who get lost in logical acrobatics and distinctions. But I think the Patristic fathers were right when they identified the outcast and despised one who shows mercy as having the presence of Christ. For it is from Christ that you and I know real mercy and derive the power to do good things and to witness in the world. We do see Christ in all persons. It is His mercy and power that transcends all of the divisions and distinctions that separate us from one another: age, race, money, and education. It transcends the differences between immigrant and citizen, Baptist and Roman Catholic, Muslim and Hindu, Shiite and Sunni, Christian and Jew.
It is Christ who stands at the door, holding the poor and the hungry, the forsaken and the despairing, the sinner and the lost and says, “This man is very sick.”
It is Christ who gives His body and blood to us in the Eucharist and whose mercy and compassion enable us to live in Him and He in us so that we can do His will.
Brothers and sisters, it is our unity in Christ’s mercy that gives us the power to do acts of hospitality and courage and to aid and anoint those whom Christ holds in His arms.
It is Christ who stands at the door and calls us not only to proclaim but also to embrace the Gospel. To embody the mercy and power of Christ has always been our calling as Christians, yesterday, today, and tomorrow.
Today’s Collect summarizes our heartfelt prayer during this Pentecost season. O Lord, mercifully receive the prayers of your people who call upon you, and grant that they may know and understand what things they ought to do, and also may have the grace and power faithfully to accomplish them; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen. BCP p.231 -Fr. Gage-