Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “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.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “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 a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them 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?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”Luke 10:25-37
My sermon from the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost (July 10, 2022) on Luke 10:25-37 (with a hint to Psalm 25:1-10)
Marvel Studios’ newest show, Ms. Marvel, tells the story of Kamala Khan, a Pakistani-descent teenager living in Jersey City. She is, for all intents and purposes, a geek in a world where superheroes exist. She’s a gamer, a writer of fan fiction, and a cosplayer who spent days perfecting a costume of her favorite hero – Captain Marvel. Kamala is also a daughter of immigrants, a devout muslim, and lives in a society that doesn’t believe brown girls from New Jersey can save the world. She, like all of us, contains a multitude of identities and everything gets really complicated once she has powers. Once she secretly begins being a hero, everyone in her community can’t stop wondering who this hero might be. And during a party thrown by her parents, Kamala was sitting on her front steps when the iman of her mosque stepped out the front door. He asked her why she was sitting all by herself and she, being a teenager, didn’t exactly answer. Kamala wanted to know what he thought about this new hero but, instead, he turned the question around and asked her what she thought. With a bit of ache, worry, and sorrow in her voice, she wonderered how this muslim, pakistani-american, a daughter of immigrants from Jersey City, could show everyone that she was good. The iman looked at her and before heading on his way, simply said: “Good is not a thing you are, Kamala. It is a thing you do.”
Today’s reading from the gospel according to Luke is known as “the parable of the Good Samaritan” even though the word “good” never appears in the text. Jesus, while chatting with the disciples who had returned from their mission to share peace with villagers living in the land of the Samaritans, was asked a question by a lawyer. This lawyer sort of shows up unexpectedly because Luke never tells us how they got there. They, an extremely educated person who knew not only the law of the government but also the ethics laid out in the first four books of the Bible, asked Jesus about what God wanted them to do. Now Jesus could have answered the question straightforwardly but instead, he flipped the script. He asked the lawyer what he thought and the lawyer responded with a mashup of two verses from the book of Deuteronomy and Leviticus. Jesus told the lawyer that he already has the answer to his question. But the lawyer wasn’t done and instead of asking another question about what to “do,” he wondered “who is my neighbor?”
Jesus, at this point in the interaction, could have responded in a couple of different ways. He could have flipped the question again or pulled together an answer out of the very same chapters in Leviticus and Deuteronomy the lawyer had quoted. Those chapters show how our neighbors include the immigrant, the stranger, and the person who isn’t like us. Jesus could have made the neighbor the center of his answer but he didn’t. He chose, instead, to tell a story. Now it’s important, I think, for us to remember this story wasn’t only designed for us. It was also meant for the people who first heard Jesus tell it. Stories are how we teach, share, and highlight what matters the most to us. And our stories also rely on certain social cues, tropes, and conventions to get their point across. We know, for example, that when a story begins with “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away,” what follows next will unfold in a certain kind of way. Jesus knew his culture’s storytelling conventions and so we also need to pay attention to the kinds of stories people told in the years surrounding Jesus’ resurrection. The scholar Amy-Jill Levine has spent a lot of time wondering what Jesus’ words sounded like to the Jewish community living in the first century. Her work has revealed the conventions people expected Jesus to follow when he told a story. Since folks within the 1st century Jewish community often identified themselves as either a member of the priestly tribe or as a Levite or as an Isrealite, those identities popped into people’s heads when Jesus’ story mentioned a priest and levite. When the story was about to reveal the third person who walked by, those in Jesus’ first audience would have expected an Israelite to be named next. And since the Isrealite would be the third person identified as walking by the person left for dead, the storytelling convention meant he would be the hero of the story. The lawyer, Jesus’ disciples, and all who listened in expected an Isrealite to save the day. Yet when Jesus got to that part of his story, the first words out of his mouth were: “a Samaritan.”
When the lawyer moved from a “do” question to a “who” question, Jesus told a story with a “who” they didn’t expect. The Samaritan was, as we’ve heard over these last few weeks, seen as an outsider and as an enemy. They were the neighbors no one wanted and who, it was assumed, didn’t want the Jewish community as their neighbors either. Those listening to Jesus assumed when the Samaritan showed up, violence would follow. Yet the hero no one expected was the one who showed what “good” looked like. When it comes to a life with faith, good isn’t really a noun or an adjective. Good, like love, is a verb – an action we gift to others through the gifts God has first given us. And if we want to loosely define what good is, all we need to do is to turn to the unexpected hero of this story. Good is noticing the person in need and choosing to care. Good is the giving of a mercy that not only alleviates the immediate peril they’re in but does all it can to make the wounded person whole. When God says we’re to love our neighbors as ourselves, this is what God is talking about. Yet this love – this offering of goodness and mercy and neighborliness to all – is hard because it shows how “goodness” isn’t meant as an identity that defines who we are. We, as human beings, are flawed and we often embrace cultural conventions and ways of being in the world that we uncritically assume are good. But when those conventions are challenged, we do everything we can to justify ourselves because we can’t believe we’re not who we imagined ourselves to be. Rather than letting our identity as a so-called “good person” be what defines us, we can let God – through Jesus – tell us who we really are. You, through baptism and faith, have been publicly declared as a beloved child of God. This is one of the many identities you hold but was one gifted to you rather than one you earned. You are very human, full of a variety of identities, beliefs, opinions, and point of views that might show how you’re not as good or loving or welcoming or neighborly as you thought you were. But that doesn’t mean you can’t do what Jesus knows you can do. You have already been given the gift of grace; the gift of God’s word; the gift of prayer; the gift of Jesus’ stories; the gift of the Holy Spirit; the gift of faith; and the gift of knowing you are valued and loved. We will always struggle using these gifts to help us figure out what is good and neighborly now that we’re living 2000 years after a lawyer questioned Jesus. But during those moments when we feel like we have no idea what we can do, we can lean into the way of our Lord by always choosing to do and give mercy.