Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
July 14, 2019
Our Old Testament reading from Deuteronomy concludes with:
The command is not mysterious. It is already in your mouths and hearts. You have only to carry it out.
Reminds me of the story that is told of the scholarly preacher who poured over his theological volumes and biblical commentaries every week in preparation for his sermon on Sunday morning. He locked himself in his study for hours crafting his message. Week after week.
One Saturday afternoon, the preacher’s four-year-old granddaughter slipped into his study. With all simple sincerity, she asked him, “Papa, what are you doing?” How could he possibly explain the depth and complexity of his work to an innocent four-year-old? He reached out, picked her up, and sat her on his lap, and after thinking for a moment, said, “Well, I guess I am searching for God.”
The little girl smiled, and then laughed, and then said, “Silly Papa, God is right here in your shirt pocket.” And she put her tiny hand right on his heart.
The poignant, grace-filled wisdom of a child . . . The lessons we need to learn are sometimes taught by an innocent child.
And, at other times by a good story.
The scholar of the law joins the crowd around Jesus and poses a question to which he already knows the answer. “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Love God. Love neighbor. Spot on. Got that one memorized. But pressing further and seeking to trip up Jesus, he asked, “And who is my neighbor?”
Confident that he could verbally spar with Jesus over the Law and emerge justified in his elite lifestyle, the last thing the scholar expected from Jesus was a story, a parable. But of course, a good story will always capture attention and imagination. And this occasion was no exception. Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan.
And then turns the tables on the scholar and becomes the questioner. “Who was the neighbor to the victim?”
There is just one answer and it is as obvious as is the presence of God in the shirt pocket for the little girl – the one who showed mercy. Jesus ends the encounter with the scholar by simply saying, “Go and do likewise.”
While some life lessons we learn from an innocent child, others from poignant stories, still others we learn from those who are marginalized, and carry the scars of true suffering.
The night before he was killed in 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. reflected on this parable in his speech in support of striking sanitation workers in Memphis, TN. He interpreted the actions of the priest and the Levite as persons who were afraid. The road between Jerusalem and Jericho was a dangerous road with many curves and blind spots. Just right for bandits. King thought that perhaps the priest and Levite were afraid the bandits were lying in wait for anyone who would stop to help the injured man. Or perhaps, the man was faking his injuries, and would pounce on the priest and Levite if they approached to help. Dr. King concluded that the question in the minds of the priest and Levite was “What will happen to me, if I stop to help that man?”
Whereas, the Samaritan—a man of another race, a marginalized man despised by both Jews and pagans alike—held the opposite question in his heart: “What will happen to him, if I don’t stop to help?”
(You may recall we explored these questions at a GIFT session a little more than a year ago.)
It’s likely the Samaritan knew firsthand just what would happen. It’s likely he’d been there. From his own suffering, it’s likely he learned how to respond to another’s suffering. It’s likely his compassion arose out of his own woundedness and gave him the courage to be affected by another person’s pain.
The scholar, and certainly me, and dare I say the majority of us, if we’re truly honest, will admit to closer alignment with the priest and Levite—“What will happen to meif I help?”—than with the Samaritan whose marginalized life of suffering has forever changed the question: “What will happen to himif I don’t help?”
For those of us who are not marginalized, have not suffered, and are no longer innocent children, how do we get from “What will happen to me . . . “ to “What will happen to him/her?”
That’s the challenge Jesus gives to the scholar and to us. How to have a heart of true compassion, to be moved by another’s vulnerability and even attracted to it. Generally, we are repelled by suffering so we do all we can to ignore it. Jesus challenges us to the opposite: to be moved by it and even attracted to it.
Personally, I’m struggling with this. The more I reflect. The more honest I am with myself, the more I am like the scholar, the priest, and the Levite. And the less I am like the Samaritan. I admit that I have arranged my life in such a way that I am, for the most part, insulated from other’s suffering. Or more accurately, I can maintain relative control of the things that impact and influence me, allowing just the right amount of need to come before me that allows me to feel good about responding to that need, but not really allowing it to change me.
When the Samaritan hit the road that morning he had no idea how the day would unfold. I don’t know if I have capacity to allow another’s suffering to completely disrupt my day, my week, my life.
But this much I can do, and perhaps you can too. I can put my hand on my shirt pocket, my heart, as a recognition that God is right there, that close, and I can pray for the openness, courage, and strength to respond to Jesus’ invitation to “go and do likewise.”