In this story, the lawyer means a scholar of the scriptures. This isn’t the beginning of a bad lawyer joke. By hearing the word “lawyer” we are to assume that this person is very knowledgeable about the scriptures. The lawyer, or scholar stands up to test Jesus – “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life.” Jesus responds with a question for the scholar. “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” The scholar knows the answer and recites, “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.” Jesus responds, “You have given the right answer; do this and you shall live.” The scholar, wanting to justify himself, asks “And who is my neighbor.”
The text itself and the commentaries characterize the exchange as the scholar challenging Jesus. He presses as to who his neighbor is, presumably to avoid having to love any more people than specifically required. What exactly constitutes a neighbor. I relate to the scholar and wonder if this scholar is asking because he doesn’t feel like he has attained eternal life, even though he knows what it takes to get it. In life it is possible to go about the business of religion without experiencing the kingdom of God or Eternal life. Maybe the scholar realizes that he’s missing something. Perhaps he’s thinking he may not understand who his neighbor is and therefore is not loving his neighbor. Maybe that is why he doesn’t feel like he has experienced eternal life.
So Jesus tells him a story. The story is referred to as that of the “good” Samaritan because all the other Samaritans are bad. Samaritans and Jews have a bitter rivalry. They share the same faith, but there is a long history of bad blood between the two communities. For the audience at the time, the fact that the Samaritan is the hero of the story is shocking. Jesus tells how a man traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho, was attacked by robbers who left him naked and half-dead on the side of the road. A priest and a Levite, those we would expect to be the “good guys,” pass by the man without offering any assistance. The despised Samaritan comes by and sees the man and has compassion for him. He helps the man. He cares for his wounds brings him to an Inn and pays for him to stay there. Jesus asks, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” The scholar answers, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.” The scholar now has a new definition of neighbor. A neighbor is one who shows mercy. Jesus doesn’t say, ok now go and love that merciful person; Jesus tells him to go and do likewise. Go and be a neighbor, have mercy, and you will live.
What does it mean to have mercy? According to the Harper Collins Bible Dictionary, mercy is, “an attribute of God and a virtue commended for human beings.” Other words for mercy include steadfast love, kindness, great kindness, and faithful love. The concept of mercy is pivotal to the ministry and teachings of Jesus Christ. When faced with the choice of following the law or having mercy, Jesus consistently chooses mercy. Jesus healed on the sabbath, picked grain on the sabbath; he taught that God prefers mercy to sacrifice. God would rather eliminate distress immediately than have us follow the letter of the law. God sent Jesus to free us from the burden of the law. As humans, we cannot follow the law perfectly, and God loves us anyway. Love God and Love people and you will live.
Our job as Christians and as a church is to create disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the World. We are to teach people to have steadfast love for God and each other so that the World will operate like the kingdom of God. How far we are from the kingdom of God. Thursday, I spent the day with a task force from the National Federation of Asian American United Methodists. I was tasked with opening the church for them so they could have a meeting here. They are planning an event in San Diego to teach youth and young adults about our immigration crisis. Their goal is to train young Asian Americans to become immigration activists and advocates. I told him that I have a heart for immigration, and he invited me to join them. They were surprised when I shared with them that particular portion of the building was relocated from a Japanese American internment camp in Arizona.
I developed a passion for immigrants and immigrant rights through an internship. As part of my seminary education, I did an internship at Christ Ministry Center in Normal Heights, right across the valley from us. I read about how they resurrected their dying church by becoming a hub for community services. Then, through a series of connections and events, the Christ Ministry Center offered temporary shelter to thousands of Haitians who had traveled here through Central America. When my internship began, the border had been shut down, so the shelter was empty. One Sunday afternoon Pastor Bill Jenkins ran into the building in a panic. ICE had just called him and were about to deliver and mother and her newborn baby. She was an asylum seeker named Elizabeth and she had just given birth to her baby girl Emily.
They arrived later that day with nothing but what they were wearing. It was my job to get clothes for them as well as food, diapers and formula. With some language assistance I learned that she was escaping her abusive husband in Guatemala. She arrived at the border with her 4 children, between the ages of 2 and 8. She went into labor and was taken to the hospital. Her children then became unaccompanied minors and were taken to a center in New York. She had a phone number for the facility. I pray she was able to get her kids back, that they aren’t suffering in a detention center. But I don’t know. I took her to her immigration appointment, and finally I took her to the airport. For me the experience was new, frightening and heartbreaking.
Last Friday night I attended the Lights for Liberty protest in San Ysidro calling for the closure of the detention camps. It was a solemn occasion. I was gratified to see many people there that care about asylum seekers. Our collective hearts were aching for the victims of our cruel immigration policies. One of the signs I saw that night said simply “Love Your Neighbor.” This is a shameful moment in our history. I understand there have been many. But I have not been impacted by them. Some in our government are demonizing entire groups of people. They seem particularly bothered by folks coming here who are not white. Black people come from terrible countries, Muslims are terrorists, Mexicans are rapists and criminals. This is done on purpose so we will not feel compassion for them, have mercy on them, or show them steadfast love. We are told they are dirty; they are like animals; they are an infestation. It sounds familiar. It sounds like group of people spoken about in our scripture today.
Let us as disciples of Christ, receive the mercy of God, and then go and do likewise. Then we will live and have eternal life. Amen.