A Summary of the Law

One of the problems with the Parable of the Good Samaritan is that everyone always assumes that they have already learned the lesson it’s meant to convey.  What is that lesson?  Of course, it is the answer to the question that the lawyer asked Jesus: Who is my neighbor?  And the answer, as everyone knows, is that you need to learn to see the other as your neighbor - even someone who is very different from you, and especially when that person is in need.  Easy-peasy.  What could be simpler?  Can we move on to the Creed, please, and get out of church early today?

Now, the need to see the other as our neighbor is not a bad lesson, and it would be very good for us to learn it.  It is a particularly tempting lesson to want to apply to all sorts of issues in American life at just the moment.  But strictly speaking, it is not the lesson that Jesus was teaching when he told the parable of the Good Samaritan.  The parable, when interpreted this way, easily becomes an exercise in perception of the world around us, as if the important thing to do is to be able to look out at a sea of humanity and identify the neighbor among many competing possibilities.  Such an exercise can be practiced in a number of imaginative ways, including, for instance, on a firing range - like the type that exist in movies when someone is being trained for military or police service, and targets pop up on a firing range, and you have to take out the terrorist, but leave the old lady crossing the street unharmed, as well as the little girl walking her dog.  You can see how such an exercise could answer the question, Who is my neighbor?  But pairing that question with the question “whom should I shoot?” is probably not what Jesus had in mind.

Although it sounds as though Jesus might be holding up a viewfinder to the lawyer, and asking him to “find the neighbor,” I do not think that is actually what is happening here.  Yes, there is a choice to be made, in the way Jesus tells the story, there is discernment to be done.  There’s a priest, a Levite, and a Samaritan, and there is no question that Jesus is asking the lawyer to choose one.  “Which one of these three,” he asks, “do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers.”

The answer is obvious to nearly everyone... and of course it is obvious to the lawyer, who rightly answers, “The one who showed him mercy.”

And it is what Jesus says next that shows us how easily we miss his point, because we think we already know the point of this parable.  Jesus, says to the lawyer, “Go and do likewise.”  And with those few words, he shows the lawyer that this was never an exercise about picking out the neighbor from among a pool of options.  It was never a matter of looking through a viewfinder in order to make the correct choice.  It wasn’t even a matter of the Samaritan perceiving the injured man to be his neighbor.

Image of the Arizona desert from Border Angels

Image of the Arizona desert from Border Angels

Because Jesus wasn’t holding up a viewfinder for the lawyer to peer through, so to speak, and then to find the neighbor.  No, Jesus was holding up a mirror.  The issue at hand was not whether or not the lawyer could find the neighbor, it was about whether or not the lawyer was prepared to be the neighbor.  And the parable should probably read the same way for each of us.  

It’s as easy to use this parable to indict some un-neighborly person for failing to do his or her duty, as it to round up illegal immigrants at the border.  And it is absolutely the case that this parable has a lot to say about what’s happening at our borders these days, borders we have become obsessed with “securing” as though that task has a clear meaning and is an unmitigated good.

But no society can enforce all the laws all the time - you have to make choices.  And it’s telling that there are some laws being zealously enforced at this time in our nation that are holding people accountable for their actions, keeping in check many people who have no money and even less power.  While other laws are paid mere lip service, allowing free rein and wide berth to the rich and the powerful.  This is not a new pattern in America, but the pattern is being honed in this nation at this time in a way that’s noticeable.

It’s not a coincidence that the word used to describe Jesus’ interlocutor in this episode is rendered as “lawyer” even though the person in question is a religious authority, and not what you and I fist think of when we think of a lawyer.  It’s his interest and his business to attend to the laws of the faith - a faith that defines itself in laws.  And it’s no coincidence that the lawyer chose his words carefully, when he answered Jesus’ question: Which one of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?

It was the one who showed him mercy.  Mercy always stands apart from the law.  Mercy might not suspend the law entirely, but mercy feels free to relax the law, to bend the law, and to seek the spirit that sometimes gets crushed by the letter of the law.  Sometimes, mercy even shows us how to change the law.

There is no argument to be made that the priest and the Levite failed in their responsibilities to the letter of the law.  The parable, as Jesus tells it, assumes that we know that the choices of the priest and the Levite were entirely defensible (by, say, a lawyer), that these two were, by some definition, faithful to the law, keeping its precepts for the sake of their own cleanliness, and readiness to present themselves to God.  But they had forgotten the second part of the call to faith that is always appended to the first commandment that thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.  And the second commandment is like unto it: thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.

The priest and the Levite had forgotten that on these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.  And even though the lawyer knows this, perhaps he was ready to forget this too.  So Jesus teaches him a lesson in mercy, which is also a lesson in how to keep the law.  And the key to that lesson is not that the lawyer needs to learn a new way to see the world, rather that he needs to remember an old way of seeing himself.  It is a call for the lawyer to remember how to be a neighbor, which is also a call to show mercy in the way he approaches the law.

Now, it’s a fool’s errand on many levels to apply a sermon like this to the furore that has been kicked up around immigration policy, and the way it’s being conducted along our souther border.  But as a child who grew up with grandparents who spoke with thick Slavish accents, I can’t quite leave the errand alone.

The pulpit is not normally the place to argue for or against a particular public policy, and I don’t want to use this pulpit in that way.  But I do want to recall the story of Scott Warren, whose trial on federal conspiracy charges, and felony charges of harboring illegal immigrants ended recently in a mistrial, when a jury could not reach an agreement about the implications of his actions.

To my knowledge the facts of the case are not disputed: that Mr. Warren, a 36 year-old geography teacher, provided aid and assistance to a pair of Central American immigrants who entered this country illegally, and arrived tired, dehydrated, and with blistered feet.  It seems obvious that Mr Warren put himself in a place where he intended to encounter such migrants.  It seems clear that Mr. Warren knew that such attempts to enter this country are illegal.

The government says that “this case is not about humanitarian aid, or anyone in medical distress,” but that it is about “whether Mr. Warren attempted to ‘shield’ two undocumented immigrants from law enforcement for several days.”

Mr. Warren’s lawyer painted a different picture, claiming that “Mr. Warren had not committed a crime by helping the migrants, even if what he did might have allowed them to stay out of sight of law enforcement agents. ‘Scott Warren is a law-abiding, life-giving good Samaritan,’ he told the jury.”*

And here, we see the problem in assuming that we knew what this parable was all about.  We thought that it was all about looking out over the Rio Grande and deciding whether or those struggling, suffering, dehydrated, blistered souls trying to escape hopelessness count as our neighbors.  I can’t answer that question for you, or anyone else.  And actually, I guess, neither can Scott Warren.  But his lawyer seems to have understood the way that Jesus really told this parable, as a mirror for ourselves, as a way to judge what kind of decisions we make when faced with someone over there, on the other side of the street, who’s been left for dead.

This is not a parable that tells us very much that we didn’t already know about the plight of the poor, injured party, to whose rescue no one has come.  It does however, tell us a lot about ourselves, when we ask which of the three was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers.

The obvious answer is that it was the one who showed him mercy.  And the moral of the story is this: Go and do likewise.

*from the Miriam Jordan in NY Times, June 11, 2019

Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
14 July 2019
Saint Mark’s Church Philadelphia

Posted on July 14, 2019 .