(Amos 7:7-17; Ps. 82; Colossians 1:1-14; Luke 10:25-37)
There’s a woman I know who holds elective office in this area, whom I see every now and then; our politics are not the same, but I think she’s a terrific public servant, and I would vote for her every chance I got. I ran into her once a while ago, and the subject of Loaves and Fishes came up (she’d always been a supporter, and was glad to hear of the construction which had begun.) But at one point in the conversation, she used a figure of speech that brought me up a little short: she said, I always say, we need to take care of our own.
The reason it gives me pause is this: if by “our own” is meant “all of our own”, that is, everybody around us, even those on the margins, then I agree (and I think in fact that’s what she meant.) But as I have heard the phrase in conversation, the actual intention is usually to distinguish “our own” from others who are considered to be not our own, for whatever reason. And when we make this kind of distinction, when we start prioritizing whom we care for, we’re on a slippery slope.
For people of faith, this is fundamental. The very first chapter of Genesis tells us that all people are made in the image and likeness of God; and therefore are all of infinite value and dignity. As Christians we especially need to be alert to this: in our baptismal covenant, we promise “to strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being”; and “to seek and serve Christ in all persons”. If we’re not mindful of this, if we don’t keep it in front of us, we’re just as prone as anyone else to forget it, and to slip into unthinking marginalization of people who are not like us – not “our own”, whether that’s because of race, or religion, or social position, or political opinion, whatever. We humans are very good at creating boundaries, and at identifying reasons for them – sometimes very convincing ones. But for us, that cannot be the last word.
This is on my mind for two reasons. The first is today’s gospel story, the parable of the Good Samaritan, which I’ll have something to say about in a minute.
The other is something I experienced on our pilgrimage to the Holy Land last month: the wall, built by the Israeli government, which separates Palestinian land in the West Bank from the rest of territory of Israel.
This is an extremely complicated situation, but just very briefly: in the Six-Day War in 1967, Israel reclaimed a large area from the nation of Jordan: over 2000 square miles of land, which surrounds Jerusalem. This land is all west of the Jordan river, so it’s called the West Bank. It was populated entirely by Palestinians, who were given some limited authority by the Israelis, but they weren’t given citizenship. So they’ve never been able to vote, and they have very little voice in how they live. They’re a subjugated people.
Over the years, the tensions boiled over into two major Palestinian uprisings (the Arabic word is intifada). The second, in the early 2000’s, was particularly awful: it seemed like every week, for a couple of years, there was a terrorist bombing of some public place, or a random shooting. So that’s when the Israeli government decided to build a wall (it’s sometimes called the separation wall), to seal off the West Bank from the rest of Israel.
I’m just going to say a couple of things about the wall. The first is that the wall was effective: terrorist activity fell off to virtually nothing once it was up, the bombings and shootings basically stopped. So the wall did the job it was built for.
But the wall’s still up, 17 years later. And when they built it, they didn’t always follow the border: in fact about 85% of the wall cuts into Palestinian territory, dividing communities, separating farmers from the fields they work, and neighborhoods from water sources. There are many hillsides from which you can see land on both sides of the wall. On the Israeli side there are modern apartment buildings, carefully tended neighborhoods, with plantings and swimming pools. The Palestinian side is a slum: crumbling buildings, a lot of bare ground with junk and broken glass lying around, and barely enough water to drink, let alone use for plants.
And standing next to the wall brings the whole problem into sharp focus. Most of it’s 28 feet high, rusted steel, ugly, implacable. It’s a monument to perpetual hostility, for both sides, you can feel it dividing the world into us and them – our own, and everybody else. For the Palestinians it’s an open wound in the body of their people. And as long as it stands, there will never be peace.
So here’s where we get to the story of the Good Samaritan. Of course that term has long been in popular usage; for most people it means someone who goes out of their way to help someone in need. Well, that does happen in the story, but doesn’t begin to do it justice. A lawyer stands up and asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. Luke tells us the lawyer does this to “test” Jesus, to try and catch him in a mistake. Which Jesus certainly recognizes but disregards – for Jesus every moment is a teaching moment - and asks the man, what is written in the law? What do you read there? So the man quotes the first two commandments: 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 love your neighbor as yourself. And Jesus tells him, You’re right; do this, and you will live.
But the lawyer – still testing Jesus - asks, And who is my neighbor? And Jesus answers with the parable. There’s a man who’s on his way from one place to another - we know nothing else about him - and he’s set upon by robbers who take everything he’s got and beat him up and leave him lying half dead on the side of the road. And as he lies there, three separate people happen upon him, one at a time. The first two are a priest and a Levite, and they each cross to the other side of the road and pass him by. There’s a reason for this: it was against the law for religious officials - which included Levites - to touch a dead body (which it turned out wasn’t the case, but neither of them was going to take the chance.)
The one who actually does something about the situation is a Samaritan. Y As you may know, there was great enmity between Samaritans and Jews, they hated each other, for reasons that went back hundreds of years; and for Jesus to make the hero of this story a Samaritan turns the world upside down. Think of someone whom you detest – for what you think are good reasons - and make that person the good guy in this story: that’s what Jesus is doing.) That’s how radical this story is. And the Samaritan doesn’t just care for this man who is his traditional enemy, he goes several extra miles: puts him on his own animal to get him to an inn (which means he himself has to walk); he sees him through the night; the next day before he goes on his way he gives money to the innkeeper to take care of the man, and says if you have to spend more I’ll repay you when I come back .
And when Jesus finishes the story he asks the lawyer, Which of these three (the priest, the Levite, and the Samaritan), do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers? Remember, the lawyer had asked him Who is my neighbor? Jesus is telling him, That’s the wrong question. The answer to that question is simple: every human being. Even someone who’s always treated you with contempt. Even someone whom all of your friends insist is not one of your own. The commandment you quoted to me is, Love your neighbor as yourself. So the question you should be asking is, How am I loving my neighbor? What am I doing about that? And if I am really loving my neighbor as myself, are there limits to the lengths to which I will go?
Those are the questions. Because this is the kingdom of God Jesus is talking about. When we open ourselves to it, it changes us; and changes the life around us. And if someone asks you, Why do you go to church, this is the kind of thing you can point to. It’s not the way the world operates, and there are plenty of people who won’t sign on to it: the wall did the job, we’re taking care of our own. But the problem didn’t go away; because this is not who God created us to be. This is why we call Jesus our Redeemer: because he calls us to who we really are.
In our Book of Common Prayer there’s a prayer that’s titled, “For the Human Family”, with which I’m going to close. Let us pray. “O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed us through Jesus your Son: Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that, in your good time, all nations and races may serve you in harmony around your heavenly throne; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”