Samaritan reminder to receive, extend mercy

It always happens on the Jericho Road. The Jericho Road is a 17-mile stretch that connects Jerusalem to Jericho. That road drops 3,600 feet in those 17 miles. It is a steep, winding, descending, remote road that for centuries has been a place of robberies.

It always happens on the Jericho Road. It is 17 miles of violence and oppression. It is the strip of suffering.

The Jericho Road? It’s a symbol of suffering in the world. The Jericho Road is the 17 rooms of the corridor of the nursing home unit that houses Alzheimer’s patients.

It is a 17-floor tenement building in the ghettos of Harlem. It’s a frightening place where death, drugs and family violence are the order of the day. A building where the poor are trapped and held at the mercy of the predators.

It is 17 blocks in the near downtown area where the mentally ill, the runaway teens and the other homeless wanders, going from shelter to shelter — from food bank to food bank — are trying to make it through another day.

It’s a 17-mile stretch of border along the Gaza Strip. Or Iraq. It’s a 17-mile stretch of border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

It’s the 17 miles that goes right through the heart of Calcutta. It witnesses those who are the very poorest of the poor.

It is the 17 years an aunt, an uncle or some other relative took care of a spouse with chronic heart disease. Or maybe their loved one had cancer or AIDS, and they nursed them the best they could.

You see, the Jericho Road is any place in the world where there is violence or oppression; it is any place in the world where people are robbed of their dignity, love, food or freedom. The Jericho Road is always with us.

One of the dangers is as soon as we recognize the story of the Good Samaritan, we have a tendency to tune out. We know the story Jesus is telling forward and backward. Truth is, most of us could recite the details of the story ourselves.

It begins with a lawyer asking Jesus an earnest enough question.

“Teacher,” he said, “How can I inherit eternal life?”

Jesus responds with a question, asking what the scripture teaches him. “To love God with all my strength, all my soul and all my heart. And that I should love my neighbor as myself.”

Jesus tells him he has responded correctly. That if he does that he shall live.

It was only then that the lawyer got to the main point of his inquiry. “Who is my neighbor?”

Truth is, he didn’t want to know who his neighbor was. He wanted to know who his neighbor wasn’t.

Who could he exclude? Who was there that he didn’t have to love? Who am I allowed to ignore or neglect, or perhaps even hate? What is the minimal thing I need to do and still keep God’s law of love?

It is a sad approach to keeping the law of God, isn’t it? Yet it makes sense when you look at the world and consider the problems within it. It makes sense when we recognize our own fears, our own prejudices, our own worldview.

After all, there are sinners — people so evil that even God surely cannot love them. Osama Bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, Adolph Hitler — people who have broken God’s law in the most horrible ways imaginable. Surely these folks are not our neighbors. Surely we don’t have to love them. And I’m sure the list doesn’t stop there. There are other folks who are not only not our neighbors but deserve our contempt, our rebuke, our anger, or simply our neglect.

And yet, these are the very people we may run across as we travel the Jericho Road: People that ordinarily you would shun, ignore, hate. There are strangers, different from us in every respect. There are family members, people who know us better than we do ourselves sometimes. They’re placed in our path for us to react to with a heart of love placed in us by God himself.

John Shea captures brilliantly what Jesus was trying to convey with his parable. Jesus was trying to put the lawyer, and you and me, in exactly the right seat. Shea portrays the lawyer to whom Luke says this story was told, seeking Jesus out on behalf of the religious establishment in Jerusalem in an effort to build a case of blasphemy against Jesus. Armed with superior legal tactics and knowledge of the law, the lawyer proceeds to set a clever trap for Jesus.

Questions asked merely to gain advantage over another are not a kingdom exercise. Neither is asking questions with no intention of implementing the answers.

Jesus and the lawyer are sparring with neither giving an inch. The lawyer knows the law and so does Jesus. What more is there to say?

But then the lawyer tips his hand. “And who is my neighbor?”

Instead of answering the man, Jesus puts him there on the Jericho Road. Puts him precisely where he can see.

He came across to where I stood. He grabbed my shoulders, steadying me on my feet, squaring me off like he was readying me for a blow. He locked my eyes into his.

“A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho,” he began. He did not let go until he saw in my eyes that I knew I was that man. Then he moved away from me to tell everyone what happened: First the robbery, then the stripping and beating, then being left for dead by two countrymen.

I had nothing, so nothing came to me. Even through my blood, I could see he was a Samaritan. But in his eyes were my tears.

If only he had cursed, thrown me on his animal, dropped me in a heap at an inn and went on his way with a slur, “More than you would have done for me.” But he cleaned me like a mother bathes a child, rubbed oil in my wounds, tore his own robe for bandages. He put me on his donkey and walked beside it, steadying me. At the inn he laid me on a cot and placed blankets over me. I could hear him paying the innkeeper and saying he would be back to take care of me if it was needed. All that time — that endless time — he never spoke to me. Except for the tears.

The next thing I knew, Jesus had me by the shoulders again. He, too, had my tears in his eyes. “Who proved neighbor to the one in need?” It was the only question I have ever heard that was not a test.

And for once I spoke, not worrying right from wrong, not breathless for approval. I uttered sounds that were not recitation. My sounds, halting, like a child speaking for the first time: “The one who showed mercy.”

It is the moment of sight for the lawyer. He suddenly sees the world the way Jesus does from the perspective of the man in the ditch, where there are no Samaritans, Jews, Gentiles, priests, or lawyers. Only those who cry out and those who pass by.

Every last one of us travel that Jericho Road; every last one of us is the man in the ditch, because every last one of us (no matter how little we look it or no matter how surprised we might be to realize it) is half-dying for need of both treating and being treated the way people who are truly alive treat each other.

Jesus calls us to love and provide for others, regardless of whether they are Christian or non-Christian, white or black, clean or dirty, young or old, gay or straight. Jesus invites us to feed the hungry, provide for the thirsty, welcome the strangers, clothe the naked, look after the sick, visit the prisoners as if we were caring for Christ himself. And when we fall (and we will), Jesus acts as the Good Samaritan to those of us in the ditch, paying the price for our needs, no questions asked.

Each of us — at some time or another — will travel the Jericho Road. Be a neighbor. Love a neighbor. And in so doing, you will know the height and depth and breadth of the love of God.

David Wise is pastor of Otterbein United Methodist Church. This weekly column is written by local clergy members.