Doing Mercy (Fifth Sunday after Pentecost)

Sermons on YouTube…

Ever since I arrived at Prince of Peace, I’ve been part of a group of clergy who call ourselves the “Route 28 Clergy Group”.  It’s an interfaith group of clergy who serve congregations along Route 28, and it’s been going on since long before I got here.

I think the secret of our success at staying together is that we have absolutely no agenda!  We gather for lunch, and we have conversation.  We just build relationships with each other.  And although sometimes projects and partnerships have grown out of those relationships – such as the Interfaith 5K Run – all we commit to do is have lunch.

But sometimes people ask me, “what do you all do?” And I tell them, that it’s sort of like the old jokes that start off, “A priest, a minister and a rabbi walk into a diner…”, because that’s literally what we do!

And everybody understands that because we’ve all heard old jokes that begin, “A priest, a minister and a rabbi…”  Those three things just go together when a story begins.

It’s like if I’d tell a story about old comedy routines and say, “Larry, Moe and…” and you’d expect Curly.  That’s just who the 3 Stooges are.

And over the last couple of years, I’ve had opportunities (along with some of my Route 28 colleagues), to hear Amy-Jill Levine talk about the “Good Samaritan” parable.  Amy-Jill Levine is a New Testament professor at Vanderbilt University, and she’s Jewish.  And she always wants us to consider Jesus’ parables in their original Jewish context – that is, how would a bunch of first century Jews listening to a Jewish rabbi have heard this story?

And one really important thing she pointed out about today’s parable was that, for first century Jews, a story which began “A Priest, a Levite and …” was a set-up exactly like, “A priest, a minister and a rabbi” (or “Larry, Moe and Curly”).  And what was expected was: “A priest, a Levite and an Israelite.”  That was just the way the story was supposed to go.

But that’s not what Jesus does.  He makes the story, “A priest, a Levite and a Samaritan.”  And Samaritans didn’t like Jews.  And more importantly, Jews didn’t like Samaritans.  And Amy-Jill Levine said this would have hit first century Jewish hearers in the same way we’d hear, “A priest, a Levite and Osama bin Laden.”  It was not only unexpected.  It was shocking and even offensive.  And that may be part of the reason this parable was remembered.

Ironically, the Samaritan, the one whom most of Jesus’ first hearers would have been unwilling to accept help from, ends up being the neighbor in the story.

And that just didn’t sit right, so much so that when Jesus asks the lawyer, “which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor”, the lawyer won’t even use the word “Samaritan.”  Instead, he simply grudgingly admits, “the one who showed him mercy.”

The one who showed him mercy.  But that’s not exactly what the Greek text says. It actually says, “the one who did mercy with him.”  The one who did mercy.  Mercy is verb.  It’s a thing you do.  It’s not an idea.  It’s not a feeling.

And that’s a really important point, both in this parable and in the entire Bible.  We often read, and sing and pray, the word “mercy.”  And often, we end up interpreting “mercy” as:

  • A legal idea that means we won’t get punished quite as badly as we deserve…! (Even the translation “showed him mercy” gives the impression that mercy is a concept, like a picture on my phone that I can take out and show somebody…);
  • A feeling of pity or compassion … (and Jesus says the Samaritan was moved with “pity”; but that wasn’t the same as doing mercy.  It’s probably assumed that the priest and the Levite also felt bad for the guy…)

But mercy is actually a verb.  It’s what you do.  And mercy is most profound when you “do mercy” even though:

  • There is no obligation to do it … (Amy-Jill Levine also points out that lots of us have heard the interpretation that the priest and the Levite won’t help because they’re concerned with ritual impurity if they touch a dead body; but she points out that’s not really the case, and neither Luke nor Jesus make that excuse for them…; and therefore, they know the obligation to help their neighbor (or at least to bury the dead), but they don’t.  The Samaritan is under no such obligation.  He doesn’t do this because he’ll “get in trouble with God” if he doesn’t help …
  • You may not have warm fuzzy feelings for the person who’s in need … The Samaritan may “pity” the guy who’s been beaten up. But Jesus doesn’t say he becomes friends with the guy, or changes his mind about Jews.  Nor does Jesus say that the guy in the ditch grew to love Samaritans (instead, even as the story was passed down, this guy was called the “Good Samaritan” which is really a pejorative term…!)

So Jesus sets up a story in which a person does mercy, without regard to obligation or warm fuzzy feelings for the other person.  And then Jesus tells the “lawyer” (who actually is a professional biblical scholar and should know better!) to go and DO likewise.  That is, go and DO mercy.

And this idea of “doing mercy” is important for us for at least two reasons:

  • First, Jesus reminds us that “doing mercy” is something God calls us to do without analyzing what we’re “obligated” to do, or whether we even like the neighbor…  (and sometimes, that’s where we get hung up…)
  • Second, and maybe most importantly, this is why God “does mercy” to us.  Mercy is God’s action in our lives because God wants to do it, and it’s not because God is “obligated” to help us because we’ve been good or deserve it; and it’s not something God does because we’re such loveable people… (in fact, I don’t know about you, but I most need God’s active help when I’m NOT being very nice or loveable…!)

And when we “do” that kind of mercy in the lives of others, we bear witness to who God is in our lives, in the lives of our neighbors, and most especially in the lives of people who, like the Samaritan, we’re not sure we want to be our neighbors!

Mercy is God’s saving action in our lives right now and not just at the end of time. It doesn’t depend on us earning it. It doesn’t depend on us being “pitiful” enough to deserve it.  And it doesn’t require us to be sweet and lovable enough to get it. That’s the kind of mercy we really need from God. 

That’s the kind of mercy that can give us hope and strength to face the times when we find ourselves in a ditch. That’s the kind of mercy that literally lifts us up when we’re totally dead and gives us new life.  And that’s the kind of mercy which, when we share it, makes God’s love a real and living action in the lives of all of our neighbors.