8 Sunday after Pentecost Proper 10: Deut. 30: 9-14; Ps 25: 1-9; Col 1: 1-14; Lk 10: 25-37
Preached at St. John’s Episcopal Church Montgomery, AL on July 14, 2013
The one who showed him mercy.
There is a powerful scene toward the end of the movie Braveheart in which Mel Gibson as William Wallace is being tortured in the square outside the castle in London. In the scene Wallace, is brought to a platform to be purified and offered an opportunity to recant his treason, his desire for God-given freedom. Wallace holds fast to his resolve and refuses to recant even though he is stretched, racked, and ultimately killed.
At first, the crowd jeers Wallace throwing rotten vegetables at him and booing him. But at some point there is a significant shift in the crowd’s attitude toward him. Instead of heckling him, they begin to call for mercy. They have been moved by his belief and have begun to identify with his pain and courage. They are transformed in that moment.
The scene is powerful not simply because of the transformation of the crowd, but because interspersed throughout this brutal, deplorable, and heart-breaking scene, stands another scene in sharp contrast. At the same time that William Wallace is being tortured, the Princess of Wales is begging the dying king, Edward the Longshanks, for mercy for Wallace. The king, stubborn to the end, refuses her request.
Both the king and Wallace die that day”one justified, the other not. One experiencing compassion in the form of a crowd of strangers”the other unable to even comprehend the concept. And we, as the audience are reminded, that mercy is transformative but it requires compassion and compassion may be the most transformative action of all.
That is what the story of the Good Samaritan is all about the transformative power of compassion. Without compassion, the Samaritan does not act. Obviously neither the priest nor the Levite experienced compassion”not only do they walk on by, they move to the other side of the road to do so. But the Samaritan’s acts are set against and opposed to that of the holy men.
The Samaritan draws near, sees the beaten man, and was moved with pity”the original Greek might be better translated, he was moved to the depth of his being. Compassion is a transformative action that can result in the action of mercy.
But what is mercy? It seems a simple question and the simple answer is that mercy is deliverance from judgment. That is what the Princess of Wales assumes when she comes to the king to beg for the life of William Wallace. That is the shift in the crowd witnessing Wallace’s torture. But in the context of the story of the Good Samaritan it appears that the traveller was not exempt from judgment–that he was a victim, judged harshly by a brutal society and left for dead not just by the robbers, but by those who were expected to show compassion”the priest and Levite. There must be something more to mercy than just deliverance.
If you look up mercy in the dictionary you find that the definition of mercy is an expression of compassion by someone who has some sense of authority or power in the situation”mercy is compassion shown toward someone whom it is within one’s power to punish or harm. Its origin can be traced through the Old French”Merci meaning thanks. So there is a sense of gratitude associated with the giving and receiving of mercy.
It is a poor assumption to assume that those whom we help, receive it as an act of mercy, much less are grateful for the assistance; or that when we ourselves are helped we do not have to receive that assistance with humility. The man travelling today was beaten, stripped, and left for dead.
Everything was taken from him”his clothes, his money, his physical health”he had no choice but to accept assistance with a humbled and grateful heart. But that is not always true of us when we accept help. How many times do we refuse an offer of help even though that help would lessen our own burdens? And how often is that refusal grounded in our pride or our desire not to become indebted to others?
We may profess gratitude”You are so sweet to offer, thank you, but I’ll be just fine”but truth be told, we don’t want anyone to bother with our lives, we circle our wagons and push others away instead of humbly opening ourselves up to the truth that no man is an island, that we are dependent upon one another, upon our community. We have to stick together, we need one another and we must learn to allow others to assist us from a place of gratitude.
It is not simply those who receive mercy that must practice gratitude, it is those who offer it as well. We cannot be merciful people acting in merciful ways if it is not rooted in gratitude. We must give with a grateful heart. And yet, how often is our giving tied into a hierarchical relationship in which I have identified myself as the greater and you as the lesser, so I will help you because that is what my position in life requires. That is my responsibility.
If we only help from a place of responsibility, what message are we sending? Are we helping because we truly care about others? about our community? I don’t think so. To help from a place of gratitude we must understand that all that we have has been given to us not as our possession but as its steward.
And as faithful stewards, we accept the things given us, material wealth, gifts and talents, even our time, with gratitude and then find even greater gratitude when we are able to share them with others. That is what mercy is”being grateful in our ability to care for others, no matter who they are.
But that is not all that mercy is. Mercy requires compassion. The Samaritan was moved to the depths of his being. And then he himself was moved to action. Compassion is transformative. It has movement. We are moved from one state of being into another. And this movement triggered by compassion can only be transformed into mercy when we then act upon it. We cannot be merciful neighbors if we simply feel compassion for a moment and then turn away.
The movie Hotel Rwanda, is the true story of a hotel manager, Paul, who offered Tutsi refugees sanctuary from the acts of genocide committed by the Hutu army in the Spring of 1994. There is a scene in the movie in which Paul is talking to a journalist named Jack. Paul thanks Jack for shooting footage of the genocide in Rwanda, telling him that he is glad the world will see it because it is the only chance the Tutsis have that people might intervene.
Jack asks him if the footage is still a good thing to show if no one intervenes and Paul in disbelief asks, how can they not intervene once they have seen the atrocities for themselves. To which Jack gives an honest and, unfortunately, true answer– I think if people see this footage they’ll say, ˜oh my God that’s horrible’, and then go on eating their dinners.
Jack is aware of a great truth, a great evil that has taken over our country–we have become immune, overexposed to tragedy, violence, the simple wrongs of our society. So immune and overexposed that not only do we not recognize them, but we rarely even consider them as contributing to our own poor spiritual health, to our own problems and pain. We are desensitized to the very world we live in; we have lost our compassion and thus our ability to act in merciful ways.
Some of us have become so overexposed to the violence and pain of living that we have stopped reading the news or watching it on tv. Or maybe we have begun to take a different route to work or to church so that we don’t have to be exposed to the misfortune that exists in our own community. We think that if we ignore it or pretend it isn’t there it will go away or it at least won’t be our problem.
Unfortunately for us, our neighborhood has gone global. And the need on the global scale is overwhelming. The world is too large to care for everyone, but it is not too large for us to travel down the road and stumble across our neighbors in need. The Good Samaritan is our model for practicing gratitude and compassion in the form of mercy.
He is transformed in three easy steps. 1. He draws near. He doesn’t cross to the other side of the road, much less change his route in order to avoid exposure to the bad part of town. He draws near to that which has offended the eye of the authority as expressed by the characters of priest and Levite. He draws near and thus he is able to see the unfortunate traveler. And that is step 2. Look and see the situation for what it really is.
We must draw near enough so that we can see with clarity what the real need is. Many have attempted to excuse the behavior of the priest and Levite by saying that they thought the man was dead and any interaction with the dead would have made them unclean and thus unable to fulfill their duties at the Temple. But the problem with that excuse is the assumption that we don’t have to draw near in the first place. That it is ok to move to the other side of the road, to walk on by, if we have other pressing needs or concerns or just don’t feel like getting our hands dirty.
Ritual defilement would have required actual touching of the body. Just to go close and see what was going on would not have defiled them. Neither does it defile us. We must draw close and see the need before we can do anything. And so the Samaritan draws close and sees and this brings us to the third step”the transformative step”compassion.
Once we have drawn close, once we have seen what is really going on, then if we are caring people of God, we are moved to the depths of our own being. We are transformed by compassion. Three steps to transformation; but this is not enough.
When Jesus asks the lawyer who was the neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers, the lawyer does not respond the one who had compassion”he responds the one who showed him mercy. And we are told to go and do likewise. We must practice mercy”the mercy that is tied up with gratitude and compassion–the mercy that flows through us from the Holy Spirit out into a brutal and cruel world.
It is not enough to be a good steward; we must be a grateful steward. It is not enough to do good in the world, we must act with compassion and show mercy to our neighbor. It is not enough to simply consider those who look like you, or act like you, or share the same circumstances as you to be your neighbor. Our neighbor is the other; the misfortunate ones, be they here in Montgomery, AL, on an Indian reservation in North Dakota, or the illegal alien trying to find a better way, a better life in this world. And whoever our neighbor is, at the very least he deserves compassion. But for us to act as neighbor then he deserves mercy.
In that same scene with Mel Gibson in Braveheart, the priest does his best to tempt William Wallace into reaching out his hand, simply saying a word, mercy, and if he does, it will all end: all the pain, all the humiliation.
But the mercy that priest is offering isn’t mercy at all”it is judgment in disguise”it is not given out of compassion but out of power and control. There is no gratitude in the priest’s capacity as a steward of souls. And there is no deep sense of humility in what he offers; and that is the last aspect of a merciful act”the deep, overwhelming sense of humiliation upon the part of the person who acts in a merciful manner.
It is not a but for the grace of God go I sense of humility, but more of a because of the grace of God can I. It is the complete release of all power that helps us to act in merciful ways. It is the utter rejection of hierarchy in relationships or recognition that I am giving of myself. To act in a merciful manner is to be transformed by the presence of God”to participate in the kingdom and allow God to act through us. That is what the Good Samaritan shows us. That is the lesson the lawyer learns. And that is what Jesus is saying when he tells us to go and do likewise.