Sunday Sermon – June 10, 2016

Daniel P. Strandlund

St. John’s Episcopal Church

Proper 10C

July 10th, 2016

Luke 10:25-37


Compassionate Imagination


Which of these¦was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?  He said, The one who showed him mercy.  Jesus said to him, Go and do likewise. (Luke 10:36 and 37)


            Last week I said every face we encounter is preparing us to receive the face of God.  The details you see, the laugh lines, the perpetual frown, the little scar above the eyebrow”there is more of a story there than you realize. [¦] When we look at each other, when we see each other, we have to keep that in mind: there is always more going on there than we know. (From my sermon, July 3, 2016)


I’m going to extend this theme today.  I want to offer that if we’re to receive the face of our neighbor as I think God would have us do”then we must exercise compassionate imagination.  We can’t simply see them.  We must listen and stretch ourselves until we’re capable of seeing as they see.  We must do this because it is what God does.  God, the Creator of the universe, takes the risk of seeing the universe with the eyes of an ordinary man born of a woman, Jesus of Nazareth.  If our Creator risks seeing universe from the perspective of his creation, then we must risk the perspectives of our neighbors.


Today I’m going to try looking at each of our characters in this parable with a compassionate imagination.  Perhaps there’s more going on there than we realize.


A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead (v.30)


Usually we accept this parable not questioning that the world should contain robbers.  We accept the robbers not as human beings but as dangerous ingredients of particular environments.  If you’re driving through the mountains, you have to be careful of rock slides.  If you’re driving in the rain along a river, you have to watch for flooding.  If you’re traveling the road from Jerusalem to Jericho, you have to watch for robbers.


This road from Jerusalem to Jericho was known to be dangerous, the kind of neighborhood you avoid.  In first century Palestine, and in the years before Jesus’ life, numerous bands of robbers lived in the wilderness and in-between places of the geography.  Some were predominantly Jewish and reacting against Roman control, economic oppression, and what they perceived as un-Jewish or anti-Jewish changes going on around Jerusalem.  Other bands of robbers could’ve been composed of former slaves.  Some just got desperate.  And I imagine that some were just cruel, coercive people, those inexplicable agents of chaos which societies can’t seem not to produce.


We don’t know who these robbers are.  It’s doubtful they were anything as romantic as Robin Hood or even anti-imperial Jewish revolutionaries.  Chances are, they were a mix of people who grew up in desperate circumstances, or people who went without paychecks for just long enough to stretch them and their families to the point where an irresponsible, criminal, and violent decision is just one of a few bad options for survival that day.  A cash only household is a house where you don’t think about planning for tomorrow because tomorrow is not guaranteed.  If you don’t think about tomorrow for yourself, then there’s no room in your heart to think about tomorrow for anyone else who is not a member of your immediate people group.  Perhaps they leave this man only half-dead so that you can rob him again later.


In order to see as these robbers see, we have to risk finding within ourselves the capacity to see another human being merely as a resource for our own survival or pleasure.  When we say catty things about others in our social groups so as to shore up our own sense of belonging, or when we devour a someone on a magazine cover with our eyes, or when we push young athletes too hard”we’re not seeing people as people.  We’re seeing people as resources for our own survival, pleasure, and ego-security.  It’s just that the way we do it, it’s legal.


Next character: the man who is beaten, stripped, left half-dead and then carried to the inn on the back of a stranger’s animal.  His clothes are stolen, which means they were either reasonably nice or at least in good condition and worth stealing.  But he’s travelling alone down a road known to be dangerous, which means he couldn’t afford guards.  It also means he was either a part of a group and got separated for some reason, or he wasn’t a part of a group to begin with.


Keeping these facts in mind, it’s reasonable to conclude that this man enjoyed a level of stability but that he was not a powerful or wealthy person.  Perhaps he was employed by someone more powerful than himself.  Perhaps he was a craftsman of some kind, making a steady living so long as it goes uninterrupted.  Jerusalem and Jericho were both cities of decent size.  Perhaps this man was on some business errand.  Perhaps his work forced him to travel in dangerous neighborhoods all the time, alone.  Perhaps his wife is anxious every time he leaves the house for work, worried that the terrible things she hears on TV are going to happen to him.


What’s important is this: based on the amount of money the Samaritan pays the innkeeper, it’s likely that this robbery victim was at the inn for two months.  This robbery victim is out of work for two months.  He has one unlucky encounter”and then what?  Of all the characters in this parable, I think this man’s life is the most drastically changed, the most uncertain after this.  If he gets too behind on bills, if he can’t get more work”it’s possible that when this is all over he finds himself on the outside of stable, civil existence.  He’s in danger of becoming desperate, and desperation leads to fear.  Fear distorts one’s view of things.  He’s on the verge of becoming like the robbers: having no options but bad ones.  That’s an important shift, one that takes a relatively short amount of time without resources, without a stable family network or some kind of community close at hand.  It’s not a shift to which anyone is intrinsically immune.  If we’re going to see as this robbery victim sees, we have to risk finding within ourselves the fear of bad neighborhoods, and the anxiety of knowing that the right combination of time and hardship could land us there.


Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.  So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.


This priest is a member of the most elite religious community.  The Levite is a lesser order of clergy.  It’s sort of like a bishop walking by, and then an associate rector or a deacon.  Now this road leads both away from Jerusalem and towards it.  So it’s possible that both of these clergy are heading to the Temple in Jerusalem for some sort of feast or ritual observance.  If that’s the case, it’s possible that they’re ignoring the robbery victim so as to ensure that they’re able serve in the Temple.  Leviticus (21:1-4) gives clear instructions for priests regarding how to remain ritually pure for service in the sanctuary.  Touching a dead body renders a priest of the Temple unclean for Temple work.  According to Numbers, the ritual of purification after contact with a human corpse takes seven days to complete (19:11-13), so in order to ensure that they were fit to offer sacrifice to God on behalf of God’s people, priests were forbidden from making contact with a dead body unless it was their nearest of kin.


But here’s the catch: this robbery victim isn’t dead.  He must have looked it, though: unconscious, bloody, naked.  I mean, this is the Jerusalem to Jericho road, after all.  So these clergy who pass by on the other side have not gotten close enough even to see if he’s breathing.  They’ve made assumptions about what’s going on.  The most charitable reading possible is that their assumptions are coming from a place of responsibility.  They serve in a public role and have responsibilities to others and are depended on to do that work.  But these assumptions also allow them to rationalize inaction.  I wonder what would have happened had there been a crowd present.  Under the public eye, maybe the priest and the Levite would’ve felt pressure to show compassion.


We know what this feels like, too, don’t we?  Sometimes doing the good thing is easier when people are watching.  When we’re alone, it’s easy to let convenience outweighs goodness.  Or, maybe they were afraid.  The road to Jerusalem from Jericho is dangerous.  It’s best not to linger.  It’s tragic, what happened to this guy, but this is just how the world is: full of robbers and dangerous people.  If I’m honest, this priest and Levite are the ones it’s easiest for me to identify with.  Not just because I’m a priest.  It’s always been that way.  If I don’t make eye contact with someone who is hurting, if I look hard enough in the other direction, I can maintain a little bit longer my illusion that the world is too broken for anything I do to matter.  Once I’m safely back in Jerusalem, I can put this behind me, and be appropriately outraged on Facebook about the world’s injustice.  The paradox is that this priest and the Levite are also the ones who cause me the most anger.  They should know better.  They’re good religious folks.  How could he act this way?  Maybe this is your experience too: we often get angry at others when they reflect something true about ourselves.  We have to risk remembering our shame at having fallen short of the calling to which we are called in baptism.


Then there’s the Samaritan.  Samaria is a region north of Jerusalem.  The beef between Samaritans and Jews is centuries old.[1]  What’s important is this: Samaritans became Samaritans due to mistreatment and being actively refused from Temple life.  So much so that by Jesus’ day, this Samaritan in our parable wouldn’t even recognize the Temple in Jerusalem as the real Temple anymore.  There’s no reason for this Samaritan to show kindness like he does.  The Jerusalem-to-Jericho road is mostly Jewish territory.  If anyone is a risk for getting robbed on this road, it’s the Samaritan, especially since he clearly has cash and booze on hand.  He gives the innkeeper two denarii: enough money to cover the wounded man’s lodging and care for two months (See note on Luke 10:35 in Oxford Annotated NRSV).  Imagine what the bill would be for two months at a hotel, with all meals and room-service medical care included?


What we see, then, is that this Samaritan’s actions exhibit a confrontational kindness.  One is reminded of Proverbs 25: If your enemies are hungry, give them bread to eat; and if they are thirsty, give them water to drink; for you will heap coals of fire on their heads, and the Lord will reward you (v.21-22).  There’s a willfulness to the Samaritan’s behavior.  He’s the strongest character.  He’s the only character who speaks, and he performs way more actions in the parable than anyone else.  His imagination is too compassionate to let the old divisions dictate his actions.


The Samaritans’ strength is the same strength you exert when you’re children or siblings or parents are mistreating you in some way, but you refuse to respond in kind.  It’s the same resolute goodness in you that keeps you doing your job well at work and treating your boss and coworkers with dignity and respect even when they treat you unfairly.  It’s the same flippant kindness that tips a bad waiter %20 anyway.  When we risk seeing the world as the Samaritan sees it, we remember the sweetness of our highest selves.


Finally, there’s the innkeeper.  The innkeeper is the only character who is neither particularly bad, nor particularly good, nor particularly lucky or unlucky.  She’s just doing her job.  Then all of a sudden she inherits something she doesn’t want.  This problem, the wounds of a crime that happened miles down the road are suddenly on her doorstep.  The wounds on this broken man’s body are hers to care for now.  A regular day at work just got more involved, and it’s going to be a prolonged involvement.  No getting around it now: it’s hers to deal with.


I’m almost at the end of this thing, but this is the hard part.


Right now, at this point in the history of America, I think we are the most like this innkeeper.  Here’s what I mean:  this has been a particularly bad week in the news.  Two black men died at the hands of white police officers, and in each of those situations the use of deadly force was questionable.  Then, the next day, several white police officers were killed by at least one black man who said openly he was retaliating against white police.


As I’ve tried to come to some kind of understanding and hope about the events of this past week, I imagine that we in the United States today are like this innkeeper.  Nobody in this room started the racial tensions that exist in our country.  Even the oldest among us haven’t been around that long.  That crime happened miles down the road toward Jericho.  But we’ve inherited this broken body of America.  It’s ours to care for, it’s ours now, it’s on our doorstep, and we can either commit to the slow work of reconciliation or we can watch something beautiful die on our watch.


I think we begin, we begin, by cultivating compassionate imaginations.  Go to Sawyerville.  Volunteer with Hope Inspired Ministries.  Find a way to mentor a kid at Sidney Lanier.  Befriend a cop.  It’s tempting to say that we’re all the same, but that isn’t true.  We’re different.  We grow up differently.  We see differently.  That’s why it’s hard.


So when you see the face of a white cop you think is abusing his power”remember, there’s more going on there than you realize.


When you see the face of a black kid in a rough neighborhood who looks to you like he’s up to no good”remember, there’s a lot more going on there than you realize.


When you see your own face in the mirror”I promise you, there’s more going on there than you realize.  There’s a Samaritan in there somewhere.  Someone who is too good and too loving and too strong to let themselves be governed by anger at someone they’ve decided is their enemy rather than by compassion for those who are hurting.


This Good-Samaritan-ness is what God reveals to us in the crucifixion of His Son.  By crucifying and abandoning the Son of God, we make ourselves God’s enemies.  But God’s imagination is too compassionate to respond in kind.  His response to us, even in our violence and poverty and criminality and abuse of power, God’s response is compassion.  Compassion rolls that stone away from the tomb.  It is a compassionate body that is raised from the dead.  It is compassion that’s going to let the broken body of America heal from all these wounds so that when one day, when we’re no longer the ones keeping this inn, on that day”this great country can get back on the road to Jericho where it belongs.

[1] Basically: Solomon’s son treats the majority of the Israelites as slaves, which leads to civil war (1 Kings 12).  The northern tribes rebel, and Samaria becomes the capital of the northern kingdom while Jerusalem remains the capital in the south.  A few hundred years later, things get worse when the Jewish elites return from captivity in Babylon and try to rebuild the Temple.  They won’t let the Samaritans help, so the Samaritans build their own temple in a different location (Ezra 4:1-4; Nehemiah 4:1-6; John 4:20, etc.).