Amos 7:7-17; Psalm 82; Luke 10:25-37
If you have paid any attention to the rhetoric of politicians these days (and if you haven’t, good for you – your blood pressure is undoubtedly lower than mine!), you have heard the term fake news. As I did a little research on this term (which for me has come to mean, negative press coverage of the person bestowing the epithet), I discovered that fake news really is a thing. Wikipedia calls it, “deliberate disinformation or hoaxes spread via traditional news media (print and broadcast) or online social media.”[i] The Wikipedia article goes on to say, “the relevance of fake news has increased in post-truth politics.” That term—“post-truth politics” really intrigued me, but I have decided to put that aside today, hoping it will appear in a future sermon!
But thinking about fake news reminds me that news, which I would like to think can be objective and fair, is probably never that. What actually happened is elusive, and the way an event is reported depends on the preconceptions of the reporter and on their literal point of view on the event, right? Certainly, that truism is evident in so many news stories that we hear today. The rash of shootings of black men here in this country that have been captured on cell phone video remind us that we always hear stories from specific points of view—in years past, before most people carried a video recorder in the form of a smart phone wherever they go, we would hear of most events after the fact. We might just hear the official report of an event, and the reality of what happened may have been lost. Nowadays, when we see the video, we realize that the objective perspective of any given event is rarely reported. In the telling of events, or in the reactions to them, we are subject to various lenses – ways of seeing them that change the event itself.
This idea—that we need to be aware of the lens through which we look at something—became even clearer to me after the clergy conference I attended a few years back. Every year the clergy of our diocese gather to spend time together in both fun and learning. In 2016 the speaker for our gathering was Amy-Jill Levine, a professor of New Testament at Vanderbilt Divinity School in Nashville, Tennessee. She is an orthodox Jew who is also a New Testament scholar. She describes herself as a “Yankee Jewish feminist who teaches in a predominantly Christian divinity school in the buckle of the Bible Belt.” She has made it her life’s mission to help Christians understand the Jewish context of Jesus and the disciples, and likewise, to help Jews understand Christian thought and theology. As such, she brings a unique and fresh approach to the New Testament and, in particular, to the parables of Jesus.
Levine is quick to explain that hers is not the only lens through which the parables should be viewed. She says that, if historical context were the only basis on which we interpreted Jesus’ parables, “we’d all have to be living in first-century Bible-land, and we’d have to conclude that the Gospels offer a one-size-fits-all model that has not yielded any new inspiration over the past two millennia.”[ii] And yet she also says, “a text without a context is just a pretext for making it say whatever one wants.”[iii]
Levine urges us to think about two things as we read the parables of Jesus: “How do we hear the parable through an imagined set of first-century Jewish ears, and then how do we translate them so that they can be heard still speaking?”[iv]
So, following her advice, this morning I’d like explore her take on the very familiar parable we just heard, and then to think about what this story might mean for us—how it might still speak to us.
Levine makes lots of interesting points about this parable—like the fact that Luke clearly does not like lawyers, and that the relationship between Jews and Samaritans was far rockier than we might understand. But there are a couple of other key points she makes that I would like to highlight.
Levine notes that the lawyer’s question to Jesus is suspect for Luke. To ask, “what must I do to inherit eternal life” misunderstands the nature of righteousness and salvation for Jesus. Levine says, “The question presumes eternal life is a commodity to be inherited or purchased on the basis of a particular action rather than a gift freely given.”[v]
Nonetheless, Jesus answers the lawyer’s question by reminding him that he already knows what the law commands. But the lawyer can’t leave well enough alone—which is clearly the point Luke wants to make. Luke writes, “But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’”
Levine writes that the lawyer’s “concern for self-justification is something Luke’s Jesus despises.”[vi] And then she explains that, “to ask ‘who is my neighbor’ is a polite way of saying, ‘who is not my neighbor?’ or ‘who does not deserve my love?’”
For Jesus, love is for everyone. And Levine explains that this is an actually a radical idea; “in Jewish thought, one could not mistreat the enemy, but love was not mandated.”[vii] But Jesus is quite clear on this point. In chapter 6 of Luke’s gospel Jesus says, “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them.” (6:32) And in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus says, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (5:44) So to ask who is my neighbor suggests that some people are not my neighbor, and that is not Jesus’ point of view.
Then, turning to the parable itself, Levine notes that over the years many interpreters have given various reasons why the priest and the Levite, might pass by the man in distress. She explains that a popular view has been that, because of the Torah’s purity laws that include prohibitions against touching a corpse, they were only following their beliefs. Levine dismisses this idea, and then says,
The best explanation I have heard for the refusal of the priest and the Levite to come to the aid of the man in the ditch come from Martin Luther King, Jr., who preached: ‘I’m going to tell you what my imagination tells me. It’s possible these men were afraid….And so the first question that the priest [and] the Levite asked was, “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?”…But then the Good Samaritan came by, and he reversed the question: “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?”’
And that brings me to the second part of Levine’s formula for untangling parables. I think that this idea that the Samaritan acts out of a genuine concern for the other, rather than for himself, is the word that we need to hear today.
If the President is true to his word, this morning has seen the beginning of “nationwide raids to arrest and deport undocumented migrants.”[viii] This “coordinated show of force” targeting families with children seems to have political motivations, even if it also has law and order motivations. The raids were first announced for late June, but “after harsh opposition from Democratic lawmakers, immigrant advocates and homeland security officials, the president postponed [the raids].”[ix] And of course this is on top of the news of inhumane conditions in which immigrants are being held along our border.
But the president has persisted. It seems to me that, fearful of being seen as weak or one who too easily backs down, the question he asked himself was, “if I’m not seen as being tough on immigrants, what will happen to me?”
And Jesus calls on us today to reverse the question: If we do not stand up and stop these raids on families, and their detention in deplorable conditions, what will happen to them? Will whole families be traumatized by guerilla tactics? Will more children be lost in the nightmarish detention centers we have seen repeatedly in the news? Will there be any dignity or care for those whom Jesus calls on us to love as we love ourselves?
As we look to what this parable might say to us today, the word is pretty clear: We are called to be neighbors to those in need right here, right now. Today it is the immigrant—the one who came to the United States simply seeking safety, and a chance to live and work in peace. Who knows who might be the one in need tomorrow? We are all pretty comfortable, and pretty secure, but will we always be so? And if we have not been neighborly at this time, can we really expect others to be neighborly then?
But then, that again puts the focus on us, doesn’t it? And Levine’s scholarship reminds us that we miss the point if we make this one about us. This parable is clearly meant to be about heeding the word of our Lord to be people of compassion—to understand, once again, that love is the way. To see that God’s point of view is that every person is precious, and deserves love and dignity. And to see that it is our job to proclaim that Good News to the world—but not just to proclaim it; to live it.
We are called to love everyone—the immigrant and the politician, the friend and the enemy, and everyone in between. We are called to remember the gift of grace we have been freely given and to extend the hand of love to all of our neighbors—and especially to those who are vulnerable.
How do we do this work? Well, first we don’t bury our heads in the sand. We keep our eyes open, and we speak out against injustice. And we must always challenge ourselves to do more: To use the extraordinary privilege that has been given to us to spread the light and love of Jesus to every corner of the earth.
I will give the last word to our Bishop, Doug Fisher, who was a guest columnist yesterday in the Worcester Telegram. He wrote about this very parable, concluding, “We long to become compassionate people, and we want a faith that is not abstract. Where in your life are you feeling called to be kind? How are you being invited to become a neighbor? As we hear reports of inhumane confinement for migrants at our border looking for asylum, how can we become a neighbor? When Jesus asked the lawyer the question which of the three became a neighbor, he answered, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”[x] Amen.
[ii] Levine, Amy-Jill, Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi. New York: Harper One, 2014. p. 19
[iii] Ibid. p. 9.
[iv] Ibid. p. 19.
[v] Ibid. p. 85.
[vi] Ibid. p. 90.
[vii] Ibid. p. 93.
[x] The Rt. Rev. Douglas Fisher, “Keep the Faith: Go and become a neighbor,” https://www.telegram.com/entertainmentlife/20190712/keep-faith-go-and-become-neighbor?fbclid=IwAR0qLMFUPQhRUVddLqm6Ji6GJ1RyGmaeMQUyH7jM6JS9jLNI-SHX38ZerME, The Worcester Telegram, accessed 7/13/2019.