I do quite a bit of cooking around our house, and I am a recipe fundamentalist. Even if I’m preparing something I’ve made many times before, I like to follow the recipe down to the last detail. I tend to be a color inside the lines person in general, so I naturally trust the recipe’s author, and I want to get it just right.
That means I have a lot of sympathy for the lawyer in today’s gospel who asks Jesus a question that sets the whole episode into motion. “Teacher,” he says,” what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus coaches him through the summary of the law—love God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. A pretty standard summary. Partly because he wants to make sure he’s got the recipe just exactly right, and partly because he’s hoping to show off the fact that he’s already got it right, he asks for more detail. Who, exactly, is my neighbor?
To answer the question, Jesus tells a well-known story. There’s a guy that gets mugged and left on the side of the road. A couple of good, upstanding church people pass by because they’ve got better things to do and don’t want to get messy with all of that, and then a Samaritan stops, bandages the man’s wounds, finds him a hotel room for the night, and leaves his card with the hotel manager in case the man needs anything else later.
“Good Samaritan” has become a standard way to describe a very nice and helpful person. But the way we normally use that phrase doesn’t carry the full weight of just how crazy the story is. It’s crazy for two reasons. The first is the fact that the hero of the story is a Samaritan. Samaritans and Jews as many of you know were bitter, bitter enemies. They both claimed to hold the true religion of Israel, and both thought the other side not only religiously wrong, but thoroughly despicable. The lawyer asks a question about the right way to practice the religion, and Jesus uses the most religiously wrong person as an example of how to do just that.
But the story is also crazy because of just how good the Samaritan is. He doesn’t just make sure the man is ok, give him a few dollars and send him on his way. He fixes up his wounds, finds him a hotel, pays for it, leaves some extra money, and gives the hotel manager his card in case the man needs anything else down the road. This isn’t mere pity, it is excessive, extravagant care. The Samaritan isn’t just fulfilling a religious duty, he is fully consumed with compassion and mercy.
The lawyer is trying to understand the limits of God’s call to neighborly love so he can be sure to get it exactly right. Two tablespoons of it over here, a quarter cup over there. Jesus reminds him that God’s love has no limits, and so we as God’s people are called to love without limit. Following Jesus isn’t about fulfilling a religious duty. Following Jesus is an invitation to be set on fire with God’s love that crashes through even the most bitter divisions.
It’s been a pretty devastating week in America. Two more young black men were killed by police in Louisiana and Minnesota. Five policeman were killed at a demonstration in Dallas. All of it feels like it has just intensified the various divisions that have been building for a long time now. Like many of you, I’ve read and listened, and even talked so much over the past several days that I’m not sure any more words will contribute much to sorting it out. All I know is there are a whole lot of bodies being left on the side of the road.
Traci Blackmon, a pastor in St. Louis, had about the most helpful thing to say on Friday. She posted this on Facebook: “Ultimately, the guns used to kill 5 officers last night and wound 6 more and 1 civilian and the guns used to kill Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Jordan Davis, John Crawford, Amadou Diallo, 49 mostly Black and Latinx people who were LGTBQ at Pulse in Orlando, 9 people in bible study in Charleston and over 500 other people in our streets this year were loaded by the common enemies of fear and hate…no matter who pulled the trigger.”
In a world full of fear and hatred, the scripture reminds us today they have no place in the gospel of Jesus, and no place in the hearts of those who follow him. If we don’t use our lives to speak out against the ongoing injustice of racism and work to right it, if we don’t resist every form of violence and vengeance, if we don’t actively work to reach across the divisions built by fear, then we’re passing all those bodies by.
Following Jesus can’t be boiled down to fulfilling some simple duty. Following Jesus is about burning with the kind of crazy love that wipes out fear; the kind of love that will pick the most despicable person off the side of the road, clean them up, and pay for their hotel. We do this, here, to feed that fire, to feel and fuel that love. Fear and hatred are on display everywhere you look. The scripture invites us today to become an army of compassion and mercy, loving those we don’t think deserve it, casting fear and violence out of the world God loves, the world for which God’s heart breaks, the world God died to save.