I suspect that for many of you, this has been a tough week. It has been for me. The daily death toll – first Alton Sterling, then Philando Castile, then the five police officers in Dallas – has left me somehow with too many and not enough words. And then the news and the internet have been full of words about these events – words of great love and beauty, and words of breathtaking cruelty. So many words, trying to contain so many emotions, and all of them to some degree failing. But I’m going to give it a try anyway. We’re going to try, together, this morning, because in a time when we are drowning in tension and violence, it is especially important that the church find a way to work out these questions of how we talk with each other, and how we act in the world, and who we really value, and how we show it.
We’re going to enter this conversation this morning through this story from the Gospel of Luke. Jesus is in the midst of teaching when a lawyer stands up to ask a question. Innocent seeming enough. “What must we do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus takes the Socratic route and asks him a question back: “What does the law tell you?” The lawyer this very common passage that is still read at Jewish prayer services: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And Jesus tells him he has given the correct answer. Great, go and do that, and you will live!
But this is not enough for the lawyer. The loving the Lord part seems to be okay; maybe because that’s kind of hard to measure externally. But when it comes to loving his neighbor, that’s when he wants to get down to technicalities. “Ok, Jesus, but exactly who is my neighbor?”
This could easily have become a question of theological and philosophical technicalities, but Jesus plucks it out of the ether and places it on a very particular road, a long and winding trek between Jerusalem and Jericho. And he talks about a certain man, who fell to thieves and was lying beaten and broken along the road. A priest passes him by, and a Levite, holy men who were known for following the law that included the saying the lawyer had just quoted about loving your neighbor. But they cross over to the other side of the road and keep going as though they haven’t even seen the man dying in the ditch.
And then a man of another religion, another ethnicity, another race comes by, but he does not ignore the wounded man. He goes out of his way, administers first aid, and pays for the man’s care. It is the Samaritan, the one with the most to risk, who shows mercy, who is a neighbor to the neighborless, who puts himself aside to literally move in next to this half-dead stranger.
If we’re honest, it’s easy to imagine why the priest and Levite passed by. In Martin Luther King Jr.’s last speech on April 3, 1968, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” he talks about this same biblical text, and begins by imagining all the good reasons they may have had for leaving the man alone. “It’s possible that the priest and the Levite looked over that man on the ground and wondered if the robbers were still around. Or it’s possible that they felt that the man on the ground was merely faking. And he was acting like he had been robbed and hurt, in order to seize them over there, lure them there for quick and easy seizure. And so the first question that the priest asked — the first question that the Levite asked was, “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?”
I think we’ve all been there – uncertain, afraid, anxious for our own safety. We always have excuses not to help, often excuses that sound reasonable and even wise.
But King continues, relating this story to the struggle that was happening at the time between the city of Memphis and its sanitation workers, who had gone on a strike that was answered by the city with mace, tear gas, shootings, and martial law. Rev. Dr. King placed Jesus’ story in the midst of the story of the sanitation workers’ strike. “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?” That’s the question before you tonight. Not, “If I stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to my job. Not, “If I stop to help the sanitation workers what will happen to all of the hours that I usually spend in my office every day and every week as a pastor?” The question is not, “If I stop to help this man in need, what will happen to me?” The question is, “If I do not stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them?” That’s the question.”
The lawyer tries to get Jesus to let him off on a technicality. Maybe my neighbor is just the person who lives next to me, or the person who looks like me or thinks like me. That would make this neighbor business a whole lot easier. Or maybe if the neighbor is a broad, philosophical concept instead of a specific person, then I could balance that against my own needs and my own safety, because then loving my neighbor is just an idea.
But Jesus makes it clear that when it comes to loving our neighbors, we’re talking about specifics. Specific people. Specific circumstances. When someone is dying in the road, you don’t ask what will happen to you if you stop. You ask what will happen to them if you don’t.
It seems to me that quite a bit of our public conversation this week around the multiple deaths has sounded a lot like, “But who is my neighbor?” Is a black man in Baton Rouge my neighbor? What if he had a record? Is he still my neighbor if he resisted arrest? How about if he had a gun? What if he was reaching for the gun at the time he was shot? What about another black man in another state? Maybe he’s my neighbor if he didn’t have a record, but is he my neighbor if he had a gun? Is he still my neighbor if he reached for the gun in a way that seemed menacing to the officer, if his girlfriend was filming, if he has a series of misdemeanors? Are the police my neighbors? I’m pretty sure they’re my neighbors if they’re the ones being shot, but what about if they’re the ones doing the shooting?
And it seems to me that we – and I mean this especially for those of us who are white – we are afraid of specificity in this question. We want to say, “Well, everyone’s my neighbor.” Or, “All lives matter.” The problem with that is that we make this a philosophical concept, an idea, and we forget that there’s a specific person dying on the road – or in our current case, a specific group of people dying in the streets. Well, we do get specific when we’re talking about police; we’re fine with saying that blue lives matter, and we have special funerals for those who died in service – as well we should. But we are strangely reticent to be specific about the unique pain and terror that is being suffered by the Black community in this country. Maybe we’re afraid of what our friends will say, or whether we’ll lose our job, or if we’ll become a target if we start getting specific about black and brown lives being lost.
But Jesus is never afraid to get specific. Jesus cared deeply about the specific injustices around him. As Stephen Mattson wrote on the Sojourners website this week:
“Instead of saying all lives matter, Jesus said, “Samaritan lives matter.”
Instead of saying all lives matter, Jesus said, “Children’s lives matter.”
Instead of saying all lives matter, Jesus said, “Gentile lives matter.”
Instead of saying all lives matter, Jesus said, “Jewish lives matter.”
Instead of saying all lives matter, Jesus said, “Women’s lives matter.”
Instead of saying all lives matter, Jesus said, “Lepers’ lives matter.”
Even though Jesus loves everyone, he went out of his way to intentionally help specific groups of people — the alienated, mistreated, and those facing injustice.”
And Jesus makes it clear that we cannot get off on a technicality when it comes to helping the hurting people around us. We need to get specific about those who are marginalized and targeted in our time. When Jesus tells the lawyer to “do this, and live,” he means it: we live by loving our neighbor – we live fully by being a neighbor to those who are wounded, dying, oppressed, and suffering. When we walk by those who are facing injustice and mistreatment, or when we try to generalize their pain to a degree that it no longer seems to matter, a part of us dies in our failure to recognize the common humanity in the one suffering. Our lives depend on getting specific.
And their lives depend on us getting specific. No one is helped when we look at pain and say, “Yes, but everyone matters.” Jesus helped people when he got specific. Martin Luther King Jr. helped people when he got specific. Everyone who has ever made a real difference in the world was able to do so because they got specific and paid attention to the particular people suffering injustice. Let us go, and do likewise.