When I was 26, I went to the Holy Land for the first time. The day I remember most was getting up at 3:00 o’clock in the morning with my fellow pilgrims and leaving our hotel in Jerusalem and getting into our coach, and in the dead of night driving due East. Ahead of us lay the great Judean wilderness. We could see very little, but eventually the coach stopped and we climbed out into the utter silence of the desert. As we stood in awe, our eyes slowly made out the shape of the hills, below the twinkling stars. Then the bus drove off. We were alone – standing together on the ancient road from Jerusalem to Jericho.
We, like the man in the parable, were going to walk from Jerusalem to Jericho. The ancient road is not the modern highway which now carries countless pilgrims down to Jericho in their air conditioned coaches. The road which we were taking winds its way between the hills and the rocks and the canyons, but always going down and down. For Jerusalem is high in the hills, while Jericho is way below sea level, one of the lowest points in the earth’s surface. The cities are less than 20 miles apart.
And so we set out for several hours of silent, prayerful walking .We began to see more and more clearly, and then there was a glorious sunrise, and we all sat down on the rocks and had Eucharist together.
On we walked, as the temperature rose; it became incredibly hot. “Keep drinking, keep drinking!” said our Palestinian guide. We did. But, sadly, we never made it to Jericho. The heat and sun became so intense as we walked lower and lower that some of our party felt unwell, and we called for the bus to drive us the last few miles into Jericho.
But that walk taught me a lot about the parable of the Good Samaritan. In Jesus’ day this road to Jericho was called the “Way of Blood.” If you set out at the wrong time of the day, did not have enough water, you could die. But even more likely, behind every rock, around any corner of the winding road, could be a robber, ready to pounce.
Anyone robbed and beaten on that road, “The Way of Blood” (as everyone knew) would not stay alive very long without help, without a neighbor. And yet, we read a priest, and then a Levite, a religious teacher, passed by on the other side. How could they? Even though they knew he would likely die, they would not breach the religious boundaries which told them they must not approach, let along touch this man.
First century Judaism was ordered by boundaries, with specific rules regarding how Jews should treat Gentiles and Samaritans – how priests should relate to other Israelites, how men should treat women, and so on. Many were based on “purity” rules. The boundaries allowed certain groups to establish their positions, powers, and privileges. Maintaining the boundaries was vital for social order (not unlike the caste system in India). Maintaining these boundaries was actually a religious duty. For both the priest and the Levite to touch this man would be to cross a forbidden boundary.
The devastating power and radical nature of this parable comes from the fact that by depicting a Samaritanas the hero, Jesus effectively demolishes all these boundary expectations. When a person is in need, lying half dead and under the blazing sun, social position counts for nothing. Anyone who has compassion and who stops to held is a neighbor.
But when Jesus asks the lawyer, “Which of these three was neighbor to the man?” its challenge is so great that the lawyer, who we imagine is squirming, cannot bring himself to actually say the hated word, Samaritan, and instead says, with unwitting accuracy, “The one who showed him mercy.”
This parable of the Good Samaritan had put the lawyer on the spot. It challenged him to his core. Yet it drew from him a deeper truth, which he had forgotten. As a lawyer, he knew what was written in the law. He knew all the boundary regulations, and how to maintain them. Yet he had forgotten a deeper truth. That the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, was above all else a God of mercy. A God of mercy and compassion and of great kindness.
In the Hebrew Scriptures, there is this great and wonderful word: the word hesed. It is the word used to describe God’s essential nature. It is a large and broad word, which is hard to translate. Hesed means God’s mercy, God’s compassion, God’s loving kindness toward us. Our God is before all else a God of mercy. This was the deeper truth that the lawyer had forgotten.
“O give thanks to the Lord for he is good.
For his mercy endures forever.”
These great words from Psalm 106. The Psalmist is celebrating God’s mercy, God’s hesed. But he is celebrating even more. The Psalmist says, “God’s mercy endures forever.” The word used for “forever” is a Hebrew word, l’olam, which means forever, all through time, but beyond time, through all of space, always and eternally present. So, there is nowhere outside the scope of God’s mercy (hesed). There are no boundaries within God’s mercy. There is no one outside God’s mercy – no one outside God’s compassion and loving kindness.
This truth has the power to convert us, to change our lives. For in this parable – in responding to the lawyer’s question “Who is my neighbor?” – Jesus turns the issue away from the boundaries of required neighborliness to the question of “What is the essential nature of being a neighbor?” It is not seeing a man bleeding and dying by the side of a desert road, and walking by on the other side. To be a neighbor is to show mercy to those in need, regardless of their race, religion, or country of origin.
“For God’s mercy endures forever.” That is a powerful challenge to each one of us – especially in this time, when walls and boundaries are so much a part of political rhetoric.
How can I, how can you, in our own small way, break down a boundary? Perhaps by risking to talk to, or to put out a helping hand to someone who is not like me. The other. “Lord, may I be merciful, as you are merciful. Kyrie eleison; Lord have mercy. For mercy sees only need, and responds with compassion and loving kindness.
Go and do likewise.
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