As the Waban community wrestles with a proposal to turn the Engine 6 firehouse into housing for nine formerly homeless persons and one staff person, the teaching of the passage from the Gospel of Luke – commonly called the Parable of the Good Samaritan, keeps coming to mind. (Luke 10: 25-37).
You know it well, right? It tells of how a man is beaten up and left for dead on the road to Jericho, and how first a Priest and then a Levite cross to the other side of the road and walk right on by the man. Then a Samaritan comes along and seeing the suffering man goes over to him and helps him.
What you may not remember is the setting for this parable. Jesus tells it because “an expert in the law” the text tells us “wanting to test Jesus” goes up to him and asks Jesus “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” In response, Jesus turns the question back on him and asks what the law says. The man replies “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as your self.” Jesus tells him that he has gotten it right. But “wanting to justify himself” he presses Jesus further and asks “And who is my neighbor?”
I imagine that Jesus smiled, took a deep breath and then went on to tell this man what we now call the parable of the Good Samaritan. When he has finished, Jesus asks the man “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” The expert in the law replied “The one who had mercy on him.” To which, Jesus says “Go and do likewise.”
Now, I think that this parable can help guide us as we think about who ought or ought not to be our neighbors at the Engine 6 site, but I think it also can help guide us as we engage our neighbors right now in this issue that is proving to be so painfully divisive.
For while we often read this parable as a call to care for what the Gospel of Matthew calls “The least of these” (Matt 25:40), I believe it’s teaching is actually more expansive. Jesus is not telling us what to do so much as he is instructing us on how we are to live. What kind of disposition of heart and soul are we to cultivate so as to be in synch with the heart and soul of God, so to speak?
And what kind of disposition is it? Did you catch it? It is a disposition of mercy. Mercy is defined by the Random House Collegiate Dictionary is “a compassionate or kindly forbearance,” “an act of kindness” especially in the face of one who has given offense or who is an enemy. Mercy the Bible tells us is the expression of the heart of God when turned towards humanity. Despite the ways that we continue to get it wrong, God looks on us with mercy, with a compassionate and kindly forbearance, not giving up on us but continuing to lovingly engage us.
Surely it was a disposition of mercy that led the Samaritan to cross the road. But it was also a disposition of mercy that I believe led Jesus to engage the “expert in the law” in the first place. The expert in the law came to test Jesus, to trip him up, but Jesus had mercy. Jesus engaged with this man in a way that ultimately enabled him to see in a new way. Enabled him to discover for himself, what mercy looks like and where it can lead.
What if we all do the same? What if we engage this issue of whether to welcome formerly homeless people into the neighborhood as ambassador’s and cultivators of mercy. What if we too practiced and modeled compassionate and kindly forbearance? What if the very way that we interact with those who hold different opinions or beliefs could enact and perhaps even enliven in our neighbor the very mercy that that broken man beside the road so deeply needed? The very kind of mercy that may help us to really see who our neighbors are and can be.