“Mercy: The Heartbeat of the Gospel”
A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
May 7, 2017
University Baptist Church
The story of the Good Samaritan is a familiar one. It’s come up as a grab bag topic and it was formative to me when I was discerning my call to ministry. Somehow, I keep coming back it as a reminder of the heartbeat of the Gospel.
It starts out by having a lawyer question Jesus. Did they have a legal system back then? For whom did the lawyer work? Who did members of that law firm represent? I think in this case it was probably a person who enforced the religious laws rather than the secular laws. Perhaps he was a scholar of the Torah and wanted to poke holes in Jesus’ message. It was a test—a final exam, if you will.
And the question that the lawyer asked was telling. It was not about what makes for a just society. It was not about how to help steer the world toward a greater messianic model. It wasn’t about how to form a government or implement a program that would help the community. It wasn’t about how to advocate for a certain tax benefit. It wasn’t even about how to help your neighbor or your family. He asked, “What can I do to inherit eternal life.” “How can I be assured of a place in heaven? How can I get my get out of hell free card without passing “go”? What magic words do I need to say?”
It’s the wrong question. The question of faith is not what can you do to secure your place in heaven. Your question ought to be how can I be a good follower of God. How can I resemble the best of Christianity? How can I be worthwhile? If you have to ask about your own salvation, then there is probably something wrong with your faith journey.
It was a rhetorical question and a trap, so Jesus treated it as such. And Jesus turned the question back on him. “You know the Law. What does it say?” The lawyer quoted the Shema from Deuteronomy 6:4-5 and added to it a portion of the Holiness code from Leviticus 19. “You shall love God with all of your heart, mind, strength and soul, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” We at UBC and in the University Area Sanctuary Coalition have quoted the latter part of that same chapter of Leviticus which says, “33 When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. 34 The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.” I’m sure the lawyer was proud of his answer.
Jesus says, “Do this and you will live.” Jesus didn’t say you will have a place in heaven. He said do this and you will live. You will have a life worth living. Do this and you will have a purpose in life which is more important than a place in heaven. We all know of people who are so heavenly focused that they are no earthly good. Jesus said, “do this and you will live: Love God with all of your strength, heart, mind and soul, and love your neighbor as yourself.”
But the lawyer couldn’t let it go. He had to further the argument. He tossed Jesus a softball and Jesus hit it out of the park. “Who is my neighbor?” This is the problem of proof-texting. You very well might get caught. Scholarly arguments have ensued over the years about how to address foreigners, especially when the people felt threatened. In a time of peace it made sense to welcome the strangers. But in a time of war it was a dangerous act, maybe even treasonous. The prophets railed against the Jewish leadership for being too open to the foreigners and their idolatrous influence. They were also wary of the internal idolatries of wealth and power. But rather than deal with those, the foreigner became a convenient scapegoat. So, interpreters of the Law have had their share of arguments about how to treat foreigners. Do we keep pure by not allowing others in, or do we risk being vulnerable? Is the vulnerability worth it? Jesus, weigh into this quagmire. Settle the case once and for all. And Jesus got to tell him about the heartbeat of the Gospel.
You know the story. A man was abused, robbed and left for dead. Two people passed him on the road. A priest and a Levite. These were two religious people-maybe even followers of the law. The priest and the Levite see the man and make a point of moving to the other side of the road—trying to make sure that they don’t touch him and defile themselves. They are following the sacred law found in the holiness code. Leviticus 21:1-4 says that they should not defile themselves by touching a man who might die or even come into contact with his blood.
Finally another man comes upon the man and offers him the help he needs. He bends over backwards to make sure that he gets taken care of. The man who helped the wounded person was a Samaritan, part of the current enemy list of the people of Israel. The Samaritan, the hated foreigner (who had the same laws and purity codes) showed mercy on him. He bound up his wounds, defiling himself, making him ritually unclean. He took him to the hospital, and even paid his bill. The Samaritan saw the man in a way the Levite and the priest did not. We risk the possibility that we will see someone, and then may see ourselves in a better way. The figures in the Good Samaritan story all see the man, but they respond differently.
Do we see the person on the side of the road as a brother or sister? Do we see them and walk on by? The sanctuary declaration this church made several weeks ago says that we will see the person on the side of the road as a compatriot, a companion, a sister or a brother. We see them not as illegal aliens, but as people who are in need.
Jesus asks who proved to be the good neighbor to the man. The lawyer said, of course, “the one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said, “go and do the same.” He said this is how you live a life of faith.
Jesus lifts up this foreigner with the wrong religion as someone who is the best model of faithful Judaism. We’re supposed to love our neighbor, and here’s the rub: not like religious people do. We’re supposed to do it surprisingly, the way even our enemies have the capacity to do—with exuberance, without hope of return, without hope of repayment. Eternal life is not the issue. Jesus is being rather audacious here. And he’s trying to make a point. We show God’s love, God’s real love, by loving our enemies—by remembering that all people are our neighbors, even those who drive us nuts. They deserve our respect.
Do you notice how there is no call for conversion on the part of the Samaritan or the person who was left for dead? The core of religion, demonstrates Jesus, is how we take care of people, whether they are from our religion, our nation, our church or not. Mercy is the heartbeat of the Gospel.
Somehow meanness seems to have replaced mercy as the heartbeat of popular Christianity, at least those who went to the polls saying that they voted their faith by electing our current president. There are decidedly unmerciful things happening right now.
Unmerciful and therefore unchristian:
The passage of the repeal of the Affordable Care Act that will cause as many as 24 million people to lose their health insurance. Unmerciful.
The movement to detain and deport people regardless of how long they have been here, how much they contribute to our society, if they have family here and roots in our community. Unmerciful.
- The ban on Muslims. Unmerciful.
- The calling of the majority of people from Mexico bad hombres.
- The racial profiling and tacit support of racist thoughts and actions.
- The restriction on refugee resettlement. Unmerciful.
- The large amount of people incarcerated and the disproportionate number of people of color who get longer sentences than whites.
- The rollback of LGBT rights in recent executive orders.
- The defunding of family planning centers like Planned Parenthood, which will not reduce the number of abortions. It will only make abortions more dangerous. All of this is unmerciful.
I was at the state capitol on Thursday with clergy from ISAIAH. I held a sign that read “Thou Shalt Not Steal from the poor to give to the rich”.
Jerry Falwell Junior has called the current occupier of the oval office a godsend for Christians. Maybe we follow a different Christ. The one I know demands us to show mercy. He lived his life by showing mercy. He encouraged the rest of us to show mercy. I have not seen much evidence of mercy, except toward those who are really well off and don’t need it.
Jim Gertmenian, former pastor of Plymouth Congregational Church, put it this way in a recent Facebook post: “It's official: the Republican party and its Congressional caucus are morally bankrupt. I find particularly appalling those members of Congress who wrap themselves in the garb of Christianity, who self-righteously claim to be compassionate, but who are willing to sell the poor for thirty silver pieces of temporary power. These folk are religious, all right, but their gods are the free market, the myth of self-reliance, and the rule of a Strong Man who reflects their soulless vision. Let them gloat for now. Their reckoning is yet to come.”
Tell me how you really feel, Jim. Retirement gives you a certain freedom.
You don’t need a theology degree to figure out that mercy is the heartbeat of Christianity. You just need to read the Bible. Show any passage about Jesus and try to show me that he does not show mercy. He heals people, often in defiance of the law. He grants community to those shunned. He challenges the religious and political authorities who bribe and steal and impose the death penalty. He calls people out for their lack of mercy and says that they are to receive eternal damnation. Mercy is the heartbeat of the Gospel.
Should we show mercy to those who disagree with us? Absolutely. But that does not mean they should get away with calling themselves Christian and not being merciful.
Think about how you might show mercy in the coming week. Not to those with differing viewpoints who hold power over you. That’s not mercy. That’s continuing an abusive pattern. Mercy is showing compassion on someone less fortunate than yourself. It’s putting yourself out there. It’s risking your comfort so that another might have a better life. It’s giving of yourself without reservation—not so you can inherit eternal life, but so that you can live a life worthy of the Gospel. For when you show mercy, your heartbeat joins with the Gospel’s heartbeat. And you truly live.
Mercy. It’s the heartbeat of the Gospel. It’s the hard work of the Gospel. It’s the work that gives life and makes life worth living. Who knows, it may also grant us eternal life.
The Samaritan saw the man on the side of the road as a brother in need. In mercy he risked getting close enough to him. I bet he knew his name and he was no longer just a Samaritan. He was a valuable member of his community. May we so treat with mercy those with less power than us. It’s the heartbeat of the Gospel.
Woody Guthrie wrote a song a long time ago about immigrants who were hired by fruit companies to harvest their wares. After their contract was up, they were sent back to Mexico and then had to pay money to get back across the border for work. When 32 people were killed in an airplane crash in 1948, the newspapers listed the names of the flight crew, but called the rest “deportees.”
Guthrie says what merciful Christianity says, that we ought to recognize the humanity of all people, even our perceived enemies.
The crops are all in and the peaches are rott'n,
The oranges piled in their creosote dumps;
They're flying 'em back to the Mexican border
To pay all their money to wade back again
My father's own father, he waded that river,
They took all the money he made in his life;
My brothers and sisters come working the fruit trees,
And they rode the truck till they took down and died.
Chorus: Goodbye to my Juan, goodbye, Rosalita,
Adios mis amigos, Jesus y Maria;
You won't have your names when you ride the big airplane,
All they will call you will be "deportees"
Some of us are illegal, and some are not wanted,
Our work contract's out and we have to move on;
Six hundred miles to that Mexican border,
They chase us like outlaws, like rustlers, like thieves.
We died in your hills, we died in your deserts,
We died in your valleys and died on your plains.
We died 'neath your trees and we died in your bushes,
Both sides of the river, we died just the same.
The sky plane caught fire over Los Gatos Canyon,
A fireball of lightning, and shook all our hills,
Who are all these friends, all scattered like dry leaves?
The radio says, "They are just deportees"
Is this the best way we can grow our big orchards?
Is this the best way we can grow our good fruit?
To fall like dry leaves to rot on my topsoil
And be called by no name except "deportees"?