Sunday, July 14, 2013

"Go & Do Likewise"

I’d like to share a story with you, written a number of years ago by Eileen Suckley, an Episcopal laywoman and parishioner at Grace Church, Manchester, NH:

I need glasses, so when I arrived at the library one morning at 9 only to discover that the sign said it opened at 9:30, I was totally exasperated. To make matters worse, there, seated on the marble doorstep, was the grubbiest street person I have ever encountered. 
‘Terrific,’ I thought. ‘My one morning off, a dozen errands to run and I’m going to waste 30 minutes of it with this derelict.’
It was a hot, sultry morning without a hint of a breeze. I sat down at the farthest edge of the second stair. The marble steps felt cool against my back. A cordon of ants made their way along one of the cracks.
‘See him?’ my companion inquired.
‘See whom?’ I replied in my iciest tone.
‘Muskrat,’ he said, pointing to the base of the tree on our right.
After a moment...‘Yes, yes I do see him!’ 
‘He lives here...comes out every morning to collect his secret stash of food...third bush on the right.’
‘How do you know?’
‘Because -- that’s where I keep my stash.’
‘Why doesn’t he eat yours, too?’
‘Because mine is in a bottle with a cork stopper.’
‘Oh, I see.’
‘What’s that?’ he asked, pointing to my legal pad.
‘It’s my to-do list.’
‘Don’t you know what to do without a list?’
‘Yes, of course, well, no, I just...How do you keep your daily appointments in order?’ I asked, making no effort to veil my sarcasm.
My companion just chuckled. ‘You never forget what’s really important to you. What are you reading? He pulled one of the books out of the top of my tote bag.
‘Now, really,’ I began to sputter, but he interrupted, ‘T. S. Eliot -- good man!’
‘You read T. S. Eliot?’ I asked incredulously.
‘You know, you’re a bit of a snob. Surely the similarities between Prufrock and myself have not escaped you!’
‘Not entirely.’
‘But I am most enamored of the ‘Four Quartets’: ‘We shall not cease from exploration/And the end of all our exploring/Will be to arrive where we started/And know the place for the first time.’
I just sat there, off balance and uncomfortable. I absently wiped the sweat off the back of my neck. He reached into the recesses of his pocket and offered me a small flat bottle of some unspeakable libation. I did not avail myself of his hospitality but it touched me. I knew he was offering what he had, all he had.
‘No thanks.’
He shrugged and started down the stairs toward the street.
‘Wait!’ I started down the steps after him. As he turned, I offered my hand across the space between us. ‘Goodbye Mr....’
“Winn,’ he replied, taking my hand and raising it to his lips. Then he bowed slightly and strode off. Cary Grant never made a smoother exit.
Almighty and everlasting God, who of his great mercy hath promised forgiveness of sins to all who with hearty repentance and true faith turn unto him, have mercy upon us, especially on one so blind of eye and callous of heart that she fails to see a child of God beaming in an unshaven face from the folds of a filthy overcoat.
I went back to the library several weeks later. The steps were empty. A landscaper was working in the front yard. The Muskrat chose not to appear. I’d brought some cookies, wrapped tightly in foil. I placed them under the third bush on the right alongside a small bottle. It was No. 7 on my to-do list. Mr. Winn would have been amused.
+ + +

Which brings us to Luke’s passage today in the Gospel (10:25-37) about knowing who the neighbor is and doing for the neighbor. It echoes the lovely Collect for today, where you and I have just prayed that God may mercifully grant that we “may know and understand what things [we] ought to do, and also may have grace and power faithfully to accomplish them.” A teacher of the law tries to test Jesus by first asking what one has to do to “inherit” eternal life. Jesus throws the question right back at him, knowing that he’s the supposed expert in Mosaic Law and that he surely would know the answer to something so basic. And, of course, the lawyer’s answer shows that he does: “Love God with everything you have and are, and love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus affirms his correct response, and adds: “Do this, and you will live.

But, being the Jewish legal expert that he is, accustomed to the usual rabbinic give-and-take of a good argument, he can’t let it go, and so he asks: “And exactly who is my neighbor?” Luke uses the Greek word plesion = whoever’s nearby, to designate who a neighbor is. In his customary way of teaching, Jesus tells a story, much like the one with which we began, the story of the Good Samaritan.

A Jewish man travels from Jerusalem to the marketplace in Jericho where the caravans met. Valuable cargoes were transferred there. Messages delivered on the way. Money carried from money-changers and banking interests in Jerusalem. Today Jericho is about a 20 minute drive from Jerusalem, on a very winding, meandering road, which in Jesus‘ day was called the Way of Blood or the Bloody Pass, because of the high rate of robberies and assaults that happened there. Sure enough, the Jewish man is attacked, stripped and beaten, almost to death. A priest, symbol of all that’s presumably best in Jewish society, happens to be coming by, sees the man, and passes on. So also a Levite, who had various religious and political duties, and was devoted to studying God’s law.

Then, according to Jesus, comes a Samaritan merchant, one of a group much hated and avoided by Jews of that time. Not only does he stop immediately, recognizing the man’s crisis, but he immediately does something: “He went to him” Luke says; he made himself available to the injured man. He disinfects the Jewish man’s wounds, probably with wine and healing oil, and binds him up. He sets him on his own beast and transports him to the nearest inn. It appears from Luke’s context that the Samaritan merchant may have been a “regular” at the inn. He gets the Jewish man a place to stay, and takes time to see that he’s comfortable, then gives the innkeeper money enough to cover costs, and tells him to put anything over and above on his tab and he’ll pay it on the way back.

Then Jesus turns to the legal expert and asks: “Now, how do you ‘read’ this experience?... Which of the three proved to be ‘neighbor‘ to the man in need?” The lawyer gives the obvious response: “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus concludes: “There’s the answer to your question about ‘Who is my neighbor?‘ It’s whoever’s nearby and in need...Go and do likewise.” God had revealed the Sacred Name to Moses and to the Hebrews long before this incident: Yahweh = I Am Who Am With You, I Who Am Nearby, I Am the One Who Shows Mercy...I Am the Neighbor, and this is what neighbors do for one another.

When I was in seminary many years ago I read a novel that I never forgot, called God’s Frontier, by José Luis Martin Descalzo. In it, Don Macario, an old priest, battered by life and now dying of cancer, says to a younger priest: “This is not what your spiritual advisor said to you in the seminary. But if we were all sincere, we would confess that we could not stand Christ as a neighbor...” Nevertheless...Jesus calls us to be neighbor, to be there in compassion, for whomever comes our way. Fr. Daniel Berrigan once said that the opposite of love isn’t hatred: it’s indifference. Indifference is the skill of ignoring others, of putting our own well-being and options first. Berrigan says, rather sharply, that “at that point, life has become hell. We need be no more thoroughly damned.”

As you and I reflect this week on the words of Luke’s Gospel, might we ask ourselves how many folks’ lives would be touched if we lived just as we have this past week? How many more people would be comforted, consoled, loved, in less pain, and less depressed in just one square block of our neighborhood if we  were truly open to them as a neighbor? In the week ahead Jesus says to us, as to the legal expert: “Go and do likewise.” 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Beautiful, beautiful homily—both the story and your comments. You have enriched me. Thank you so much!

John-Julian, OJN