July 14, 2013
Grace and Peace to you this morning. Grace and Peace.
For all of the blustery prophetic language of Amos, the gist of this morning’s reading is that this prophet, who would rather be tending his herd and his sycamore trees, has been given a vision: A plumb line; the justice of God. And by comparison, Israel is found wanting.
The Israel Amos finds himself in leaving behind the concerns of justice for the poor, for the hungry, for widows and young women, and instead styles itself on its richer and more powerful neighbor, the Assyrian empire. Amos is sent, reluctant to go, to the halls of power to remind the king that his duty is to justice, his duty is to caring for his people, his duty is the covenant of God.
But such a word is not welcome in the halls of power. Amos is told to hit the road. Do not prophesy here, we do not want to hear what you have to say.
Amos again pronounces the judgment of God against those who have summer and winter homes but care not for the poor and the homeless (Amos 3:14-4:1). He repeats what God has told him, follow the covenant and live, or follow the rich and powerful and ignore those in need, and die.
Amos says God condemns those who think what is necessary is to be more pious in their prayers, more diligent in their worship, or more righteous in their personal spirituality. God has told Amos to remind the people that it is how they care for the needy, the vulnerable, the at-risk and the powerless that makes the difference in God’s eyes.
It is caring for those in need that brings us to today’s Gospel story.
I recently wrote about three possible ways of reading the scholar of the Torah “desiring to justify himself.”
- He could be trying to be self-righteous, essentially asking “who is NOT my neighbor?” meaning “who do I not need to treat with care, respect or help?”
- He could be trying to set himself right, truly wanting to understand who his neighbor is, in order to live as the Torah commands.
- He could be like most of us, somewhere in the middle, wanting to help and to be good and to love God and neighbor, but often coming up some really interesting excuses for why he didn’t or wouldn’t or thought he couldn’t.
The phrase “Good Samaritan” has worked its way into popular language. It means “someone who helps someone in need, even to their own expense;” or “Someone who goes out of their way, who does not just “pass by” on the other side of the road.”
But the story here is complicated by the fact that these two words, “good” and “Samaritan,” would never appear together in the minds of Jesus’ listeners. As Rev. Anthony Robinson points out, we might as well try and talk about the good heretic, the good terrorist, the good communist, the good “one of them.” If you are far left, imagine a “good Tea Party-er.” If you are far right, think of a “good Occupier.”
So it is not simply someone who helps, it is the truly unexpected helper. We might expect the good religious types to reach out and help. We might expect fellow Israelites to reach out and help. We might expect decent human beings to reach out and help. But the first two, who are presented as just such decent, religious Israelites, pass by on the other side.
And we can imagine their excuses: in a hurry, fear of danger for themselves, fear of being made unclean if he happens to be dead, pressing business up ahead, the hurt man was wearing a hoody, was the wrong skin-color, or might be one of “them.”
Jesus does not answer the question the same way it is asked. He never tells the man who his neighbor is. Instead Jesus asks, “Who showed himself to be a neighbor?… Go and do likewise.”
Mine is surely not the only sermon on the Good Samaritan that has changed since the news late last night about the verdict in the case in Florida of a young black man shot and killed by a member of the neighborhood watch who had been told by police to stay in his car.
I am not the only one who sees that we live in a world of Neighborhood Watch and not the world of neighbors that Jesus and the prophets preached. I am not the only one who grieves over a death that was preventable in so many ways along the way.
I am also not the only one troubled that “walking while black” is still a crime, one that resulted in the death of a young man, and that the law is okay with it.
By now you are used to me preaching about how we all have a “them,” both biblically and in our everyday lives. Amos reminds us, Jesus shows us, the news reminds us, is that living in a world of “us’ and “them” means living in a world of death.
Being a neighbor, building the world into a neighborhood, is not simply a nice thing, a worthy goal, a grand idea. It is a matter of life and death. It is a Gospel imperative.
Did the system fail in this trial? Sadly, I believe it did exactly what it was set up to do. It measured the facts against the laws of Florida and this is the outcome.
The Southern Poverty Law Center states it plainly: The jury has spoken. Now, we must speak out against the systemic racism that still infects our society and distorts our perception of the world. And we must do something about it.
The message of Amos, the meaning of the Good Samaritan, is not simply to help those in need. It is to transform the world from that of Neighborhood Watch to that of neighbors, from that of the Roman Empire into that of the Kingdom of God. Finally, to be a neighbor is to love others, even them, especially them, as Jesus loved us.
“Which of these three, do you think, proved neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?”
“The one who showed mercy on him.”
And Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”
Just so. Amen.