The Mystery of Mercy

 

36 “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” 37 He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

Luke 10:25 – 37

This week Jesus tells the familiar parable of the Good Samaritan.

A religiously unclean outsider (Samaritan) does for a half-dead victim in the ditch what the ritually pure insiders (priest and Levite) won’t. The half-dead victim receives mercy from the half-Jew, who is seen as one cursed by God. Welcome to the Good News of Jesus!

According to laws of ritual purity, the priest and the Levite are forbidden to touch the dead without defiling themselves. Given that the half-dead man probably looks fully dead from a distance, their decision to steer clear and “pass by on the other side” (v. 31, 32) is justifiable by the letter of the law. On the other hand, having no purity to maintain, the cursed Samaritan “comes near” (33). He gets the half-dead man to safety and covers the healthcare costs to boot, thereby fulfilling the spirit of the law.

We can manage moral purity from the “other side” of the road, but mercy “comes near” and gets involved in the mess of life.

Jesus tells this parable in response to a lawyer who, like the priest and the Levite, is eager to “justify himself” (v. 29) through the law. The lawyer asks, “What must I do to inherit eternal life” (v. 25). In other words, What does the law require of me? It’s a moral management question that keeps him safely on the other side of the road.

Jesus comes near and meets the lawyer on his own terms. In good rabbinic fashion he returns a question with a question. “What is written in the law?” (v. 26). The lawyer wisely sums up the law — love God and love neighbor (v. 27). But the lawyer is unsatisfied and wants to “justify himself” by parsing things further. He asks, “Who is my neighbor?” (v. 29). Jesus tells the parable in response.

At the end of the story Jesus asks the lawyer, “Which of these three, (the priest, Levite or Samaritan) do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” (v. 36). The lawyer answers correctly, “The one who showed him mercy” (v. 37). Notice that the lawyer avoids mentioning the identity of the hated “Samaritan.” At this point, I imagine Jesus comes very near the lawyer when he says, “Go and do likewise” (v. 37).

Can we see it?

We can only give to others what we have first received. Jesus shows mercy on the lawyer and says, “Go and do likewise.” The point here is that we are all half dead. We are all ditch dwellers long before we are Good Samaritans. This is not some do-gooder tale of moral heroism. It’s the reminder that we are helpless to save ourselves and that mercy comes from the most unlikely source — from the one who is seen as cursed by the law and God.

Of course, the irony here is that the mercy is not opposed to the law. It is the fruit of the law. Mercy is at the heart of the law, and that’s the whole point. It’s the law that makes mercy visible. As James Alison says, “Mercy is how we participate fully in the life of God.”

If we are intent on justifying ourselves through the letter of the law, mercy is received as a threat, but if we are half dead and facedown in a ditch, it is the very breath of life itself. And the one who comes near is the face of God to us. If, by chance, we are privileged to be the Good Samaritan and happen upon a half-dead ditch dweller, the nearer we come to the victim, the more clearly we see, not only ourselves, but the face of the One who has mercy on us all.

That’s the mystery of mercy.

Kris Rocke
Executive Director
Street Psalms

Family Matters

 
He set his face to go to Jerusalem…On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans.”
Luke 9:51-62
 
In this week’s text Jesus turns toward Jerusalem where he will confront the brutal reality of sin head on. On his way to the city that he loves, he takes time to address some unresolved family matters that had been festering for a long time.
 
The rift dates back to 722 BC when the Assyrians invaded the northern kingdom of Israel. The invasion resulted in intermarriages, the fruit of which was seen as unclean by most Jews. Samaritans were considered half-breeds, infidels, and impure.
 
Instead of going around Samaria on his way to Jerusalem, as all good Jews would do, Jesus insists on taking the direct route. Jesus walks through the heart of Samaria. In doing so, he walks through 700 years of hurt and the very heart of humanity. The disciples are incensed and want to call down the fire of judgment to consume the Samaritans.
 
The path to peace runs through a whole lot of pain. There is no way around it. We can deny it, numb it, avoid it, suppress it or try to expel it, but these strategies only increase its power. Jesus insists that we must pass through it if we want to transform it. And if we do not transform it we will transmit it, as Richard Rohr suggests.
 
Remember Jacob and Esau-twin brothers in rivalry? Their unresolved conflict festered and became a national conflict between the Israelites and the Edomites. The Israelites are from the line of Jacob. The Edomites are from the line of Esau. In fact, the shortest book in the Old Testament, Obadiah, is all about this conflict.
 
Fast forward. We should not be surprised to discover that King Herod is an Edomite and Jesus is an Israelite. They are siblings! We could frame the whole of human conflict as sibling rivalry. Consider Cain and Abel, Ishmael and Isaac, Jacob and Esau, Bloods and Crips, Christians and Muslims, black and white, gay and straight, democrats and republicans. The list goes on. When seen this way, all large-scale conflicts begin as small-scale sibling rivalries. It makes me pause to consider the implications of my own unresolved family matters.
 
Jesus makes it clear. The only path to Jerusalem is through Samaria. We must go through it. There is no way around Samaria without compounding the problem. Believe me, I’ve tried! But there are real risks. The Samaritans do not receive Jesus (v. 53), and the disciples want to rain down fire (v. 54).
 
Jesus shows us another way through Samaria. Jesus reveals the hated other as kin. That’s what the Incarnation does. It reveals that we are all brothers and sisters. Father Greg Boyle, author of Tattoos on the Heart, says it beautifully. “Mother Teresa diagnosed the world’s ills in this way: we’ve just ‘forgotten that we belong to each other.’ Kinship is what happens to us when we refuse to let that happen.” Kinship, for Boyle, is the deepest truth of human relations. We are all kin.
 
Jesus shows us the way through Samaria. He passes through it as kin who has come to reconcile and is eager to forgive. It’s a hard but liberating call especially in an age when there are so many unresolved family conflicts festering in our cities today. Perhaps that is why Jesus says, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” (v. 62). Jesus speaks with great urgency, knowing what lies ahead in Jerusalem.
 
It’s a sober ending to a difficult passage, but it’s the hope of our cities and it’s our call as kin.
 
 
Kris Rocke
Executive Director
Street Psalms

A Gospel Turning

 

Then turning toward the woman, he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman?”
Luke 7:36-8:3

 
The Gospel is alive and well, but there is an exodus from the Church in North America. My hunch is that it has something to do with the fact that, very often, the “world” is a more hospitable place than many churches, and that’s saying something given our culture of polarization and rivalry. People are hungry for a Gospel of forgiveness and inclusion. Sadly, we continue to pedal a gospel of judgment and exclusion instead. We are desperate for a Gospel like the one revealed in this week’s text, especially in vulnerable urban communities.
 
This week we encounter “a woman in the city, who was a sinner” (v. 37) She finds her way inside an exclusive dinner party. There she anoints Jesus. The host of the dinner is deeply offended by her behavior. It’s a volatile situation given her social status. Jesus diffuses it. She becomes the subject of transforming grace rather than the object of religious scorn.
 
The phrase “a woman in the city, who was a sinner” (v. 44) is suggestive. She lacks personal identity. She is a public figure. She belongs to many, which is probably why she is referred to as a “sinner.” The label strips her of her humanity. And yet she finds her way inside the private dinner party. She brings expensive ointments, probably acquired by her very public profession, through which she not only earned her living, but also her reputation.
 
It would have been expected that servants would wash the feet of favored guests at the home of the social elite,
so it isn’t unusual that she is washing Jesus’ feet. It is her effusive anointing of Jesus and her shameless display of affection that offends the host. She becomes a source of scandal. The host outs her as a “sinner” (how did he know?). Jesus diffuses the situation by telling a story of two people: one who is forgiven little and one who is forgiven much. He asks Simon, his host, “Who will love more?” Simon correctly answers, “The one who is forgiven much.” There is more than a little irony here. Simon has no idea how much he is being forgiven.
 
“Then turning toward the woman, he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman?” Notice the delicate and daring turn of phrase. Jesus is addressing Simon, but he does so by “turning toward the woman.” It is a Gospel turning.
 
Along with Simon, we are invited to turn towards that which we are tempted to turn from. In that turning, we are invited to see through the eyes of Jesus— to see without judgment. To see and be seen without judgment is to be transformed. In seeing this way we witness others and ourselves as we really are. We are all sinners undergoing forgiveness. Simon and the “sinner” are the same. Both are being forgiven much. That is the Gospel.
 
Jesus is also making a very practical point. Forgiveness precedes repentance. If there is an order to the Gospel, this is it! We are forgiven so that we might love. The woman shows great love because she has been forgiven. Those who have been forgiven much, love much. The fruit of having internalized forgiveness is the shameless outpouring of love. The fruit of having internalized judgment is a shameful outpouring of scorn.
 
In the end, it’s the experience of being forgiven that saves us. This is the “faith” that Jesus praises in the woman. “Your faith has saved you; go in peace” (v. 50). That’s the whole point of the story. The only faith that saves is the faith of one who is undergoing forgiveness by the One who sees without judgment. The fruit of this is a shameless outpouring of love. That’s gospel turning!
 
 
Kris Rocke
Executive Director
Street Psalms

Advent Upheaval

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.'”  (Matt. 3:1-3)

Jeepers, where’s the Christmas cheer? Last week it was the apocalypse, this week it’s crying in the wilderness.  This much is certain, after two weeks of Advent, we must conclude that something hugely gigantic is taking place.  There is a massive upheaval.  Can you see it?

In this week’s text the word “repent” invokes images of moral cleansing, but the word actually means to change ones mind, or to change the way we see things. In other words if we are to see the massive upheaval happing in our midst we will need to “repent” in order to see it.

According to the prophetic vision, “Every valley will be filled and every mountain and hill made low, the crooked straight and the rough ways made smooth and all flesh shall see the salvation of God” (see Luke 3:5 and Is. 40:3-5). The imagery of ancient road building through inhospitable wilderness terrain evokes scenes of great movements of earth and stone.

Prophets recognize the massive upheaval that God’s Word induces and calls forth from humanity. It is not always obvious in the moment, but when viewed from the long arc of history, we see God’s Word at work in the world doing “abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine” (Eph. 3:21). And this abundance is happening now!

The process by which all this is accomplished is easily missed because the massive transformations that are happening in our midst are being accomplished in the most understated and counterintuitive way. Transformation is achieved not through might but through weakness. The power of a vulnerable life is its openness to the inevitable risks that life carries. To walk in this kind of vulnerability requires a primal trust that even John the Baptist found difficult to accept (Luke 7:20-23). New life is sowed in vulnerability, brought forth in vulnerability, and sustained in vulnerability. This is our power against which nothing can stand.

Unfortunately, the modern religious experience tends to mirror the journey of the ego. It starts big and ends small. The Gospel journey is the inverse of the ego journey. It starts small and ends big (Matt. 13:31-33). The Gospel waxes as our egos wane, so that at the end of our lives, we are free to bear witness to the massive upheaval of God’s transforming love in ways we thought impossible at the beginning. What was sowed in vulnerability is harvested in the power of the Gospel itself-the power that is made perfect in weakness (2 Cor. 12:9). This is the way of the Lord.

(Excerpt from Meal From Below, published by Street Psalms Press and available here.)

Advent Prayer

Come Holy Spirit, show us the “way of the Lord” that we might see your salvation.

Peace,

The Street Psalms Community

12.10.13 Advent 2 Word from Below 2013

Advent 2013

“Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.”

(Matt. 24:40-42)

We begin Advent with apocalypse. Yikes!

Last Sunday this lectionary text was preached by thousands of preachers around the world. If we use Tim LaHaye’s method of interpretation popularized by the Left Behind series (more than 63 million sold), then Jesus is saying when he returns to judge the world, the good guys will be “taken” away to be with God (i.e. raptured) and the bad guys will be “left behind” to suffer untold torments. Therefore, WATCH OUT!  In other words, Jesus is coming back and boy is he mad.

Apocalypse means “unveiling,” or seeing things as they really are. When we see this passage through the eyes of Jesus perhaps it’s not such a bad thing to be left behind. In fact, I want to be left behind. A more careful reading of the text shows that Jesus does too.  Read Matt 24:36-44.

Jesus sets up this passage by recalling the stormy days of Noah when “the earth was filled with violence” (Gen. 6:11).  Jesus reminds us that people were “swept away.” The flood was a violent cataclysmic event – perhaps it was a flood of violence itself that swept them away.  Noah and his family were not taken by this outbreak of violence.  Instead, they were left behind in the ark of peace.

In Christ, we too are left behind. We are not swept away by the violence. And here is the interpretive key – this business of being left behind happens when we come to know ourselves as forgiven. In fact, the phrase “left behind” can also be translated as “forgiven.”  It is through forgiveness that we escape the violence that is flooding the world and our hearts. [1]

The flood story makes a lot of sense when read against the backdrop of violence. Perhaps violence spread at such a massive scale that it not only annihilated the community, but was seen as an act of God’s wrath by those who survived it.  When a cataclysmic event happens aren’t we tempted to give it divine power? Jesus invites us to see the “taken” as those who are swept away, not by God’s wrath, but their own violence perceived as God’s wrath.

To press the point further Jesus shifts the image of the flood to the image of a thief who comes in the middle of the night. This is an equally terrifying image unless perhaps we are talking about a good thief. Unlike Satan who comes to steal, kill and destroy, Jesus is the good thief who comes to give life.  While we are asleep, he breaks in with the gift of forgiveness. The good thief comes quietly, humbly and without fanfare, as a child, or a bit like the Hobbit. He is the good thief who smuggles grace into our prison that we might discover ourselves as forgiven, left behind. This is the point of the text.

The image of the good thief shows up again on the cross where he is one of three thieves crucified.  The good thief says, “Father forgive them…”(Luke 23:34).  After this  “the tombs were opened” (Matt. 27:52).  The good thief shows up again at the resurrection when the disciples are locked inside the upper room.  He mercifully breaks into the locked room and says, “Peace be with you, as the Father sent me, so I send you” (John 20:21).  He breathes on them the Holy Spirit, empowering the disciples to also be good thieves who open prison doors with the key of forgiveness.

You see, the apocalypse is only terrifying to those of us who are blind to the great unveiling of God’s forgiveness and who project onto God our own violence and wrath.  Jesus is the good thief who breaks into this craziness that we might discover ourselves forgiven and leave behind this nonsense that has taken us captive.

This is our Advent prayer.

Peace,

The Street Psalms Community

12.03.13 Advent 1 Word from Below 2013

Poverty, Diversity and Justice – Where Academy meets the Street

For years all CTM training was done on an informal basis with no degree status tied to any part of our training menu. As the years have progressed, while continuing our informal training with grassroots leaders, we have also had opportunities to accept invitations into formal educational opportunities. This process began in Nairobi, Kenya with a partnership with Bakke Graduate University (BGU) where there are currently 33 Masters students and a doctoral student working on degree’s in Global Urban Leadership. There are also other cohorts of BGU/CTM Masters students in Anchorage, Alaska and Cincinnati, Ohio.

In Latin America, we were invited several years ago by the Central American Theological Seminary in Guatemala City (SETECA) to develop an Urban Missions Emphasis track using our training menu as part of SETECA’s Masters in Ministry Degree. The desire of many in the seminary is that this would expand into a full-scale Masters Degree in Urban Ministry. At this point, we are teaching two intensive classes a year at SETECA and just last week we led a course called “Poverty, Diversity and Social Justice in Latin America.”

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