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