Getting to the Heart of Luke
Rev. Tasha Blackburn
July 14, 2019
It wasn’t yet 10 o’clock in the morning when Lou was racing toward lower Manhattan in New York City. His sister Aida called him on his cell phone. She was upset. She told him, “Don’t go down there. Please don’t go.” She was upset because it was not just any morning in New York City. It was September 11, almost 18 years ago. While others ran away or sat stunned, Lou ran to the towers. He was one of the first to respond.
How many times in the last 18 years have you asked yourself: what would I have done? I know I’ve asked myself that question. What would I have done? Would I have run away or would I have run to? Thankfully, few of us have had to face a test like that but we still have to wonder: if tested, would I run to or would I run away?
This story Jesus tells, which has become known as The Parable of the Good Samaritan, is a test. Initially, it is an exchange where an anonymous lawyer is trying to test Jesus. The lawyer wants to know what the greatest commandment is and who his neighbor is, not because he cares about being faithful or about being a neighbor. He asks those questions for one reason only: to test Jesus, to see if he can catch him in some loophole of logic.
But with one seemingly simple story, Jesus turns the exchange upside down and it is the lawyer who is being tested. What many of us have probably been taught about this story is that the priest didn’t help—and the Levite didn’t help—because they needed to maintain their purity laws. That if they touched the hurt man they would become unclean and therefore couldn’t work. Were you ever taught that? That’s just simply not true. Yes, there were purity rules around blood and corpses but time, after time again, the laws state that helping another person—even caring for a corpse—takes precedence over the purity laws.
This is not a story Jesus told about disregarding laws to help another person. This is a story Jesus told about fear, and not letting fear win over showing mercy. The Samaritan is not different from the other two just because he is a stranger or an outcast or even an enemy. The Samaritan is different from the other two because he is brave. It is a test: will he run to or will he run away?
The Samaritan, unlike the two before him, he runs to. He stops for a stranger when it could have been a trick that led to an ambush. He took the injured man to the middle of a foreign town full of people who hated people like him just so the man could be cared for and brought back to health. In doing this he risked his own health, his wallet, his life. When he could have run away, he ran to.
The Samaritan would have been safer if he’d run away. Of course he would have. Just like Lou, almost 2,000 years later, would have been safer if he had listened to his sister and run away that day. Did you know, that of the almost 3,000 people who died that September morning, over 400 of them were the first responders, the people who ran toward the injured? 414 of them to be exact. But Lou didn’t die that day. He ran to, rather than running away. And not only did he run to but he stayed. For months he stayed so that no one would be left in the ditch. For Lou, in his life showing mercy was stronger than his fear.
Few of us will be asked to be the Good Samaritan literally—pulling a half-dead person from the side of the road and carrying them into enemy territory. Just like few of us will be asked to be Lou during a terrorist attack. Thankfully, this is so. But we are all asked to be versions of them. We are all put to the test with Jesus wondering: which is stronger in you? Fear or mercy? Will you run to or will you run away?
We are asked that when someone we know has a terrible tragedy strike him and we struggle: what would I say if I called him? How would I act if I went to see him? What if it was all too much for me? When that happens, you are being tested: which is stronger, your fear or your mercy? Will you run to or will you run away?
Or when you see your neighbor and she has a bumper sticker on her car supporting a politician you cannot stomach and your blood pressure rises; you are being tested. Which is stronger, your fear or your mercy? Will you run to or will you run away?
Or when we see families arriving at our southern border—and they don’t look like us or talk like us—we are being tested. Which is stronger, our fear or our mercy? Will we run to or will we run away?
Can you hear it now? This parable from Jesus is not easy. It is a test. He is testing the lawyer. He is testing you and me. He does not need you to understand government policy or line up politically, any more than he needs you to solve your friend’s tragedy. But he does need to know where your heart is. Is it full of fear or is it full of mercy? And will your heart move your feet? Will you run to or will you run away?
I’m sure you have guessed who I’ve been describing from that September day so long ago, Aida’s brother who did not listen to his sister when she begged him to run away. It was Luis Alvarez, the first responder who recently testified before Congress advocating for the September 11 Victim Compensation Fund. Alvarez contracted cancer due to his time at the towers and he passed away earlier this month at age 53. Running to can be dangerous.
It can be costly for us as well. It demands we show courage when we don’t feel brave. It demands we stray far from our own comfort zone when we would rather not. It puts us at odds with a world which seems bent on feeding fear and which has little desire for mercy. We will appear foolish. We may appear weak.
But it is the test Jesus gives us. He lays Part One of it before the lawyer asking, “Who was a neighbor?” The lawyer answers: “The one who showed mercy.” And Jesus gives Part Two of the test when he says to the lawyer, “Go and do likewise.”
Jesus gives the same test to you and me. Which will rule your life? Which will be stronger in you: fear or mercy? Will you run to or will you run away? Luke does not record whether or not the lawyer passed Part Two of the test; whether he learned that showing mercy far outweighed any of his fear, if he passed the test.
What we do know is that the test has not changed. Jesus gives it to each of us as well. Which will be stronger in your life: fear or showing mercy? Will you run to or will you run away? This is not a parable about a do-gooder. It is a parable about a person who will not let fear run his life. It is a test. Let us pray that we also pass it. Amen.