The Quality of Mercy

October 23, 2016 — Nancy Bancroft

Readings: Isaiah 58:5-8; Luke 10:25-37


From the 1940’s to the 1980’s, Englishman Gregory Bateson worked as an anthropologist, social scientist, linguist, and in many other fields including cybernetics. He spent the last decade of his life developing a “meta-science” to bring together the various early forms of systems theory developing in different branches of science and then connecting this knowledge to cybernetics. Bateson wrote a number of books including Mind in Nature published in 1979. . In it he tells a revealing story. He says that scientists had recently found a way to design a software program that made computers function more like the human mind. After installing the software, the programmers typed in this question, “How does the human mind work?” The computer replied, “Well, let me tell you a story . . .’’ Bateson concluded by saying, they knew then,  that the computer was thinking like a human being. “Well, let me tell you a story . . .’’ Communication specialist Peg Neuhauser states that, “Storytelling is the single most powerful form of human communication. It is the primary tool that human beings use to pass on their cultures.

Jesus was a great story teller.  Crowds followed him, gathered around him, and retold his stories for generations until they were finally written down. Two thousand years later the stories that Jesus told are still being proclaimed around the world and they continue to be read in what is still the best-selling book of all time. And if there is one story that stands out among all of the ones that Jesus told, it is the one read this morning;  the story of the Good Samaritan.   That is because this one story encompasses the key teaching of the entire Gospels.

On our webpage it states, among other things Union Church is an interdenominational Christian church that seeks to receive and follow God’s sacred spirit and the ethical teachings of Jesus Christ to love God, neighbor, and self.  Given that this is how we publicly describe ourselves it seems worthwhile to drill down as to what this means for us practically and behaviorally. And the story of the Good Samaritan is an apt lens to provide us with valuable insights.

Union Church is a diverse community of faith whose members have differing interpretations of what is meant by  God’s sacred spirit as well as differing beliefs about Jesus. Despite this we have committed ourselves to following his teaching of compassion and love.  Through the Story of the Good Samaritan Jesus teaches why we are to love, who we are to love and how we are to love.

Jesus tells the story about the Good Samaritan as an answer to a question from one of his listeners in the crowd. He has just talked about the commandment to love God above all things and our neighbor as ourselves and someone asks, “Who is my neighbor”?  Like most good stories, the one that Jesus tells has an element of surprise. Most of us at the beginning of the story expect that the neighbor will be the man lying wounded along the road. But it’s not. When Jesus asks, “Now which of these three would you say was a neighbor to the man who was attacked by bandits?” The answer is the Samaritan.

The story of the Good Samaritan, unlike many others that Jesus told, is not primarily a moral parable. Yes, it does have the dimension of teaching us how we should act, but rather it is chiefly an allegory; a literary device meant to convey hidden  and deeper meanings through symbolic imagery, in this case spiritual meaning, that the teller, Jesus, wishes to convey. And the message that the ancient followers of Jesus heard and the understanding that was taught universally from early Christianity on is that Jesus the Christ is the Good Samaritan.

This interpretation is found in medieval stained-glass windows, in the French cathedrals at Bourges and Sens, and in a famous eleventh-century cathedral in Chartres. This beautiful stained-glass window which I had the opportunity to view twice, including last year at this exact time, portrays the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden at the top of the window, and, in parallel, the parable of the Good Samaritan at the bottom. It was common practice when making early stained glass windows to tell picture stories. And when one window depicted two stories, it was understood that the two stories were really the same story.  The message proclaimed is that Adam and Eve, symbolically representing all humankind are lost and broken and so God sends Jesus, the Good Samaritan, to us with the good news of love and mercy. Understood in this way, the parable of the Good Samaritan stresses what Christ has done for us. We are called to follow the actions of the Good Samaritan, not just because it’s a good thing to do, but because it serves as the foundational explanation of Jesus’ commandment to love. It reminds listeners that Jesus was accepting of all, loved all, cared for all, and challenged rules and practices that were exclusionary, burdensome, and clouded the primary message of unconditional and all-inclusive love. This message of Jesus was so  threatening that it led to his death, and despite the fact that Jesus knew the likely outcome of his message, he not only did not soften it, he proclaimed “Go and do likewise.”  In doing likewise we are saved from our smallness, from our selfishness.  In doing likewise, our humanity expands.

The story of the Good Samaritan goes further than telling us why we are to love our neighbor, it tells us who our neighbor is and how to love that neighbor.  In the story Jesus says that “By chance a priest came along”.  Our neighbors are not just the people that we plan to help, or those we choose to help. They are all those that we encounter “by chance”. If we accept this teaching, what does it mean for us practically speaking?  I think that first, it means that Christian love, or mercy, unmerited love extends beyond the boundaries of family, friends, nice people who like us, pleasant people, to those who are difficult to love; those who speak ill of us, those who’ve hurt us, even those we don’t plan to vote for.  Matthew chapter 5 expands on this: “You have heard the law that says, ‘Love your neighbor’ and hate your enemy.  But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you!  In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven. . .  If you love only those who love you, what reward is there for that?  If you are kind only to your friends, how are you different from anyone else?

So, the why of loving actions is because God has loved us first and always and we are invited to do likewise. The who, is everyone.  What about the how? What does Jesus teach us in this story about the way we are called to love? The Good Samaritan parable definitively defined “neighbor love” as the practice of mercy. The neighbor is the one who shows mercy.

Mercy is understood as unearned help or relief. Throughout the Gospels Jesus challenges behavior based on the common understanding of justice and replaces it with Mercy.  Theologian James Keenan has what I think is a beautiful description of mercy. He says that it is, “the willingness to enter into the chaos of others.’ He goes on to say, “like the Good Samaritan stopping for wounded Adam, attending to someone in need is not simple affair. It means entering into the entire “problem” or “chaos’ of that person’s particular situation.  Keenan goes on to say that understood in such terms, creation is an act of mercy that brings order into the chaos of the universe.  The Incarnation is God’s entry into the chaos of human existence. And redemption is Divine action bringing us out of the chaos of our own brokenness. Every act of God is an act of mercy; unearned love.

It’s significant, I think, that in presenting the allegory of the Good Samaritan, Jesus says that  when the a priest came along and  saw the wounded man lying there, he crossed to the other side of the road and passed him by.  And when the Levite walked over and looked at the man lying there, he also passed by on the other side. These two individuals purposely avoided entering the chaos of the wounded man’s plight.  But when the Samaritan came along, and saw the man, he felt compassion for him.  Compassion can be a dangerous thing.

When I was in graduate school studying psychology, we students practiced on each other for two years.  We’d often be put in groups of three and took turns being client, therapist, and trained observer who would then critique the session.  At that time were taught to keep our emotional distance.  We were told that skill or talent alone did not make a good therapist.  It was ability and experience, and that if we let ourselves care too deeply about our patients or clients we would burn out before we really got any good as therapists. Luckily therapists need to keep studying to keep their licenses to practice and years after graduating I learned something very valuable.  I was taught to become invested in the process and detached from the outcome. To let myself feel for the person and detached from the choices he or she made. This has been for me, a life-long challenge. When we remain distant, when we don’t let the suffering of someone else enter us, it’s not too difficult to be disengaged about what they do or don’t do. But when we let someone else’s pain really touch us, when we let ourselves care, it’s extremely difficult to then respect their life choices when they are different from what we think is best. But I think that is precisely what is asked of us when we are asked to imitate God’s love, enter the chaos and practice mercy.

It’s good and worthwhile to do works of mercy such as  contributing financially to those in need, bringing canned goods for the hungry, even  spending time at Seeds of Hope or Alternative Pathways. But we practice mercy when we let the pain, the longing, the suffering of the other enter us and crack open our hearts. It is only then that we respond from genuine caring.

The great spiritual writer Shakespeare said it so well in The Merchant of Venice. The quality of mercy is not strained; It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath. It is twice blest; It blesseth him that gives and him that takes . . . It is an attribute to God himself; And earthly power doth then show likest God’s when mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew, though justice be thy plea, consider this, that, in the course of justice, none of us should see salvation: we do pray for mercy; And that same prayer doth teach us all to render the deeds of mercy.

It is in this practice of Mercy that Isaiah assures us in today’s reading that our light will shine forth and that light will be the reflection of God’s light in us. May we all grow in mercy and know and share true joy.