Who Is My Neighbor: the Quality of Mercy

The Good Samaritan, by Rembrandt

The Good Samaritan, by Rembrandt

For Christmas Eve, a repost.

A young man in his blue linen cloak paces the dimly-lit room, then looks out the window  at the crowd gathering in the village square.  His ambitions exceed his current station, but he expects that to change after today. He is a lawyer, which is to say he occupies a lower rung in the religious order. He steps down the mud brick stairs of his house to the courtyard, then walks through the arch and onto the street.

Shielding his eyes against the sun, now  glowing white in a molten sky, he can clearly see the plaza. There are more people than he expected. Surprises irritate the young man, but he consoles himself that the larger audience suits his purpose. He walks briskly to the village square–he always moves briskly–thinking over his scheme to confront, and perhaps trap, the itinerant rabbi from distant Nazareth. His superiors cannot fail to be impressed.

Near the well,  Jesus is  talking to a small circle of men.   As the lawyer approaches the crowd, he feels his hands sweating.   Moving through the throng, he strides up to face the rabbi. After a  self-effacing introduction, he asks, “How can I attain eternal life, Teacher?”, painting  the last word with sarcasm.  He expects that  Jesus’ answer will offend the orthodox and prove his undoing.  The crowd is silenced by the lawyer’s boldness, just as he had hoped.

Jesus  deftly turns the question back on his inquisitor. The lawyer knows the law by rote and so he confidently quotes its letter. Jesus’ response, terse and provocative, exposes a chink in the lawyer’s  armor. The lawyer  tries an evasion. “Who is my neighbor, that I am to love?”

The crowd waits for their teacher to take up the challenge, perhaps with a sermon like the ones they have heard him deliver. Jesus smiles thinly, a knowing smile, but in his eyes there is a flash of anger. He has faced so many of these inquisitions–meant to trap him into some blasphemy–over the last year. The rekindled memories leave him inwardly seething.  He has thought about the answer to this question, or one very like it, through cool, dark velvet nights with only the flickering fire as companion, and so He retains his composure.

Masking his anger with an even voice, Jesus tells a tale of two pious men who pass by a wounded stranger on the robber-plagued Jericho road, not even approaching him to see if alive or dead; and of the third traveler who stops to assist the man, bathing his wounds in oil and taking him to an inn for shelter. Jesus faces the lawyer, but the crowd is his real audience–and when mentioning the solicitous man, He calls him a  Samaritan. Even his close followers glance at each other–did he really say Samaritan? According to Jewish tradition, Samaritans are despised outcasts; there is bitterness and enmity between the two peoples. A Samaritan as role model does not sit agreeably with the crowd, but Jesus had warned his followers that he had come to bring a sword.

His parable completed, Jesus asks the lawyer, “Which of these three, do you think, sir, was neighbor to him that fell among the thieves?”  In the telling of the tale, his anger has faded;  his voice is almost serene.

The lawyer’s arrogance  has wilted in the Light. “He that showed mercy,” he replies, leaving unspoken the distasteful name, Samaritan.

Jesus’ voice is a friendly invitation. “Go and do likewise.”

As the Samaritan ministered to the injured man, so Jesus discerned the wounded spirit of the lawyer inside the cynical shell.  He treated his foe with acceptance, but with the parable challenged him  to think anew. In  so doing,  He placed before his audience a gift, allowing them to see, if they chose, that the quality of mercy is for outcasts as well as members of the tribe, for the reproachful as well as the faithful.

Sometimes a story’s meaning is inside, like a kernel in a husk; and other times the story’s most eloquent message is revealed by the manner of the narrator.

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