I wrote Sunday’s message, “The Test”, long before the verdict in the Zimmerman trial was announced and yet, the parallels between these events and scripture reading were worth noting.
In the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) a religious lawyer seeks to use Jesus to assure himself that he is good enough to go gain eternal life. The lawyer and Jesus agree that the two fundamental criteria are 1) to love God and 2) to love your neighbor, but that isn’t good enough and so he asks Jesus “Who is my neighbor?” In the time of Jesus, rabbis had differing opinion over who qualified to be a “neighbor” and these opinions ranged from friends and family, up to including anyone who was Jewish. This man was hoping, even expecting, that Jesus’ opinion would be similar so that he could declare himself “good enough.” But Jesus goes an entirely different direction. Jesus tells this story of a man who was brutally robbed, beaten and left for dead in the wilderness only to be rescued by a Samaritan.
For many of us, this may also require some explanation.
Long before the birth of Jesus, the Jews and the Samaritans hated one another with a deep and abiding hate. Regardless of whose version of history you believe, hostilities between the Samaritans and the Jews dated back to the Old Testament, perhaps a thousand years or more. Over the centuries, each side had attacked the other and had desecrated or burned the others’ temple. A great many had been killed on both sides. The only reason that the two groups were not fighting one another in the time of Jesus was that the Roman army was there to make sure that they didn’t.
In this environment of hatred, Jesus tells a story in which the Samaritan enemy was the hero and tells the man that even his enemy is his neighbor. Jesus’ command is to “Go and do likewise.” As followers of Jesus the command to “Go and do likewise” instructs us to show mercy to people we’ve never met, to share what we have with people who can’t do anything in return, to help people who aren’t like us, people who don’t like us, and even to people whom we consider to be our enemies. It was a tough pill for that lawyer to swallow and it isn’t any easier for us today. The parable of the Good Samaritan has always been, and will always be, difficult to put into practice.
If we measure the events surrounding the death of Trayvon Martin by this standard we find that everyone failed. Both George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin failed when they chose to be suspicious and hostile and to engage in a brutal brawl on the ground rather than try to explain, discuss or walk away. Both men assumed the other was his enemy. The news media when they looked first for sensational headlines before reporting the facts. Others failed because they were looking for an enemy and assumed that this violence was somehow different, that this murder was somehow more notable than the other thousands of young people who have been victims of violence since Trayvon Martin died.
Finally, the church failed. We have known the story of the Good Samaritan since we were children. We know that Jesus taught us to love our enemies and to do good to those who persecute us. And yet, even now, in the midst of this tragedy, the followers of Jesus Christ, both black and white, look to place blame and to see an enemy in others, rather than demonstrate mercy, compassion, and forgiveness. For the church, this case cannot be about who is right or who is wrong. A wedge has been driven between two groups who already saw the other as the enemy. Instead of arguing over who was in the right, we must find ways to avoid this sort of violence that kills young men and women every day in Sanford, Florida, New York, Washington D.C., and all across our nation. We must find ways to teach the things that Jesus commanded us to teach. We must show mercy to people we’ve never met, share what we have with people who can’t do anything in return, help people who aren’t like us, people who don’t like us, and even people that we consider to be our enemies. We are called to be agents of healing instead of division. We must love our enemies, do good to those who persecute us, and yes, we must love our neighbors.
Each one of us can make the world a better place if only we would, “Go and do likewise.”