It is a good thing that tomorrow's lectionary pairs the parable of the Good Samaritan with the reading from Amos about God setting a plumb line in the midst of Israel. Here's why I think this is so.
First, the plumb line is a symbol of God's judgment on Israel. I tend to think of a plumb line as something I fashion to help me hang wallpaper straight. The theory is that getting the first strip of paper on the wall straight will cause all of the others to go on straight, too. The last time I put up wallpaper, I got out a plumb line, chalked the string, found the line and hung the first strip along the chalked line. By the time I finished the job - well, actually, about eight strips of paper into the job - I was just a shade off. Since this job was for my pleasure in my house and the unaligned strips met in an obscure part of the wall, my philosophy was, "it's close enough for government work." (Who came up with that line anyway??) So I left it.
But if you are building a structure - or a nation - you can't stray from plumb ever. There are no obscure parts of the wall. There are no places in the government that can be left even a little askew or the whole system will rot.
It seems the Israel hadn't been checking the walls of the nation often enough to make sure than they were still plumb, that there were no places where internal pressure had caused the wall to bow out, no corners where the ground had settled and taken a part of the foundation down with it. Furthermore, they didn't seem the least bit concerned about it. Perhaps they believed that God would continue to make everything okay or maybe they felt they had outgrown God and could take care of everything themselves without heavenly "interference."
So the Lord gives Amos a vision (literally makes him see) of the plumb line being set against a wall this is no longer straight. Amos' job is to tell the high priest Amaziah and King Jereboam that the nation is damaged beyond repair and the Lord intends to tear it down. This does not mean that the Lord no longer loves Israel or has turned from the promise made to them to be God's people forever. It does mean that God is not content to go with business as usual. And apparently a quick fix is not possible. The nation is too far out of line. The walls are bulging precariously.
So why does this vision complement the parable of the Good Samaritan. Well, the summary of the Law can easily be seen as a plumb line for life. It was not new with Jesus but had been a part of the teachings of the nation of Israel back even before the time of Amos. The lawyer demonstrates that he knows it well and we might even surmise that he has tried his best to live by it. But he is not content to let it stand as it was written and taught. He wants Jesus to qualify it, to modify the design.
So Jesus tells him a story that is both reasonable - there were good reasons for the priest and Levite to pass the injured man by - and so horrible that the lawyer has to couch his answer in different words than the ones Jesus used. He couldn't bring himself to say "Samaritan." The lawyer can only answer Jesus' question about true neighborliness by saying, "the one who showed him mercy."
The Samaritan had the same summary of the Law in his heritage. The difference between him and the priest and Levite is that it is so ingrained in his being that he cannot possible pass the man in the ditch by. It is not possible for him to leave him there. He simply has to do something.
There is a bumper sticker that says, "Practice random acts of kindness." The Samaritan - and Jesus and Amos - would tell us that there is nothing random about acts of kindness. Mercy and kindness ought to be as much a part of every day as breathing in and out. They are not uniquely Christian in nature. Most all faiths profess mercy and kindness to others as well as to self. We have no exclusive claim on them, although that hasn't stopped us from thinking we do. I remember someone talking about another person who did not belong to a church and saying, "He's such a good person, almost as if he were Christian!"
At a time in the life of the world when we are bombarded daily with stories of destruction and unkindness, of violence rather than mercy, it would be very easy to read these two lessons and here only doom, destruction and vindictive judgment (vengeance is mine, says the Lord, after all). In fact, that is where I have been with the readings all week. Then today, I read a reflection by Jennifer Lord, a professor of homiletics at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. She sees the crux of the lesson here in the lawyer's answer, "the one who showed him mercy." Jesus tells him to go and do the same.
Mercy is so much more than goodness or even kindness. Lord says, "it means something more than forgiving a debt or an offense. [Mercy] suggests blessing and unwarranted compassion as well as lenience. It is about pardon, kindness, strength and even rescue and generosity." (CC, June 29, 2010:19)
Mercy is part of love. We show mercy to those we love - blessing, compassion, kindness. We are generous with those we love and we are - usually - quick to pardon their offenses. Jesus tells us quite simply in this passage that the love and mercy, kindness and goodness we have for our intimate loved ones is to extend to our neighbors. And Jesus does not put any limits on the neighborhood.
So rewrite the parable of the merciful Samaritan for yourself. Where in our neighborhoods would the crime occur? Would the story be different for you if a child or a woman were attacked and left for dead? Who would pass the injured one by and what good reasons would they have? A doctor's wife once told me that her husband no longer stopped when he saw an accident for fear of being sued for malpractice. Is that a good enough reason to keep going?
Who is the Samaritan for you? Who would be the hardest person for you to cast in the starring role? That is who Jesus would use if he were telling you this parable. It would not be a close friend or someone who sees the world through the same lenses you do.
Finally, ask yourself what role you play in the story. Whatever the answer is, the theme of the parable is mercy. Jesus offers mercy to the lawyer when he tells him to go and do likewise. He does not hold up before him all his previous failed attempts to do so. He does not condemn him. Jesus uses the parable to tear down a bulging wall in the lawyer's faith and then he rebuilds it by showing him, through the parable, how to get back in plumb, how to straighten out and up.