Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Lines in the Sand

Have you heard the one about the priest, the Levite, and the Samaritan? It goes something like this:

A lawyer asks Jesus what he should do to have eternal life. Jesus asks him what the Law (which we call Scripture) says. The lawyer replies, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself." Jesus applauds the lawyer for giving the right answer, but the lawyer then asks, "Who is my neighbor?" (Just like the lawyer in all of us...quibbling over definitions, looking for loopholes!)

To answer, Jesus tells the story of a man going from Jerusalem to Jericho who is attacked by robbers, beaten, stripped naked, and left for dead on the side of the road. A priest sees him and moves to the other side of the road, passing without helping. Then a Levite does the same. When a Samaritan sees this poor, beaten Jew, he responds in love, bandages his wounds, takes him to an inn nearby, and pays the innkeeper to care for the wounded man, promising to come back and check on him to be sure the innkeeper does the job right.

Jesus ends by asking the lawyer which man was a neighbor to the victim. "The one who showed him mercy," he replies. Then Jesus says, "Go and do likewise."

"Go and do likewise."

It's not a joke.

The parable of the Good Samaritan is one of the hardest teachings Jesus gives us. Samaritans and Jews were mortal enemies, For a Samaritan to be the good guy in a story told by a Jew to a Jew...well, that was just unthinkable. That was a line in the sand that shouldn't be crossed.

Jesus crossed it.

In doing so, Jesus makes a bold point about the Law. The Jewish priests and Levites were leaders who had become overly preoccupied with the details of the Law relating to purity. If they stopped to help the man, they would be rendered impure by touching a possibly dead body or getting human blood on their hands or robes. They had forgotten about the most important Law of all, the Law upon which all the other laws were based, the Law that leads to eternal life: Love the Lord with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind; and love your neighbor as yourself.

That's the bottom line.

What did it matter if the priest and Levite were inconvenienced by weeks of ritual purification? Someone needed their help, a fellow Jew, one of their own, and they walked past him.

I think we all can use a few weeks of ritual purification now and then, no matter how inconvenient, but we are such selfish creatures. We put our own needs and convenience first, and turn a blind eye to the needs of those in the ditch. A few years ago, as I was walking with my husband, his sister, and her husband around the capitol building in Madison, Wisconsin, in search of dinner, I saw one of the many homeless people struggling to roll his wheel chair up a rather steep hill. The Spirit nudged me to offer help...but I kept walking.

When I stand before God, I will have to answer for that failure. Perhaps you know exactly the knot I get in my stomach when that memory hits me, the shame I feel for not answering that nudge, the knowledge that I failed God in this one small thing.

How must I be failing Him in even larger ways unconsciously, thoughtlessly, carelessly, every single day?

Yet God loves me anyway, forgives my sins, pours out blessings on me so that I may be a blessing to others. I don't deserve that sort of love. Not a bit. I fail every day, and He never quits loving me, and He never quits loving you, either.

When I feel that unbounded love--a love that erases all those lines in the sand we draw--I want to go and do likewise. I will fail, sometimes spectacularly, but I will keep trying. Winston Churchill said success is going from one failure to the next with no loss of enthusiasm. When we get stuck, when we give into despair, when we lose our enthusiasm for loving and let not loving become a habit so ingrained we can't even see it...that's real failure.

Are we judging others, condemning them, separating ourselves from them because we don't want to get dirty? If we're honest, we probably have to answer yes. We do this, every one of us, because we have lines we won't cross in sharing our love. Some people won't love gays or homeless people or the mentally ill or potty mouths or Muslims or Christians of other denominations. Some people won't love the people who won't love gays or homeless people or the mentally ill or potty mouths or Muslims or Christians of other denominations.

We've all got lines we won't cross with love. When we are self-centered or afraid, the line we won't cross gets closer to us, and the circle where we love shrinks, and we push people outside the line, teaching the falsehood that God's love is conditional and contingent just like ours.

Jesus wants us to be like the good Samaritan, to be a neighbor to everyone, but it's just so hard. Perhaps daily we need to ask Him to push back our lines just a little bit, expand the circle where we love to be a bit more inclusive, a bit less comfortable and convenient, even if it means getting our hands dirty. If we keep doing this, an awesome thing happens: we pull more and more people closer to that Perfect Love...including ourselves. And the bigger our love gets, the more like Jesus we become.

Are you shining God's love out into the world or are you guarding it close to you, keeping it pure and unsullied by the touch of sinful neighbors in a sinful world? Where were the Samaritan's lines drawn? Where did he give his mercy?

Go and do likewise.


  1. Susan, I think this is so beautifully written & so helpful. Thank you for the encouragement & for the challenge.

    1. Gill, thanks so much for your kind comment.


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