Poetry of Life
by Ken Dale
We have before us this morning a very familiar parable and much loved story of Jesus.
A lawyer is testing Jesus ? or we might say using Jesus for the opportunity to impress people. He asks Jesus a question that he already knows the answer to. ?What must I do to inherit eternal life?? Jesus plays along ? with a point! ?What does the Scripture say?? And the lawyer answers quoting Deuteronomy and Leviticus. And Jesus tells him that he has the right answer, go and do that ?and you will?live.? But then the text says that the lawyer wanted to justify himself ??he knows that what he has just done is obvious ? he?s playing games and he?s been caught at it. So he follows up with another question. ?And who is my neighbor?? Which is to say who is the one I am to love. For the lawyer ? neighbor is the object. But when Jesus answers by telling the story he turns things around and ends by asking the lawyer which of the three who encountered the person in need of help was?neighbor to him. Jesus makes neighbor the subject instead of the object and then ends by saying ?go and do likewise? ? or go and be that neighbor.
No doubt, in our humanness, which Jesus always seemed to challenge, we have more often than not been a bit judgmental about the priest and the Levite who passed by without helping. Let?s see what the story looks like from the ditch. Who is in the ditch? We don?t know much. It is a ?man? ? we don?t know if he (or she) was Jewish or Gentile or rich or poor ? just that he was on his way to Jericho and fell into the hands of robbers who stripped and beat him and went away leaving him half dead. Stripped he is unidentifiable. Half dead may have been unconscious, but let?s say he was still on the conscious side of half dead?? that he is in a great deal of pain, unable to get up or even cry out for the help that he so desperately needs.
Along comes a priest and the story says the priest saw him but passed by and did that ?on the other side.? Was it that difficult to look at? Does the one in the ditch understand why? Perhaps the priest does?not know much about the man but the priest does live with rules and restrictions about cleanliness. If the man is not a Jew and the priest has contact with him, or if the man is dead and the priest has contact with him ? the priest will be unclean and forced to go through a timely ritual of making himself clean again. Perhaps the man in the ditch understands all this about the priest or maybe sees the priest as sort of above helping him ? the priest is a bit holier than he and should not ?lower? himself to helping this dirty, bloody, beaten person. We don?t know what the man in the ditch knew or understood or thought ? but I would guess chances are pretty good that it was much more simple than that ? probably more ?I am in pain ? here comes someone ? but he?s not going to stop and help me and I must be such a mess that he finds it necessary to cross the road as he passes by!?
?A second individual comes along ? perhaps hope rises once again in the ditch. This time a Levite. Is this a glimmer of hope for help? A Levite was also a high status person and oddly enough his function was not only to sacrifice and provide music for the worship ? but to teach and administer the divine law. They alone were allowed to carry the?Ark which was the Temple?s holiest object. In some ways they were like assistants to the priests. It was very likely that on the road to Jericho?because it was dangerous to travel, you would know who was in front of you in the journey. It could very well be that when he saw the man in the ditch he knew the priest ahead of him also saw him, did not stop to help, so why should he? Again ? did the man in the ditch know of the Levite passing by? Most likely in his suffering and pain, he just saw someone who could have helped but didn?t. And there in the ditch he remains and once again his hope is dropping. Nothing changes – he?s noticed ? but that?s about it.
Finally someone comes along and helps. It is a Samaritan which we must know by now is very significant because Samaritans were hated by the Jews. What if the man in the ditch is a Jew? Would he out of concerns for his own cleanliness prefer that the Samaritan not help him? We don?t know. But we do know the Samaritan sees the man and has pity. He bandaged his wounds ? softening the skin with oil and cleaning them with wine and then puts the victim on his own animal ? which means he then lead the animal with the victim lying across the animal?s back. As the Samaritan leads the animal he has?assumed the role of servant. He gets the man the care he needs ? puts him up in an inn and pays the innkeeper for the expense.
?I think it would be easy for us to imagine how the victim felt when the Samaritan took such good care of him. And the help came from the most unexpected place ? and just imagine if the man in the ditch was a Jew ? passed by – by a Levite and a priest ? but not by a Samaritan.?We can only imagine the shock as the lawyer and the people who heard?Jesus tell the story listened.
Jesus asks the lawyer a question ? who was the neighbor? The lawyer answered ?the one who showed him mercy? and Jesus tells the lawyer ?Go and do likewise.? The lawyer asked ?who is my neighbor? and Jesus answered ?who?was the neighbor? to the one in need. Perhaps the answer to the lawyer?s question is that anyone in need is the neighbor that we are to love. Jesus? answer to the question about eternal life is ?be a neighbor to those in need.? Be a neighbor no matter who we are and no matter who our neighbor is ? if we want to know the difference that makes we need only ask the one in the ditch.
The lawyer asks a question about knowledge and Jesus answers with a question about doing. The view from the ditch is two come along and pass by knowing and one comes along and does something about what he knows ? or maybe even doesn?t know.
William Willimon notes something beautiful about this passage. For the lawyer it is all a matter of words. Jesus answers his question about what he must do to inherit eternal life by saying you must do this. Willimon notes that the Greek word for do in the lawyer?s question is poiesas ? In essence his question is what must I do to be?related to God with all my heart, soul, strength and might? What must?I do to be with God in life, in death, for all eternity? And Jesus responded ?do this? ? poiei. Jesus tells the story about one who has?mercy, who lives out compassion in a concrete way ? Which of these?three was a neighbor? ?The one who did (poiesas) mercy.? Then go and do (poiei) mercy.? Willimon notes that those Greek words relate to our English word ?poem? ? and a poem is something that is fashioned, created by human activity. So we could conclude: To the question ?What do I have to do to inherit eternal life?? The answer: ?Go and?become a poem.? ? fashion your life in such a way that you live in such a way that all you do becomes a poem ? a hymn of praise ? to God.
I can?t help but think of the youth and advisors from Basking?Ridge this coming week. Just imagine all the poetry that will be created???the hymn that will be sung this week as they carry out their good??doings? as they make a difference with their work and share the gift of their presence!
The Samaritan perhaps unknowingly created that poem. But in his doing received his identity as a child of God. The Levite and priest knew but did nothing ? they didn?t know who or Whose they were.
What of us? When we are called into being ? will we respond with the poetry of our living and so the doing of our faith?