Mercy for Everyone
At first glance this text sounds like it could be a lesson about the importance of saying “thank you.” To be sure, having a heart of gratitude is a good thing. Even the Psalmist proclaims: “O give thanks to the Lord for God is good” (Ps. 106:1). Yet, when consideration is given to the larger narrative of Luke’s gospel, one moves beyond a tale about the importance of social graces to the deeper message of God’s mercy. There are many ways to interpret this story. Renita Weems, womanist theologian, states, “Great interpreters are not those who have found the one meaning of a text but those who inspire others to voice their own response to the same text.” I hope you are inspired to do what she suggests. For now, though, I offer that this tale acts as a gospel medicine for a broken people.
Today, we live in the midst of struggle and discord. Sometimes it feels like an impossibility to build and sustain community. Our world is filled with uncertainties, alienation, undue shame, and the ache of loneliness. Racism, addictions, and the fear of outsiders. We only need to open the morning paper to catch a glimpse of the brokenness of our beautiful world. This week we see the pain and devastation of those who experienced the fury of Hurricane Matthew. “It’s too much, we say.” As followers of Jesus, how do we occupy a world of pain and promise? Maybe we can find some hope in the text from today. I invite you to walk around inside the story with me.
The people who first received this story also lived in troubled times. Scholars believe that Luke was written shortly after the First Jewish Revolution (in 70 CE), which resulted in the devastation of lives and the temple. These first Christians were a traumatized people who were trying to live faithful to their Lord Jesus—all the while, standing on the edge of the world that was and the world that would be. They, no doubt, lived with unanswered questions, pain, and uncertainties. I imagine this text stirred them and comforted them all at the same time.
A careful reading of Luke 17 (the chapter our text is embedded in) reveals a hurting people. These verses contain the fear of the disciples and the control of the Pharisees as they grapple to understand the way of Jesus. Jesus tells them to forgive, have faith, and don’t expect accolades for doing what needs to be done. Just do the work. And, stop worrying about the arrival of the Kingdom of God—it is here, and yet to come. Jesus seems to be saying, “I know times are uncertain, but don’t try to control everything. Just breathe. And trust. And be opened to God.”
The tale of the Thankful Samaritan is slipped into the midst of this fear. It acts as a collective medicine for their brokenness—perhaps, it could be described as an inoculation of the Kingdom of God! Now I must admit, like any inoculation, it might cause soreness in some people; other people, perhaps not at all! That’s how Luke’s gospel works; its message of reversal and inclusion can comfort or sting, depending upon one’s privilege and location.
It is hard to occupy the space between a shattered world and a world that needs pieced together. Yet, we find ourselves in such a place from time to time, in need of healing. Elizabeth Hart, my grandmother, found herself in such a place. Her story is told in the book, “God healed me.” It unfolds like this. First, she lost her mobility. Paralysis of her legs placed her in a wheelchair in her mid-40’s. Then, a few years later she lost her husband, Jake, in a farming accident. Wandering in a wilderness of grief she cried, prayed, went to church, and wrote poetry. Eventually she was able to proclaim, “My wheelchair is my throne of praise!” Yes, from time to time, we all find ourselves in places of grief, loss, and fear. What hope can be gleaned from the story of the Thankful Samaritan—not only for our individual times of loss but more for our collective and communal uncertainties and tensions?
Jesus comes. Jesus comes to the borderland. In this story, it is known as the “region between Samaria and Galilee.” Jesus travels beyond the acceptable and safe boundaries and provides healing for all ten of the lepers, including the Samaritan, an outsider of the Jewish faith. Furthermore, it is the Samaritan who “sees” the great thing that God has done. This vision propels him to turn back to Jesus. I wonder, what does he see? The text does not answer this question explicitly. The implication, however, is that he sees a new created world of mercy—mercy that brings inclusion and wholeness. He “gets” that God is behind this and he is overflowing with gratitude and praise.
Is it any wonder that he finds himself at the feet of Jesus? Isn’t that where a glimpse of God’s new created world of mercy takes us? Jesus questions, “Weren’t there ten? Where are the other nine? Is this foreigner the only one who returned to praise God?” This is a place in the story where the healing medicine might have caused some soreness. Luke’s gospel was being received by an audience filled with fear and uncertainty, as well as, the social value of shaming others to look good. In this story, the character carrying too much shame opens a truth: God’s world contains no “us” and no “them.” Rather, God’s world of mercy unites people.
Perhaps, the gospel medicine offered to a wounded world, then and now, is mercy. God has mercy on all people; a mercy that acts to move us from fear into love, wholeness, and communion. In order to perceive this we need new eyes, like the Samaritan. Henri Nouwen, Dutch Catholic priest and theologian, says, “God wants to open our eyes so that we can see that we belong together in the embrace of God’s perfect love.” This mercy, this love, is the antidote to the competition, fear, control, and rigidity that often accompanies in-between and on-the-edge places, both the disciples and ours.
Relinquishing control by opening our clenched fists and protective postures can be frightening. bell hooks, African American professor and author, notes the discomfort inherent in the transformation from one world to the next. She says, “There can be, and usually is, some degree of pain involved in giving up old ways of thinking and knowing and learning new approaches.” It’s not easy.
Perhaps, Luke knew what he was doing when he inserted this tale of the Thankful Samaritan in the midst of the turmoil of the disciples’ fear and Pharisees’ control. Perhaps, Luke knew that fear would never build a new creation. His healing balm of choice was a concise story with the following label: Mercy for everyone. It elegantly acknowledges the pain of alienation, the journey of transformation, and the joy that comes with trust, not only in God, but also in our ability to risk being vulnerable.
The hope in this text is that God comes, connects, and creates a world of love, mercy, and inclusivity. All in our borderlands! Our part is to have the openness to see that we all belong together in the embrace of God’s perfect love. When this happens, we can be sure the gospel inoculation of mercy is working.
The gospel medicine of mercy does, indeed, work. Earle Cornelius, a LNP reporter, wrote the following story for the September 3, 2016 Faith section. I will paraphrase his report. German Quintana, originally from Guatemala and now a landscaper at Franklin and Marshall College, recently obtained his citizenship with the help of Church World Service. Filled with gratitude, he desired to help another person on her journey in a new land. He, with Church World Service’s orchestration, landscaped the backyard of Miriam Abdelaziz, a Sudanese mother of six who lives in Lancaster City. She was separated from her husband as she fled war-torn Sudan. German’s act of mercy was not only appreciated by Miriam, but it also opened connections that formerly were closed. You see, German asked Miriam’s next door neighbor if his yard was available to hold supplies, Mosby’s Pub provided food, a member of F&M’s wrestling team delivered the flagstone, the local nurseries donated the plants, and a plumber gave of his time to install the outside faucet. For a short time, a new world was created on that street in inner city Lancaster. How? One man, German Quintana, had the eyes to see that we all belong together in the embrace of love. A garden was planted in Miriam’s borderland place.
In conclusion, I offer a poem—The Garden of We—which was written while I was in a marginal place. It has pain and joy. A journey, a garden, and a new created world! Listen to these words. Perhaps, you, too, will recognize this place.
The Garden of We
Tears sprinkled on hearts void of what was
Work their way into the deep ventricles of being
And doing. The pulse of life goes on
But just barely. The salt from the tears
Tenderizes the soul until
A new created world sings songs, sings songs
So lush and full they tumble like a garden
Full of watermelon-pink poppies spilling
Hope to those who hunger for
There is no doubt about this song. It is a resurrection
Ballad. It sounds the myth of the One who calls
The oak and the caterpillar.
It calls you.
May we have the ability to cry; May we have tender hearts to receive the gospel medicine of mercy; and may we have the courage to risk it all on the new created world of Jesus.
Please pray with me: Jesus, Master, have mercy on us! Amen.
 Renita J. Weems. Listening for God: A Minister’s Journey Through Silence and Doubt (New York: Touchstone, 1999), 88.
 Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, Sacra Pagina Series, vol. e, ed. Daniel J. Harrington, S.J. (Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press [Michael Blazier Book], 1991), 2.
 Henri J. M. Nouwen. Lifesigns: Intimacy, Fecundity, and Ecstasy in Christian Perspective (New York: Doubleday, 1990), 46.
 bell hooks. Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. (New York: Routledge, 1994), 43.
 Earle Cornelius, “A Little Help From Her Friends” Lancaster Newspaper (Lancaster, PA), Sept. 3, 2016.