Paving the Road

Texts:  Psalm 91 and Micah 6:6-8

I have another scripture story up my sleeve this morning, and I want to start with it:

One day, a man was walking down the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. He had traveled the road before, but the journey on this particular day was one he would never forget. He had been in a hurry and not made proper preparations.  Around midday, he came upon a group of men traveling in the opposite direction, and just as he passed them, they ambushed him from behind. The next few moments were a blur. When he awoke on the roadside, he felt searing pain throughout entire body, and he realized they had taken everything—even his clothes, his food, and his water. Physically and emotionally, he could not bring himself to move.

As he lay alone praying for deliverance, he thought of the many rumors he had heard of robberies along the road to Jericho. In fact, many referred to it as the “Way of Blood.” Yet, having never experienced anything of the sort himself, he had never feared for his safety. Finally, a man was approaching. Better yet, a priest! Surely he would help. But as soon as the priest was near enough to see his blood and nakedness, quickening his pace he crossed to the other side of the road and avoided looking over. About fifteen minutes later, another man came along. This time a Levite. But he, like the priest, wanted no part of whatever had left this man in his unfortunate state.
A short time later, a third man—a Samaritan—journeyed toward him. He, however, did not cross to the far side of the road as the others had. Instead, he approached the man, came down from his donkey, and knelt at his side. The Samaritan gave him water to drink and treated some of his sizeable wounds. The Samaritan carefully saddled him on the donkey and walked alongside until they came to an inn. The Samaritan spent the night at his side, caring for him and showing him compassion. The following morning, the Samaritan was gone before the man had a chance to say goodbye, but he learned from the innkeeper that the Samaritan had left enough money for his continued rest and recovery at the inn.
My tellling of the story does not, of course, follow the text exactly.  It is an imaginative retelling of one of the gospels’ most famous stories.  It is easy to see why it is so famous and well loved.  The story demonstrates what it looks like to love your neighbor.  You will in fact recall that this story is book-ended by the author with an exchange between Jesus and a lawyer about what Jesus means, always taking, as he is, about love.
For most of us Christians, this is a happy story with a happy ending and when we think of loving one’s neighbor we think about the story in an this innocuous way.
In Jesus’ cultural context, this parable exposed a scandal.  John Dominic Crossan explains:
If Jesus wanted to teach love of neighbour in distress, it would have sufficed to use the standard folkloric threesome and talk of one person, a second person, and a third person [to make his point]. If he wanted to do this and add in a jibe against the clerical circles of Jerusalem, it would have been quite enough to have mentioned priest, Lévite, and let the third person be a Jewish lay-person. Most importantly, if he wanted to inculcate love of one’s enemies, it would have been radical enough to have a Jewish person stop and assist a wounded Samaritan.

But the story Jesus told was purposefully counter-intuitive. I think Jesus had another point in mind. Crossan, in fact, argues that he did:

[W]hen the story is read as one told by the Jewish Jesus to a Jewish audience, . . . this original historical context demands that the ‘Samaritan be intended and heard as the socio-religious outcast which he was… The whole thrust of the story demands that one say what cannot be said, what is a contradiction in terms: Good + Samaritan… [In this way], a world is being challenged and we are faced with polar reversal… [The hearers’ world is being] turned upside down and radically  questioned in its presuppositions. (Crossan, 1977).

I interpret Crossan’s point to be that the assumptions we make about our enemy hold up a mirror to our culture — even our own selves as we are asked to say what cannot be said. To recognize the Samaritan as a socio-religious outcast is to recognize the Jew as an oppressor. It is this understanding which is what cannot be said.
If Good + Samaritan are a contradiction in terms according to the usual way of reading things — Jesus suggests that Good + Jew should not be assumed non-contradictory. The story of the oppressed is always the story of an illegitimate assumption of power.
Taking Crossan’s point to heart, the obvious question Jesus’ story poses, is the question Luke studiously avoids.  It is precisely not “Who is neighbor?”  But is in fact, “What road will the recovered Jew take home?”  Did he go his way, studiously avoiding, like Luke, the Way of Blood because he could afford to?  Because he’d rather talk about love than about justice?  Did he go home studiously avoiding the difficult question what of this Way of Blood?  Why do we let it exist?  How can I sever my complicity with my fellow Jew who has a stake in maintaining the Way of Blood?
In other words, how will he begin to reverse the conditions his illegitimate assumption of power has created such that The Way of Blood, which he could easily avoid if he were not in a hurry,
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said all of this much more precisely:  “We are called to be the Good Samaritan,  but after you lift so many people out of the ditch you start to ask, maybe the whole road to Jericho needs to be repaved.”
Thursday evening, I listened with a great deal of sadness to a story on National Public Radio about my old neighborhood in the South Side of Chicago which has seen a 50% increase in gun violence.  Opposition to gun control continues to be blind to the human toll that opposition takes, and those who seek to engage the political process around the NRA’s death grip on pro-gun policies are turned into political mincemeat. In other words “Good” and ‘Gun control” are today like “Good” and “Samaritan” were in Jesus day — a cultural contradiction in terms and no one who values his or her position in society would dare think of reversing it.
I understand that repaving the road is not something many of us undertake willingly.  I know that I do not. That  I have not.  I know that I have too willingly not given expression to the repaving that, as a reader of the way of Jesus, I see needing to be done.  To give this expression is to risk losing one’s job, or one’s friends.

I went to the installation of a colleague yesterday at the old meeting house in east Montpelier. Installations are always joyful occasions. Indeed this one was. Lots of fun. Everyone excited about a new venture, new ideas, new energy.

The preacher on this occasion, tried to remind the gathered faithful, that faith in God also entailed engagement with a power that can only be described as dangerous. This is not the God of the letter of the Hebrews, “the same yesterday, today and forever,” but a God distinctly interested in transformation, in change, so that what was once broken, might be made whole, that what lives by violence might discover the life of creative cooperation.

Installations are great occasions to get fired up again about God’s power (albeit dangerous power) to lift us up on eagles’ wings, great occasions to say to one another this gospel we’re called to engage, to talk together about its meaning and then to live calls us in new directions for new ages.  A new pastor is clearly a new age.

But it need not be a new pastor — in fact is not a new pastor – that makes us to say with the Psalmist, “I have no fear of the prowlers.”  “I will not fear those who shoot arrows at me,”  For it is not the pastor, it is the presentness of God — that is not just the presence of God, but the very nature of God that cannot turn from us in our need — that makes it all work.


I fly down to Tampa, Florida, today to work with four Episcopal congregations that want to think boldly and collaboratively about where God is leading them.

No more “business as usual,” said one pastor. Not because they are dying — for, in fact, they are holding their own — but because God needs more from them, and so do the communities they serve.

We will be working together for several months. Not a quick in-and-out workshop, but a sustained and, they hope, transformative look ahead.

I applaud their willingness to look outward and forward. As I wrote in this morning’s On a Journey meditation, “We settled Christians spend way too much time looking inward, tending to our internal affairs, asking each other what we want, performing for each other, sharing good times.”

God wants more from us and has more to give us. The crux is looking outward to discern and going outward to serve.

What will come of this time together? I have no idea. Neither do they. That is the mystery and grace of pioneering. But I think we can be sure the way forward will be different, risky, exciting, rewarding, difficult, and life-changing.

Please pray for this hardy band of pioneers.

And this hardy band of pioneers — out to repave the road.  Amen.


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