Yoder-Short: Mercy for all?

Jul 13, 2020 by

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What if a comforting parable comes unraveled? What if the hero we usually identify with fades? What if we start seeing ourselves as an overly inquisitive lawyer or possibly someone lacking empathy?

Jane Yoder-Short

Yoder-Short

When we imagine ourselves as the compassionate hero, as the one showing mercy, the Samaritan parable is comforting. After all, we Mennonites are known as good neighbors. When we see ourselves as the lawyer, as wanting limits on how far “neighbor” extends, the parable becomes unsettling.

As a child, a neighbor was anyone living nearby. Our square-mile farm community was Mennonite, with one tobacco-smoking Catholic adding diversity. We didn’t have internet to bring distant misery into our definition of neighbor.

When asked for clarification of neighbor, Jesus responded with a parable about a Samaritan that shook his audience’s racial biases and religious narrowness. There was deep historical enmity between the Jews and the half-breed Samaritans. The Samaritans had sold out, become Hellenized, too liberal. Jews were trying to be faithful, to follow God’s law. In their eyes, they were superior. They expected no help from Samaritans, just as we’d expect no help from — you fill in the blank.

Is Jesus proposing showing indiscriminate mercy to everyone?
What about mercy for those who are wrong? We can be hard on the priest and the Levite. We judge their actions and think we would have done better. But what if they had good intentions? They worked for the temple. If they touched a dead body, they would be unclean and unable to do their job. The temple was important. It kept the community orderly, kept society from falling into unruly protests. When do good intentions become hurtful?

How much risk are we required to take? We’d pick up the hitchhiker, but what about the safety of our kids? We’d help the wounded protestor, but what if he has the coronavirus? We’d support the slaughterhouse workers, but what about the farmers? We’d welcome the immigrants, but what about the drain on our economy? How do we sort out legitimate apprehension from imagined fears?

Do we extend mercy to robbers? “Robbers” was another word for revolutionaries. The traveler could have been the victim of revolutionaries trying to fund their activities. What does mercy toward oppressed looters look like?

Before we dismiss mercy for the robbers, let’s be honest about our wealth. Too often our prosperity comes at the expense of others, at the expense of historical injustices or at a cost to global neighbors.

It’s easy for us to see the Samaritan as a hero. It wasn’t easy for Jesus’ audience, who viewed Samaritans as inferior. It’s easy to lump people together falsely: Those from less developed countries are less intelligent. All police officers are brutal. All protesters are unpatriotic. Would we expect an ICE agent to stop and help an immigrant? Would we expect someone wearing a MAGA hat to help a BLM activist? Would we expect a wealthy CEO to help a slaughterhouse worker?

The parable is disconcerting for those of us who, like the lawyer, want clear lines. Jesus jars our biases. He illustrates that mercy crosses ethnic, political and religious divisions. Neighbors are those who need mercy and show mercy.

As we let go of our tidy neighbor categories, we find new freedom. Living with unraveling parables leads to confusion but also new life. We start seeing how we have thoughtlessly lumped people together. We start expecting mercy from and for even those people.

Jane Yoder-Short attends West Union Mennonite Church in Parnell, Iowa.


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