July 15, 2013
Robbers, Lawyers, and Neighbors
The Trayvon Martin case highlights our broken desire to justify ourselves.
On Saturday, George Zimmerman was found not guilty for the murder of Trayvon Martin. On Twitter, people were outraged, mournful, sarcastic, and victorious. “Justice has been declared.” “Justice has been mocked.” An unarmed boy was killed, his life snuffed out. A man thought shooting a gun might make him safe, but he ruined more lives than he could know. The lawsuit, heavily watched by the media and the world, raised questions about racism, our judicial system, and just how fearful of our neighbors we really are.
What I keep thinking about is this: a lawyer once asked Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus (like he usually did) turned around and asked a question of his own: “What do you read in the Law?” The lawyer answered correctly, the good student that he was: “love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus agrees, telling the lawyer, “do this and you will live.”
But then the gospel of Luke tells us something important about the lawyer, the one asking the question about eternal life, right living, and pleasing God. In chapter 10, right after Jesus told him he was correct, the lawyer, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus: “and who is my neighbor?”
Jesus, instead of giving a succinct answer, launched into a parable (like he usually did). This is a famous one, a story that surely most of us could recite if called upon: the parable of the Good Samaritan. Jesus tells the tale of the priest and the Levite, the good and holy people of the Book, passing by a man who was beaten by robbers and left for dead. Later, the poor man is helped by a Samaritan nobody, a shocking thought in that day and age. After he tells the story Jesus asks the lawyer: “which one of these three, do you think, proved to be a good neighbor to the man who fell in among the robbers?” The lawyer replies: “the one who showed him mercy.” Jesus, who had no interest in justifications, then put a mighty responsibility on the shoulders of that one lawyer:
Go, and do likewise.
What does this mean for us in our day? The question of who our neighbor is seems more important than ever, as does the spirit of the question itself. The narratives consuming our national consciousness lately have been full of questions of justice: the Zimmerman trial, the Paula Deen debacle, the Bangladesh factory collapse—leave us wondering: what do these events say about our level of complicity in broken systems? About how well we are doing at our task of loving our neighbors?
It is very easy to love our neighbor who closely resembles us. It is quite another to love our neighbors who are different, especially those who have been beaten and bruised by the systems that have treated some of us just fine. Most people, like the Pharisee and the Levite, find it easier to ignore the ones who have fallen in among the robbers—perhaps because facing these injustices implicates us in ways we are not comfortable with. Because once we start loving our neighbor as Jesus commanded, after we get down on the ground and start loving those who have fallen in among the robbers, things get tricky. Perhaps, after we have helped our 6th, 7th, or 8th oppressed person, we might start asking questions about the systems that create such bruised and battered souls. We might start asking questions about who the robbers are, and why we let them do violence.
The headlines from the past week are grim reminders that the robbers are out there, in all sorts of ways. There are people being left to die on the streets of our cities, safely out of sight for most of us. There are undercurrents of privilege and fear, prejudice and anger flowing through many communities right now. But under all of that I also see a reason for hope: people are longing for justice.
Like the lawyer long ago, we are all wondering how we can justify ourselves. Cases like the Zimmerman trial bring this out in full force. But Jesus, in his infinite compassion and quest for reconciliation, never lets his people off the hook. In an earlier chapter in Luke, Jesus identifies who our most forgotten neighbors are, the ones we pass by on the road: the poor, the imprisoned, the sick and the oppressed. He then goes on to say that it is our job to proclaim to them, to ourselves, and to the systems that create both robbers and victims: the year of the Lord’s favor is at hand. He is telling all of us that they are our neighbor, no matter how much we might have worked to distance ourselves from that reality. He is telling us that once we get involved, we will see the justice we long for roll down like water: people will be free, people will be healed.
Do we really believe that? Now is the time for that hope, which leads to right action--both for the victims and the systems that create them. It is has always been time, to announce God’s dream for the world.
Let us go now, and do likewise.
D. L. Mayfield lives in the exotic Midwest with her husband and daughter. Recently they joined a Christian order amongst the poor, where they are currently seeking life in the upside down kingdom. She blogs here. You can find her on Twitter, too.