A sermon delivered by Wendell Griffen, Pastor, New Millennium Church, Little Rock, Ark., on July 11, 2010.
Give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked. Psalm 82:3-4
For this reason, … we have not ceased praying for you and asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that you may lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as you bear fruit in every good work and as you grow in the knowledge of God. May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and you may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light. Colossians 1:9-12
“Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.” Luke 10:36-37
Then Amos answered Amaziah, “I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees, and the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, “Go, prophesy to my people Israel.” Amos 7:14-15
Across centuries, cultures, continents, and circumstances, people have been challenged and inspired by the lesson Jesus gave a self-righteous religious scholar about a Samaritan who refused to ignore a beaten traveler but who made the traveler’s plight his business. Today I invite us to ponder some issues that are related to the lesson about mercy and justice that is at the heart of the Good Samaritan parable.
1. Who are the beaten travelers and why are they on the Jericho Roads of our lives?
2. What does the question to Jesus that prompted the “Good Samaritan” lesson mean for our living?
3. And how may we attain the divine compassion and courage that leads us to accept the risks and realities associated with the love Jesus commended?
Jesus forced his religious challenger to see that being a neighbor involves how we treat others. The questioner didn’t want to admit that the person in the parable who showed divine neighborliness to the wounded man was the Samaritan (rather than the Hebrew priest or the temple official). However, Jesus forced the man to admit that compassion for others lies at the heart of being neighborly.
In doing so, Jesus also required his questioner—and us—to face the whole issue of mercy and social justice that runs throughout the Bible. As we read at Psalm 82:3-4, God requires that we “Give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.” Social justice and compassion are inseparable aspects of what it means to love God. We cannot love God if we do not love others, and we do not love others if we are unwilling to act on their behalf. Mercy and justice are not mere sentiments. They are actions in response to what is needed.
Who are the wounded victims along our Jericho Roads?
· They are unemployed people needing money to survive until they can regain honest work at living wages in safe working conditions.
· They are homeowners facing foreclosure.
· They are children who need good families, good schools, and safe neighborhoods.
· They are immigrants who need hospitality, protection from abuse, and fair treatment rather than discrimination.
· They are workers who need living wages and safe working conditions.
· They are elders who need security, companionship, and safety.
· They are military men and women who need us to not gamble their lives needlessly, and to protect them and their families from the physical, emotional, and moral suffering associated with military service.
· They are people who are beaten and wounded because they are unpopular because they are gay or simply viewed as gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, or trans-gender, because they may worship in a different way or not at all, because they are undocumented, and because they are “different” in other ways that make them easy targets for mistreatment.
· They are the earth, air, water, plants, and creatures wounded by human wastefulness, pollution, and greed.
Divine love demands that we see and name weak and vulnerable people and situations on our Jericho Roads. Divine love demands us to admit that humans deliberately create systems and situations that leave others weak and vulnerable. Divine love demands that people who love God do something about it. What we call being missional describes what Jesus called being neighbors.
So the Good Samaritan lesson shows how religious people—represented in the lesson by the priest and Levite—can be so out of touch with God that we ignore the injustice that creates weak and vulnerable people and situations. Religious people can even get so out of touch with God that we become part of the very injustice that causes people and the creation to be weak and vulnerable on the Jericho Roads of life. We can become part of the injustice that violates God’s love.
The lesson from Amos reminds us that human government and religion can become so unjust that an entire society faces divine condemnation and judgment. Amos preached such a message of divine condemnation and judgment against the pervasive injustice in Israel during the reign of King Jeroboam II in the eighth century before the Christian era. The more prosperous that society became, the more disregard there was for weak and vulnerable people. Meanwhile, the government and religious institutions were not protecting the weak and vulnerable from corruption and other forms of oppression. So Amos left his quiet life as a herdsman and gardener in Judah, moved to Israel, and preached that God had condemned the society to be overthrown and its leaders to be forced into exile.
Powerful people don’t like criticism. When they can’t avoid criticism, unjust leaders try to discredit their critics. Amaziah was the priest at Bethel, the capital Israel (counterpart to Jerusalem in the southern kingdom of Judah). Amaziah tried to discredit Amos as a threat to national security by falsely accusing Amos of political subversion against the government. And Amaziah tried to discredit Amos as being corrupt by accusing him of prophesying for hire.
Amaziah was not a relic of a bygone age. Religious leaders joined the smear campaign against Martin Luther King, Jr. So-called “religious conservatives” today join efforts to discredit people who challenge social injustice, question our society’s addiction to military adventurism, and denounce the oppressive materialism responsible for so much suffering to people and the creation. Recall how quickly some religious leaders, politicians, and television commentators actively tried to discredit Jeremiah Wright. The spirit of Amaziah is still with us.
Amaziah was a classic example of how religion can become so entangled with political and commercial power that it becomes illegitimate. That kind of religion is more interested in serving the national leadership than serving God. Amaziah shows that how religious people can become pawns for the state, but not God’s prophets of love and justice. And Amaziah shows that when religion loses its sense of moral integrity, it works to favor human authority even when that authority is out of fellowship. When that happens, religion becomes an instrument of injustice, not a righteous response to it.
Amos demonstrates another aspect to divine love and justice that is too often ignored. Those who invoke the name and power of God to bless a society cannot live as if God does not know, care, and act to vindicate God’s name and power about pervasive injustice. The same wise, holy, and powerful God we call on to bless a society is wise, holy, and powerful enough to condemn it. Fools and frauds resist those who declare that God is that wise, holy, and powerful.
Amos refused to be silenced or shamed by Amaziah because Amos knew God. Amos knew God well enough to know why he was in Israel to preach divine judgment on Israel. Amos knew God well enough to understand the risks of condemning that society and its political and religious leadership. And Amos knew and trusted God enough to trust God’s goodness despite the persecution he endured from Amaziah.
Amos shows that we need, in the words St. Paul used at Colossians 1:9-12, to be “… filled with the knowledge of God in all spiritual wisdom and understanding so that you may lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as you bear fruit in every good work and as you grow in the knowledge of God.” If we are to stand up to the wicked forces and systems that wound people and the creation, we need wisdom and understanding that comes only from a vital relationship with God. We need to “… be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power… and … be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father…”
We are not smart enough, strong enough, or good enough on our own to be God’s agents of compassion and justice. The good news is that we are not required to be. God will supply the wisdom we need. God will strengthen us for the work of being agents of divine love and justice for our wounded neighbors and creation.
Beyond how we treat our wounded brothers and sisters and creation, the Good Samaritan lesson forces us to choose whether to be like Amos or Amaziah. Are we prophetic agents of God’s truth, mercy, and justice? Or, have we chosen to be pawns for social, political, and commercial forces and systems that make other people and the creation weak and vulnerable? Do we want a relationship with God that equips us to recognize and resist the unjust systems and practices that produce so much harm to people and the creation? Does God see us as people like Amos—people who love God so much that we are challenging unjust systems and situations and the harm they cause? Do we want to be like Amos or Amaziah?
The Jericho Roads of our time are not dangerous merely because there are bandits in the world. They are especially dangerous—and people and the creation are left wounded and suffering—because too many religious people would rather be like Amaziah than like Amos.
Let us be moved to repent. Let us trust God’s forgiveness. Then, let us grow closer to God and be strengthened with wisdom and understanding to live as prophetic agents of divine mercy and justice. Then our faith will bless wounded people, the creation, and God. Amen.
Pastor at New Millennium Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, a state court trial judge, a trustee of the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, author of one book and three blogs, and a consultant on cultural competency and inclusion.