SHOWING MERCY OR A MERCY RECEIVED?
On Lake Street, in the south-metro area of Minneapolis, the work and mission of FOCUS Minnesota, an Orthodox Christian outreach to the urban poor and needy, is confronted daily with the fundamental directives and teachings of our Lord Jesus Christ. FOCUS centers in various cities throughout the US, are engaged in real grassroots Christian outreach to people among us – our brothers and sisters in Christ, our neighbors – who are disadvantaged and needing in ways material, emotional, and spiritual.
In the Gospel of Luke, 10:25-37 we hear the famous story of the Good Samaritan, a parable that Jesus used to answer a question posed to Him by a young man well versed in Jewish law.
An outline of the passage (the Spark Notes version) is as follows:
Mercy suggests a gift of kindness, often unmerited and sometimes unexpected. It is not simply kindness; it is kindness in face of an opportunity to do otherwise. The reason why the Samaritan is called “good” and is described as “showing mercy” is that, as a stranger among the Jews, the Samaritan acted outside of his comfort zone and against his own history and community interest. He showed mercy when in fact he would have been justified to walk on by.Yet he didn’t; and we shouldn’t either.
But the Gospel turns the ‘neighbor’ equation around. All of us tend to identify with the Good Samaritan, thinking ‘aha, so here’s our example – good and kind and magnanimous, overcoming all differences.’ And we start to believe that, in being like the Good Samaritan ourselves, we come from a point of strength – here, let me help you with that. But Jesus Christ turns this around. He doesn’t say that the neighbor is the poor guy bloodied on the road and so we should all be do-gooders to help “our neighbor” No, the neighbor is the one who showed mercy. Before we can go out and save the world with our expansive and self-satisfying “mercy,” we must first understand in our humility that the one who proved neighbor was the one who showed mercy…. upon us. For in fact we too are the ones in need just like the man lying on the road. We must realize we are just as needy and vulnerable as anyone we might serve. If we understand ourselves as being in need of mercy in order to give, only then we can “go and do likewise.”
There is a lot to discuss about service to the urban poor. And I mean specifically service in function of the gospel teachings of Christ. Having spent the last three years involved with an Orthodox outreach to those in need, I can tell you that we’re confronted with the real deal and we find ourselves engaged with authentic urban grassroots community work. The need is overwhelming and constant, and we try to return what we find with love. So the initial or fundamental task is to love on another, to serve and to encounter living icons that are made in the image and according to the likeness of God, just like you and me. So to ‘go and do likewise,’ we will emulate the Samaritan and will perceive in people: You need, you want, you are hurting, you are dirty, you’re sick, you’re drunk, you’re lonely, you scare me…this isn’t in my comfort zone. But when we understand that the neighbor is the one who showed mercy, we will perceive: you are funny, you are sweet, you’re confused, you’re searching, you’re thankful, you’re interested, you’re worried, you’re trying hard…. just like I am.
We run a food shelf at FOCUS Minnesota on Thursday afternoons. One day a woman came in, Jan, who we see occasionally; she’s been to food shelf a few times, has come for clothing at our free weekly clothes closet and sometimes will come and eat at our Sunday night community meal. It was the typical rush right at 3pm when we open our doors and invariably there’s a line of people waiting for groceries. In the buzz, Jan walks up to the table and we assume she’s here for food. When we ask her for her ID in order to look her up in our file of clients, she fumbles with a piece of paper in her pocket, folds it and quietly just pushes it across the distribution table to one of our volunteers. The volunteer opens the piece of paper and discovers a money order for $25. A little confused he looks at Jan and she says “you helped me when I really needed help, and I know there are others who are in the situation I was in a few weeks ago, so I just want you to use this to buy food for the food shelf so you can help someone else.” She didn’t take food, but smiled and turned and headed for the door. There is no question that Jan could have used the $25, just as there is no question that I would be extremely happy to have an extra or unspoken-for $25 in my wallet. Who is my neighbor? Well clearly it was Jan that day, who showed mercy to FOCUS, or to those in need through us, and we were humbled for we knew that we needed that $25 to help feed the poor. It will be the person who crosses the road for you who is your neighbor.
Eternal life,love, service, mercy,salvation …wow. Showing mercy upon those whom we encounter and who are in need is being obedient to Jesus’ teachings. But living a full life in Christ means taking on the possibilities, even more so the opportunities, to recognize and to receive mercy from others. You can come into this sort of exchange by stretching, flexing, and sticking your neck out so that you may come to understand – and be blown away by – the reality of encountering who your neighbor can be.