Justice and Mercy
Text: Luke 10:25-37
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
One of the great discoveries of humankind was the early invention of bronze. Tools existed prior to the discovery of bronze, to be sure. But those metals, often made of copper, got dull quickly or broke against too-hard surfaces. But then men discovered that if molten copper was mixed with something else—aluminum, zinc, nickel, or any other number of substances—that then the metal was hard enough to tackle more difficult work. It stayed sharper longer. It was more useful. This allowed bigger and better buildings, faster and more accurate stonework, more durable hunting and farming equipment. Essentially, it helped move civilization forward.
Sometimes mixtures, like bronze, are important. Yes, there are many times that it’s vital to keep pure things pure. Healthful things should not be mixed with toxic things. Some chemicals should never be blended. Law and Gospel should always stay distinct and pure in Scripture and Christian thought. But other times, combinations are important.
Take, for instance, the parable that Jesus sets before us today. It’s commonly known as the parable of the Good Samaritan. In it, we have a man, presumably a Jew, going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, an enormous drop in elevation on a treacherous road that clung to cliffsides and wound through hills with no visibility around blind curves. On the way, some robbers took advantage of this and ambushed the man, beating him half dead and robbing him, taking everything, even his clothes. At one point a priest of the Jerusalem temple walked by, passing by on the other side rather than helping the man. Later, a Levite, another servant of the temple went past, going on the other side of the road too.
Now we may be surprised at this behavior, but it’s actually understandable. Both the priest and the Levite were expected to maintain purity, to stay ritually pure, so that they could continue to serve in the temple, offering sacrifices on behalf of the nation. And the Law given by God at Mount Sinai said very clearly that whoever touched a dead body would be unclean for a period of time. If these two servants of the temple rushed over to see if this man was dead, turning him over, feeling for a pulse—and if he were dead, they would immediately become unclean and thus, unable to perform the functions they were supposed to in God’s temple. When they pass by the man lying on the side of the road, they are simply trying to keep their purity, their righteousness, their standing before God and neighbor, so that they can continue doing what they are supposed to do.
Righteousness is important. Often, the term has a bad rap, and really that’s unfair. I think when a lot of people hear or say “righteous” or “righteousness”, they really hear or mean “self-righteousness”, which is a completely different thing. Self-righteousness attempts to distinguish itself above and beyond other people because of how bright and shiny the deeds of the person are. But righteousness, being righteous, is an entirely different thing. Righteousness means that you can stand before God. It means that you have can have access to Him, that He won’t turn away from you. So righteousness is important. It’s really the heart of every religion. In our own faith, Christianity, we ask questions of righteousness: how do we have a good standing with God? How do we have access to Him? And of course, our answer is through Jesus, who forgives our sins and turns God’s face toward us in favor and blessing. Likewise, the Pharisees were concerned with righteousness: how does someone have a good standing before God? Their answer was to obey all the laws and rules of both the Scripture and the rabbis, the elders. The priest and the Levite in our reading had the same question: how do they stay clean, righteous enough to be able to go back to the temple for work in God’s presence? Their answer was to avoid this possible corpse. Every religion, the pagans, the cults, the sects—even though their gods are invented and false, their religions are built on the question of how they can have a good standing with those gods; how they can have righteousness. Even those who claim to have no religion are concerned with questions of righteousness: how do they know and do what is right? How can they be righteous and have a good standing and be justified in their own eyes or the eyes of other mortals?
Righteousness is important. It shows up in the parable. The priest and Levite do maintain their purity by avoiding the body on the side of the road. But they are not the ones who are praised as keeping the Commandments that are spoken at the very beginning of our reading today: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.”
So who is praised in this parable? Those who are familiar with it, who even know just the name of the parable already know the answer. It’s the Samaritan. Why is he praised? We know that the Samaritan surely had his own code of morality, of righteousness, and that it also sprang from the same Torah that the Jews had. In fact, the Samaritans held so closely to their code, and the Jews held so close to theirs, that it was a source the bitter arguments and conflicts between these two nations. So what makes the Samaritan different? His righteousness is mixed with mercy. The hard, clean edge of righteousness, being just and justified, is blended with mercy.
This is what God has always wanted for His people. Hopefully you were paying attention during the Leviticus reading, because it’s fascinating in this regard. Notice how mercy and righteousness are woven together as Moses reads God’s Law from the mountain. There’s the sharp line of justice and righteousness as the laws pertaining to courtroom ethics are read: “You shall do no injustice in court. You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness you shall judge your neighbor.” But there’s also the law of compassion given in the breath just before this: “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, neither shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest…You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner.”
God proclaims this mix of justice and mercy not because He wants to just give us a laundry list of things to do. He’s not just explaining an instruction guide for behavior. No, He gives this word because it’s who He is. He is justice blended with mercy. He is righteousness and compassion. In short, He is Love.
For God’s righteousness demands a penalty for sin: “The day you eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, you shall surely die,” the Lord told Adam and Eve. And to all their descendants—us—He has said clearly that the wages of sin, even so-called small sins—is death. And yet, even with His righteousness, His justice, demanding that, in His mercy, God Himself bears that penalty. He pays the wages Himself. It must be paid, but He will make the payment. So God the Son shares our human flesh, and fulfills the demands of justice, dying for the sins of the world, all out of mercy, so that we do not bear the hellish punishment ourselves. He goes to the cross willingly, in order that both of these qualities are satisfied: righteousness and mercy.
So the parable of the Good Samaritan is a lesson about how to live, yes. It tells us how to treat those who are in need of mercy, those pushed to the edge of the road: the defenseless, the beaten down, the helpless, the outsiders, the widows, the orphans, the unborn, and so on. It’s a lesson about how we are to show mercy. But it’s only a lesson in righteousness and mercy because first and foremost, it’s a lesson about God and who He is, what He has done. God is the parable’s Samaritan. He comes to us as an outsider. He rescues us, who are dead in our trespasses on the side of the road. He patches us up, He pays the price for our healing, He anoints our wounds with oil, with water and Word, with wine. He makes sure that we have what we need—safe beds, a roof over our heads, an innkeeper to take care of us, paying from His own abundance all that we need. And then, when we’re healed, restored, made whole, we know that we are His. So we go and do likewise, knowing that He’s right there beside us to carry everything and everyone that we can’t. He’s there to guide us on the roads to all the safe inns, the stations where healing happens, His churches and sanctuaries. We know that He’s there to steady our hands when we slip up, to accomplish what we are unable to on our own. We know that He’s there to always save us and heal us, forgive us and bless us. He’s there to show infinite righteousness and mercy to us, so that we can reflect it to all who we find on the way. In the name of Jesus, the Righteous and Merciful One. Amen.