Familiarity Blindness

Luke 10:25-37

Note: This sermon was preached in 2 parts which are combined here.

Have you ever experienced familiarity blindness?   A lot of us develop familiarity blindness with one thing or another—that condition where you know something so well that you actually stop seeing it.  The upshot of it is that the next time you do take a hard look at that familiar whatever it is, you see all kinds of things that you hadn’t noticed before.  

In my office at home I have a black and white photograph, a portrait of my grandparents—my mother’s mom and dad.  That picture was taken the year I was born, so I’ve been seeing it my entire life.  My grandmother, the woman in that picture, died nine days after my first birthday, so a lot of my impression of her came from that photograph.  As a kid, I always thought she must have been kind of stern and austere—that was how the picture struck me.  But the other day, I took a moment to look at it again from a slightly different angle, and I realized that she is  actually smiling ever so slightly, and her eyes look very loving, gentle and understanding.  Now that I was really looking at her picture, I also realized that there was something strikingly familiar about her eyes, and then it suddenly dawned on me that I was seeing my mother’s eyes in this picture of her mother.  That smile, those gentle eyes had always been there in the photograph, but I hadn’t seen them because of familiarity blindness.

I think it’s fair to say that many of us have a kind of familiarity blindness with the parables of Jesus in general and this one in particular, and I shared with you last week how Dr. Amy-Jill Levine’s amazing book, Short Stories by Jesus, helped me see this familiar story in a new way.

We talked last week about the lawyer who tries to trap Jesus into saying something that can be used against him.  We talked about his trick question about inheriting eternal life and how Jesus turned the tables with a trick question of his own but amplified it with an even more important question when he asked, “What is written in the Law?  How do you read it?” 

That first question, “what is written in the Law,” was a red herring.  Torah, the Law, doesn’t say anything at all about eternal life.  The Law of Moses isn’t interested in life after death but it is vitally concerned with how we live here and now.  The really important question is the second one Jesus asks the lawyer: How do you read it?   That question is just as important for us today as it was then.  Maybe even more so.

The lawyer responded to Jesus by quoting a mashup of the Shema from Deuteronomy and the Golden Commandment from Leviticus: “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.”  “That’s correct,” said Jesus, “Do that and you will live.”

The bottom line is love.  Love God, and love your neighbor as you love yourself.  Do that and you will live.  Love is the key to an abundant life.

It sounds simple.  The problem, though, is that this commandment to love is all inclusive, and there are some people we really don’t want to love.

I think the lawyer in this story is honest enough to realize that about himself.  He knows there are some people—you know, “those people”—that he will never love, and he suspects that this is true for everyone standing there listening to Jesus.  Luke says he wanted to justify himself.  He wanted to make himself look right in the eyes of all those listening.  But he also wanted to maybe find a loophole.  Surely Jesus can’t mean that he has to love everybody, because, you know, there are some people—those people—who have clearly demonstrated that they are not on our side.  Are we supposed to love them?  

So he asks another question:  “And who is my neighbor?”

In the context of law, the question about who is a neighbor has legal merit.  After all, good fences make good neighbors.  But in the context of love it’s irrelevant.  

So Jesus redirects with a story.

A man travelling on the road from Jerusalem down to Jericho is violently assaulted by robbers.  They don’t just rob him, they strip him and beat him so badly that he’s half dead.  So there he is half dead at the side of the road.  A priest happens by and does nothing to help the poor victim who is lying there bleeding.  He passes by on the other side of the road.  He gives the wounded man a wide berth.  Next a Levite comes by.  He also passes by on the other side of the road and does nothing to help the wounded stranger.

At this point, those listening to Jesus tell this story are shocked and the lawyer has to be wondering where this is going.  For them, it’s unthinkable that a priest and a Levite would pass by without helping.  The Law is very clear on this.  They are required them to help!  That would be their duty and it would take precedence over any other duty or obligation.  Even if the wounded man turned out to be dead, they had a responsibility to care for his body.  

The people listening to Jesus would have been shocked.  But they are about to be utterly scandalized.  Because the hero of the story turns out to be a Samaritan.  

It’s hard for us to imagine how much the Jews hated the Samaritans.  And vice versa.  There antagonism between these two peoples went back centuries and was all the more intense because they were so closely related.  

We traditionally call this parable the story of the Good Samaritan, but in the minds of those who were listening to Jesus, the words “good” and “Samaritan” would never go together.  It was an oxymoron.  Samaritans were the enemy.   The people listening to Jesus as he tells this story might have thought, “If I were the man in the ditch, I would rather die than admit that I was saved by a Samaritan.”  In their minds, Samaritans were something less than fully human.  

So how did things get to be that way between the Jews and the Samaritans?  Well, centuries before Jesus, in the time of Jacob, Samaria was called Shechem, and it was a Prince of Shechem who raped Jacob’s daughter, Dinah.  In the time of the Judges, the false judge Abimelech, who murdered all his rivals, came from Shechem.  For a time, Shechem became part of the united kingdom of Israel under David and Solomon, but after Solomon died, the Northern Kindom of Israel—which had been Shechem—broke away and a kind of low-grade civil war broke out that continued for generations.  When the Assyrians conquered the Northern Kingdom which was now called both Israel and Ephraim, they brought in people from other conquered kingdoms to resettle and then renamed the land Samaria after the capital city.  That’s also when the people of Judah began to refer to Samaritans with a kind of racial slur,  calling them “the people with 5 fathers.”  But the thing that the people of Judah found absolutely unforgiveable forever and ever amen, was that when they returned to Jerusalem after their time of captivity in Babylon, Sanballat, the governor of Samaria, joined forces with other people in the region and attacked them to try to stop them from  rebuilding the city wall and the temple.

For their part, the Samaritans called themselves the Shamerim, meaning “guardians” or “observers” of the Law.  They had built their own temple on Mt. Gerizim and they had their own version of Torah, which they insisted was the “true” version.  They believed that only Torah—their Torah, of course—contained the word of God and they did not include the writings and the prophets among the books they regarded as holy.

For Jews, Samaritans were the ultimate “other.”  For Jesus to cast the Samaritan as the benevolent hero was almost beyond belief.  It would be like an ultra-orthodox Jew being saved by a Hamas Palestinian.  To bring it closer to home, it would be like someone wearing a Black Lives Matter shirt being saved by someone wearing the Confederate stars and bars and a red MAGA baseball cap.  

Who would it be for you?  Who is that ultimate “other” who, in your mind, only just barely qualifies as a real person?  Who is it who, in your mind, seems to be so radically different from you that there’s really no point in even talking to them?  Or maybe there’s someone who sees you that way.  How would you feel if it was one of those people who pulled you out of the ditch?

The lawyer had asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?”  Jesus reframed his question.  Jesus wants us to understand that the question is not “who” merits my love or even “from whom” should I expect love.  As Amy-Jill Levine wrote, “The issue for Jesus is not the ‘who,’ but the ‘what,’ not the identity but the action.”  Love—loving God, loving your neighbor, loving yourself—is revealed in action.  Love does not exist in the abstract; it must be enacted.

The Priest and the Levite did not act in love even though their law and duty commanded that they should.  In his sermon on this parable shortly before he was assassinated, Martin Luther King, Jr. had an explanation for why they did not help:  “I’m going to tell you what my imagination tells me.  It’s possible these men were afraid… And so the first question that the priest and the Levite asked was, ‘If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?’ … But then the Good Samaritan came by, and he reversed the question:  ‘If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?”

The Samaritan gave first aid to the man at the side of the road.  He put him on his donkey and took him to the nearest inn where he could receive more help.  He paid the innkeeper two days wages to take care of the wounded man and then gave him a promise that amounted to a blank check.  “Take care of him,” he said, “and when I come back, I will repay you whatever you spend.”

“Which of these three,” Jesus asked the lawyer, “was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”  The lawyer couldn’t even bring himself to say, ‘the Samaritan.’  I imagine there was a long pause before the lawyer finally said, “The one who showed him mercy.”

Mercy.  It’s an important detail here at the end of the parable,  a well-chosen word.  In both Greek and Hebrew, the word we translate as mercy can also mean “kindness.”  It is also a covenant word in Hebrew.  It signifies a shared bond of common humanity in the eyes of and under the Law of God.  It is an acknowledgement that we “are of the same kind.”  The Samaritan showed mercy.  Kindness, a word that takes us back to the prophet Micah:  “God has told you, O Mortal, what is good.  And what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness…mercy…kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.”

“Go and do likewise,” said Jesus to the lawyer.  And to us. 

In our country today, we find ourselves living in a culture scarred by cycles of division, antagonism, conflict, and even violence.  In this parable, Jesus is telling us that these spirals of perpetual antagonism can be broken with kindness.  The question that Jesus wants us to wrestle with is this: Can we learn to treat even our enemies, the “Samaritans” in our lives, in ways that acknowledge their humanity?  Can we dare to see them in ways that acknowledge their potential to do good?  Can we can bind the wounds of those “others” and dare to imagine that they would do the same for us?    

When we encounter each other on the road full of bandits and other dangers, will we be blinded to each other by our familiar stereotypes, or will we step outside of the roles we’ve cast for each other to show kindness and be the good neighbor?  

Shock Treatment

Mark 7:24-30

Wendy Kelly is the owner of a thriving Human Resources consulting firm, Kelly’s HR Services in West Palm Beach, Florida.  She has helped hundreds of people find meaningful employment, a job she does with special sensitivity because she vividly remembers her own experience the first time she applied for a “real” job.   

She was responding to an ad for a receptionist in a medical practice.  She arrived early and sat in the waiting room with the other applicants, mostly young Black women, who were waiting to be interviewed.  Wendy remembers listening as the hiring manager, one of the doctors in the practice, called the candidates in one-by-one for their interviews:  Keisha,  La Quitta, Otishia, Tishia.  Wendy watched as one after another the women went in for what was, at most, a five minute interview with the doctor.

Finally the doctor called her name. “Wendy Kelly.”  Then he added,  “Finally a person whose name I can pronounce.”  Then as Wendy approached, he looked at her in surprise and said, “I thought you were white.”  He didn’t take her resume and simply laid her application on the stack with all the others on his desk.   He asked her a few perfunctory questions, but it really wasn’t much of an interview.  She could tell that he wanted to cut it short and move on.  Wendy left with mixed emotions.  She still wanted the job.  But would she be able to work for someone who, she had realized, was a racist?

Fast forward a number of years.  Wendy was working as a Senior Manager in a well-known management company.  She had been asking for a raise for about a year but her raise kept being postponed even though she was handling some of the company’s most important clients.  One day a new woman was hired to work on Wendy’s team.  Even though this new worker would report directly to her, Wendy had not had any say in her hiring.  

When the new woman had been there about a week, one of Wendy’s co-workers on another team asked her, “Did you see what they’re paying Sonia?”  Wendy was shocked to discover that Sonia, this new person who reported to her, was being paid $11,000 more than she was.  Naturally, she was furious.  She headed straight for her manager to tell him what she had learned and to demand that something be done.   “Wendy, I am sorry,” he said.  “I have been trying to get you a raise, but it is being shot down. This is wrong.”  When Wendy asked him, “Is this because I’m black?” he had no response.[1]

Racism takes many forms, and it’s not always as blatant as Klansmen marching in the streets or redlining of neighborhoods.  Racism has insinuated itself into our culture in ways we don’t even see.  But we need to see it.  If we’re going to change it, we need to face it.  “Not everything that is faced can be changed,” said James Baldwin, “but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”   

Racism isn’t going to disappear until we have named it in all its names and unraveled it from all the ways it has woven itself into the fabric of our lives.  Racism isn’t going to stop being a blight on our  present and a shadow over our future until we acknowledge and confront its shameful past.  Racism isn’t going to disappear until we learn to silence all the voices it speaks with, especially the racist voices and ideas that live inside us, that keep popping into our heads even against our will because we grew up in a racist world and a racist culture.  “Ours is not the struggle of one day, one week, or one year,” said John Lewis.  “Ours is not the struggle of one judicial appointment or presidential term. Ours is the struggle of a lifetime, or maybe even many lifetimes, and each one of us in every generation must do our part.”

Racism, bigotry, prejudice—whatever you want to call it—is an insidious and foul fact of life.  We’re far too familiar with it here in America, but it raises its ugly head in one form or another in every human society.  

Every group of humans seems to have a culturally built-in opinion that some other group of humans is somehow inferior or dangerous or maybe even not really human.  

Bigotry has played an enormous role in history.  It has negatively impacted politics, economics, and even religion. “At the heart of racism,” wrote Friedrich Otto Hertz, “is the religious assertion that God made a creative mistake when He brought some people into being.”

Even Jesus seems to have been tainted with a hint of bigotry.  At least at first glance.  When a Syrophoenician woman in Tyre came to him begging for help, asking him to free her daughter from an unclean spirit that was tormenting her,  Jesus replied, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”  

His response was perfectly in keeping with the attitudes of his culture.  That’s how Jews thought about Gentiles.  The Babylonian Talmud states, “As the sacred food was intended for men, but not for the dogs, the Torah was intended to be given to the Chosen People, but not to the Gentiles.”[2]

“Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”  It’s shocking to hear that kind of bigotry coming from Jesus.  And I would like to suggest that that is exactly why he said it. 

In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus begins his ministry by announcing that the Reign of God is arriving.  He then embodies that ministry by healing people, freeing them from demonic or other spiritual oppression, and gathering a diverse community of followers to teach them what Mark calls The Way.  He includes outcasts, like tax collectors and “sinners” in that community.  And then, to make it clear that this Beloved Community, this Companionship of the Way, is for all people, he starts repeatedly taking his disciples across the Sea of Galilee to the other side, to where the Gentiles are so he can proclaim the reign of God to them, too, and bring God’s healing to them, too, and invite them as well to join in the Companionship of the Way.  

Shortly before this episode in Tyre, deep in the heart of Phoenician Gentile territory—shortly before he said that shocking, bigoted thing to this woman, he had fed a multitude including Gentiles.  In Gentile territory.  He gave bread to the Gentiles—the bread of his teaching, the bread of healing, and real bread to feed their physical hunger.  To use the ugly language of their cultural bigotry, he had already thrown bread to the dogs.

He had made it clear in every way he could that Gentiles are included in the Beloved Community, the Companionship of the Way. He had made it clear that the Reign of God embraces everyone.  Period.

When Jesus says this ugly thing, when he for all intents and purposes calls this woman and her daughter dogs—and okay, the word in the Greek means “little dogs,” puppies—but is that really any better?—when he calls them dogs, he’s really just voicing what his disciples are thinking.  Because that’s what their culture has taught them to think about Gentiles—these other people from this other culture, these non-Jews.  

I think he wants them to hear how ugly, how ungodly that kind of thinking is, how dehumanizing those words are.   I think he knows that they will be taken aback to hear him say such a thing because it’s exactly the kind of thing he would not usually say.

Sometimes we have to hear our own less than loving thoughts and ideas come out of someone else’s mouth before we can really hear how offensive, destructive or poisonous they might be.  Sometimes we have to be shocked by hearing our own bigotry coming from someone else.  And it’s especially powerful and shocking if it’s not consistent with what that other person would usually say.  

Jesus said an ugly, bigoted thing that day in Tyre.  I don’t think he wants us to excuse it or minimize it or explain it away.  I think he wants us to hear it in all its ugliness.  I think he wants to shock us into listening more closely to hateful, offensive and divisive words and ideas that have been culturally implanted in our own thoughts…that even, sometimes, come out of our own mouths.  I think he wants to shock us into doing the long, hard work of completely and utterly rooting out racism starting with our own hearts and minds.  Even if it takes lifetimes.  


[1] Is This Because I’m Black?,  Wendy Kelley, TLNT Online Journal, August 5, 2020

[2] Mark; The Augsburg Commentary, Donald Juel; p. 108

Image by UK artist Michael Cook