An Expert in the Law stood up to put Jesus to the test and said, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit everlasting life?”
Jesus answered, “What is written in the law? How do you read it?”
The expert on the Law replied:
You must love the Most High God
with all your heart
with all your soul
with all your strength
and with all your mind
and your neighbor as yourself.”
Jesus said, “You have answered correctly. Do this and you will live.”
But the expert on the Law, seeking self-justification, pressed Jesus further.
“And just who is my neighbor?”
Jesus replied, “There was a traveler going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, who fell prey to robbers. The traveler was beaten, stripped naked and left half-dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road; the priest saw the traveler lying beside the road but passed by on the other side. Likewise there was a Levite who came by the same way; this one too saw the afflicted traveler and passed by on the other side.
But a Samaritan, who was taking the same road, also came upon the traveler and filled with compassion, approached the traveler and dressed the wounds, pouring on wine and oil. Then the Samaritan put the wounded person on a donkey, went straight to an inn and there took care of the injured one. The next day the Samaritan took out two silver pieces and gave them to the innkeeper with the request, ‘Look after this person, and if there is any further expenses, I’ll repay you on the way back.’
“Which of the three, in your opinion, was the neighbor to the traveler who fell in with the robbers.”
The answer came, “The one who showed compassion.”
Jesus replied, “Then go and do the same.”
A few days after the Supreme Court made the official announcement that it was overturning Roe, I received an email from a Mennonite church that is currently without a pastor. They wrote: “Our worship Committee would love to have someone preach on our faith as it relates to Roe v Wade/abortion/human/reproductive rights…” I quickly scanned the rest of the email, closed it and crossed to the other side of the road like a good priest. A few hours later I went back to the email, read it again and thought, “I haven’t even preached in my own congregation about these things. There is no way that I am getting involved in this somewhere else.” I again closed the email – with the efficiency of a Levite.
But you know how it is, just closing an email doesn’t mean it leaves your inbox or your mind. Could I, dare I, preach on such a controversial topic? Two Sundays ago, just days after SCOTUS made the announcement, I told the worship leader it might be good to address abortion during the peace lamp (that way I wouldn’t have to.) I am grateful that Kaye was willing. She talked about abortion and her experience of pregnancy. She opened up space for conversation without increasing polarization, without using the traditional, hot button talking points that make people start yelling at each other.
I appreciate that Kaye was willing to start with her experience and acknowledge that there are not easy answers. I also appreciate that the comments we heard from each other in the response time were respectful, thoughtful, diverse and challenging. You all are a mature congregation that knows how to talk kindly with each other even when it is a difficult subject. I do not take that for granted. I think that is why I couldn’t totally abandon the email even though I was hoping that some other pastor would come by and respond to that congregation’s need.
The same Sunday that Kaye spoke about abortion, we heard gospel readings with people asking questions like the one the Expert in the Law asks today: “What must I do to inherit everlasting life?” The questioners are people who already know the law. Maybe they are trying to trick Jesus or maybe they are hoping to show off their own great knowledge in front of the bumbling disciples. In those passages, each time the question comes Jesus responds with a parable, all different, yet each ends with “The First will be last and the last will be first.” Not today. After the parable today Jesus says, “Go and do likewise.”
The Expert on the Law challenges Jesus, asking what it takes to inherit eternal life. Like a good rabbi, Jesus answers the question with another question: What does the law say? And the questioner, being the expert that they are, recites from Deuteronomy about loving God and from Leviticus about loving neighbor. This one knows their stuff. Jesus’ response is “Do this and you will live.” But the Expert in the Law isn’t satisfied. They don’t want to live now, they want to know about Eternal Life. They want to know about inheriting when they die. They want to know how they can live comfortably now and inherit more in the next life. So the Expert pushes a bit more. “Just who is my neighbor?”
It is helpful to read Amy-Jill Levine’s take on this parable. (Jewish Annotated New Testament p. 502) She is a Jewish scholar of the New Testament and understands the Jewish context of the Jesus story. Levine’s scholarship helps keep Christians honest in our reading so we don’t insert interpretations that can often be cloaked in anti-semitism.
In this parable, we often give a hard time to the priest and the Levite for passing by. We say because they are Jewish they want to stay ritually pure and not dirty themselves by touching this bloodied, naked person on the side of the road. But Levine reminds us that these religious leaders are going away from Jerusalem toward Jericho. Ritual purity is not really the issue. And besides, she writes, “the responsibility to save a life supersedes other commandments.” Levine observes that Jesus’ Jewish listeners are expecting that this parable will feature the usual threesome: the Levite, the priest and – the Israelite.
But Jesus turns things upside down and introduces an enemy of the Jews, the Samaritan, who, by the way, has the same purity laws and requirements as the Jews. The Expert is so flummoxed by the appearance of the Samaritan as the hero in the story that when Jesus asks, “and who was the neighbor to the person on the side of the road?” the Expert can’t even speak the word Samaritan. All they can say is “the one who showed compassion.”
“But Pastor Cindy, the announcement said this would be a sermon on abortion, a controversial topic with all kinds of potential for conflict. So far all we are hearing is the same old story that children learn, even kids who don’t go to Sunday School might know this story. We are here for the fireworks. Come on.”
Well, what does the Mennonite “law” say? What does Mennonite Church USA say about abortion? In 2003, MC USA adopted a statement on abortion that was based on previous statements: one from the Mennonite Church in 1975 and one from the General Conference Mennonites in 1980. (To my knowledge it has not been updated in the past 20 years.) Like all good Mennonite statements, it has the part that states what we believe and the part where we confess that we fall short. And then the part where it explains why it is all so complicated. It is not as succinct as love God and love neighbor. You can read the full statement on your own at the MC USA website. Here is a taste of it:
- Human life is a gift from God to be valued and protected. We oppose abortion because it runs counter to biblical principles.
The Bible does not speak directly to the question of abortion. A biblical passage that indirectly speaks to the status of the fetus (Exodus 21:22-25) seems to place a higher value on the life of the mother than the fetus… We understand that the fetus is not just a piece of tissue to be discarded at will. On the other hand, neither is the fetus treated as a human/person in the full sense of that term.
- There are times when deeply held values, such as saving the life of the mother and saving the life of the fetus, come in conflict with each other.
While many could support legislation which seeks to curtail some types of abortion, we recognize that legislation banning all abortions will not stop abortions from happening. Instead, it places sanctions on those women who choose abortion, without regard for the fathers involved or the fact that the women are already suffering the consequences of their choice. It also disproportionately affects the poor, as those with means will be able to find ways to obtain safe abortions. Further, legislation is using the government to force others to comply with our Christian standards, something our forebears clearly rejected.
- The faith community should be a place for discernment about difficult issues like abortion.
… We believe that the possibility of deformity or mental handicap is not sufficient reason to choose abortion. For many families, the presence of a handicapped child has become the source of great joy. At the same time, we recognize the special challenges faced by families caring for developmentally disabled or handicapped children.
- We have failed to show compassion for those who are suffering the consequences of abortion.
- We have failed to work for a just health care system that would assist poor families in caring for their children.
These are only some of the belief and confession statements. There are quite a few more. The commentary also contains commitments that the church says it is making.
We will – advocate for a society that does not rely on abortion as the primary solution to problem pregnancies.
We will – act with compassion toward those who choose to have an abortion.
We recognize – that within our fellowship, we hold a wide variety of convictions about abortion. We acknowledge that there are situations in which some Christians may seek abortions for what other Christians regard as selfish or inadequate reasons.
I would add that we recognize that there are people we know and love, people in this congregation, who have had abortions.
It is a lot to take in and this is only a small part of what the statement says. The Jewish tradition has 613 commandments. The Catholic church has canon law. Here in Mennonite land, we don’t call them commandments or law, we call them statements and confessions and resolutions, that come with additional trainings and resources. How do we make sense of it all? What are we supposed to believe? What are supposed to do?
The MC USA statement says we oppose abortion and it says we recognize that legislation banning all abortions will not stop abortions from happening. And it says – using the government to force others to comply with our Christian standards, (is) something our forebears clearly rejected. So where does that leave us? Certainly it lays out the deep complexities and contradictions that are part of this medical procedure, a procedure that only pregnant bodies have the potential to undergo.
In the ensuing 20 years since the MC USA position was revised, there has been plenty more written from a variety of faith traditions. We can read and study and learn. As people in the Anabaptist tradition, as people who pay close attention to Jesus, how does our faith – or does our faith – inform our thinking and our actions when it comes to abortion?
There is part of me that wishes that Jesus would be clear. In the context of the parable today, maybe he could have given a how-to guide about preventing attacks on the road. Or a concrete step-by-step plan for preventing theft. Or ways to prevent traumatized people from replaying their rage and trauma on passersby. Or what to do in case of an unplanned pregnancy.
But Jesus doesn’t tell a story about changing a system or changing the situation. He doesn’t even change the existing law. Jesus tries to help the Expert, who wants to escape to another world, see that it is not so much about everlasting life as it is about living compassionately, right now, in this world. Jesus reframes the question from “how do we inherit eternal life?” to “how do we live fully now?” Jesus describes, like we often learn in therapy, that we can only change ourselves. We can’t change other people, we might not be able to change the system but we can change ourselves, our own hearts, even in very hard situations.
With this recent decision by the Supreme Court, some people’s prayers have been answered. Other people are now living into scary and dangerous times. Where does that leave us? Who are we?
The Expert on the Law, seeking self-justification, pressed Jesus further.
“And just who is my neighbor?”
The response came, “There was a traveler going from Mississippi to Maryland who was attacked at a rest area along the highway. The traveler was beaten, stripped naked, raped and left half-dead. A religious person, a born-again evangelical, happened to stop at the same rest area. The born-again evangelical saw the naked, bloodied traveler lying by the picnic tables at the rest area but went straight to the restroom, and got back in their car.
Likewise there was an agnostic who came to the same rest area. This one too saw the traveler that had been raped and beaten and left for dead. The agnostic went to the restroom, stopped at the vending machine for coffee and a candy bar, and got back in their car without calling the police or offering any help.
But a (MMMe) Muslim, who happened to be heading north stopped at the same rest area, and came upon the traveler laying in the dirt next to the picnic tables. The Muslim was filled with compassion, and approached the traveler with caution and care. The Muslim covered the traveler’s naked body, spoke gently to them, dressed their wounds as best they could and called for help. When the police came, they questioned the Muslim over and over again about their role in the situation but the Muslim stayed with the severely wounded person and even followed the ambulance to the hospital. The next day, the Muslim came back and offered to help pay the hospital bills for the injured person and said, “If this person is pregnant after this violent attack, I will help pay for the abortion – if they want one.”
“Which of the three, in your opinion, was the neighbor to the traveler who was beaten and left naked by the attackers?”
The answer came, “The one who showed compassion.”
“Then go and do the same.”