Irenaeus of Lyons is a hero of mine. A second century saint, 2 short generations away from Jesus. He was raised in Smyrna and posted to the provinces as Bishop. I struggle to relate the booming metropolis of present Lyons with this saintly bishop.
In one of his writings he speaks of his memory as a young boy hearing blessed Polycarp tell of his listening to John the beloved disciple tell of his experience of Jesus. He says it is fresher in his mind than events that happened just last week.
I think we can all identify with that, at least those of us who are now in our sixties and older. Some memories really do remain forever clear and ageless. *
One of those for me was the first lecture I ever heard in university on the prophets of Israel. Though raised in the church I really had no clear flesh and blood sense of men like Elijah, Elisha, Isaiah, Jeremiah, or today, Amos. The professor was Bernhard Boyd, a Presbyterian minister who died at 63 in the pulpit, preaching as he loved to do. At 62 that gives me some pause.
In my mind’s eye he enters the lecture hall and begins to enact Amos. “For 3 transgressions, yea for 4 I will not retract the punishment.” Then began a litany of all the war crimes of the nations surrounding Israel: Syria, Tyre, Edom, Ammon, Moab. Obvious and heinous crimes that all would condemn. Not so different from beheadings on an Egyptian beach today, or burning men in cages. Unflinching in his prophetic condemnation.
But then he got closer, and condemned the southern kingdom of Judah as well. I can still see Boyd in his Amos garb, describing the northern kingdom of Israel reacting with a righteous AMEN as the prophet condemned his neighbors, and then his rival Judah to the south. But then Amos the prophet steeled his gaze and rounded on Israel.
“It is because I have chosen you, and loved you, O Israel, that you will receive a sterner judgment.”
No wonder the memory is fresh. Judgment has a way of focusing our attention.
Especially when the judgment fits the crime. Or when we know the judge to be fair and loving, and wanting more of us in some deep way we agree with. The black chief of police in Dallas comes to mind. Or when we know the man announcing judgment is not settling scores but is a true voice of God without any agenda. “I am not a prophet nor the son of a prophet, but God called me from tending the sheep. My job all my life. And he said, Go, prophesy to the people of Israel!”
Where we find ourselves in the story of Amos he has been given two visions. The first of a locust plague that destroyed a harvest. A second of a fierce firestorm. And today a plumb line. A line being drawn in the sand of time for an evil king. What we do not hear is that the stern Amos had begged God to spare his people. “How can Jacob stand, he is so small?” Twice, with tender compassion and with heartfelt conviction. Knowing that God means what he says, he begs for compassion.
Would he have begged a third time? Would he have sought God’s mercy? God listens to his prophets. Tragically we never know. By silencing the prophet, the king signs his death sentence. The one person standing between judgment and reconciliation is forbidden to do his job, and the result is a judgment God had relented from out of mercy. He lets the way of sin run its course.
Slow to anger and of great mercy is how God describes his character. Slow, but not indulgent.
When a man comes to Jesus and asks what he must do to gain the life God wants for him, Jesus asks him what his bible says. It sounds like a very simple answer and it is. But like the king of Israel, our lawyer wants a way to avoid God, and have God on his terms and not God’s.
That is always a temptation.
So Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan. We all know the story well. A man is beaten and robbed and left for half-dead by the side of the road. A priest and a Levite pass by on the other side, but a Samaritan come to his aid. He binds up his wounds. He uses his donkey to get him to an inn. He pays the innkeeper to take care of him until he can recover. He promises to return and settle any remaining bills.
One detail may escape our notice is that the Samaritans were religious snobs. They had their own Bible and religious center. They argued that as descendents of the former northern kingdom, addressed by Amos long ago, they had a claim to religious antiquity. It reminds me of a visit to a welsh pilgrimage cite where the guide said, we’ve been worshipping here since the time of Jesus and centuries before that as well.
So for Jesus to tell a story in which the Samaritan is the hero is to point out just how the love of God can spring over obvious hurdles, including the Samaritans. Luke tells us only a chapter earlier that they resented Jesus going to Jerusalem for Passover. The wrong sanctuary as they saw it. And tried to block his way.
We all of us have hurdles that keep us from the love of God and the life eternal he wants to bring, and asks if we want that too. We throw up road blocks. Like the man today, who preferred to justify himself rather than open his arms to the love that Jesus offers.
One interesting twist on the story of the Good Samaritan is how the early fathers, like Irenaeus of Lyons, read the story. They viewed Jesus as the Good Samaritan. Who crossed over to our side of the road. They saw us as sinful and broken and beaten down and robbed. In need. The inn they saw as the church, where sinful you and me gather, and are fed by Jesus. Where our wounds and our sins are personally attended to and bound up by him. Every Inn would have of course a reading room, and there would be the Bible, with Elisha and Amos and Paul’s Letter to the Colossians and the Psalms that draw us in, and the parable of the Good Samaritan where we find ourselves standing alongside a lawyer.
He leaves us in the hands of his Inn-keepers, the apostles and by the Holy Spirit he feeds us with healing bread and wine. He promises to return, and settle whatever accounts are outstanding. All because he loves us, the neighbor who he came to earth, to our side of the road, to embrace. Like a good cop running toward gunfire to save and protect. Not counting his position with God as reason to pass by, but to pass over, to love his neighbor in you and me. He told the lawyer to go and do likewise, and he would be the first to show the way.
There is one kind of Samaritan in us—Paul calls him the Old Adam—who throws up roadblocks to keep Jesus from doing his work. But Jesus came to raise up in us a Good Samaritan. I think most of us wonder if we would have it in us to do what that good man did. We see ourselves passing by and hoping, like the king Amos addressed, we can maybe hide from God and it will work out all right in the end.
But then a plumb line drops down from the sky and we see there is a limit. Not because God claims the right to enforce arbitrary rules, but because his love is itself a plumb line. A plumb line in the form of a Cross of love. Amos cried out to a God of love on behalf of you and me, and when he did he left his sheep herding behind and passed over to our side of the road.
And one day God would send his only begotten son. He would listen to our efforts to justify ourselves, and he would tell stories meant to open our hearts to him. And one day he would take the lead role, suffer a fate that would embrace the king of Israel and you and me — were we left to go our own way. All so that he could set up his Inn in our midst and tend to us lovingly and confidently.
Until the day he returns to settle all outstanding debts and take us to him forever. In the meantime, in our present time, let us seek him with all our hearts in his Inn where justice and mercy kiss one another.
*For I have a more vivid recollection of what occurred at that time than of recent events (inasmuch as the experiences of childhood, keeping pace with the growth of the soul, become incorporated with it); so that I can even describe the place where the blessed Polycarp used to sit and discourse— his going out, too, and his coming in—his general mode of life and personal appearance, together with the discourses which he delivered to the people; also how he would speak of his familiar intercourse with John, and with the rest of those who had seen the Lord; and how he would call their words to remembrance.