Monday, July 12, 2010

The heart of God

Mercy, Lina Scarfi

Psalm 82; Luke 10: 25-37
******** United Church of Christ
July 11, 2010

Often when we hear the parable of the good Samaritan, we hear the word neighbor and think of the stranger, the outcast, the other we don’t know. Ironically, our neighbor can also be those closest to us, even within our own family; even they can need us, we can need them, in ways that can transform our relationship.

Indeed, this parable is really about a family, about the children of God who were separated and grew up with different traditions and culture. The Samaritans were Jews who had escaped capture by the Assyrians when the Assyrian Empire overran the Northern Kingdom, Israel, in 722 BCE. Some of the Jewish population was carried off as spoils of war but some remained with the Assyrians who resettled in Israel. This area became separate from the Northern Kingdom of Israel and became known as Samaria, the mountainous northern region what would today be called the West Bank. There is dispute about the influences of the Assyrian religion on the Judaism practiced in this region but it would explain the antagonism between Jews of Israel and Judea and the Samaritan Jews.

How far down into history must bloodlines go for descendants not to be called family? And so Jesus uses the word ‘neighbor’ to expand our limited notions of what constitutes family and how we behave toward family members.

In Exodus 20:12 we read: “Honor thy father and thy mother, that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee” and in that verse we can see why our family is also our neighbor. In Biblical times and even not so long ago, children didn’t move away from their parents when they grew into adulthood; they were usually close neighbors, like Israel and Judea and Samaria. A few years ago I wrote a story entitled “The Heart of God” based on a dream I had after having read a book of short stories by Leo Tolstoy. It is a story about how even a family outcast can be a catalyst for transformation and mercy.

She had come home to die. Not very original, she thought, but it was all she had left. No explanations that would satisfy. No hope that would sustain. I just want to pass from this world in the same house I was born in, she prayed silently, and to be buried next to my mother. No recriminations against her father, no desire for reconciliation. She wanted only to collapse upon the old man’s doorstep, never to open her eyes again.

The winter night was bitter: frozen ground, frozen stars, frozen urine on her thighs and icicles on her cheeks. The wind whipped viciously about her, threatening more than once to knock her over and leave her there. How many more steps, she wondered. What did it matter? She couldn’t feel her feet anyway. Then a familiar crooked tree, the smell of a wood fire, a small plain in the midst of jagged hills--home. Even on a moonless night, she knew she was home.

Five years ago she had come home under very different circumstances. She was pregnant and not married, but the father of the child wanted to marry her and make a home near his own mother and father. So the young couple came to her parents’ village to ask the old man if they might borrow a small sum of money to purchase some land and build a home so that they might start a farm. The old man could not believe that having openly sinned in such a shocking manner that they would be so arrogant as to ask for such a thing. He turned them out of the house, ordering that they never return. He then took all the money he had, put it into a metal box, and buried it in the earthen floor of his home. From then on he lived off whatever food he could find on his own property, selling whatever he could to pay for his existence.

His own father had left him his fields and home. But the old man’s fields had lain fallow since his father’s death. Or rather, since he buried the last part of his legacy: a large rock, nearly as tall as the old man, with the words “The Heart of God” chiseled on it. He had no idea what to do with the rock. It stood at the corner of one his father’s most productive fields. He thought, maybe if I plant it in the ground, I will be blessed with even more. Truthfully, he was embarrassed by such a public, yet cryptic display of his father’s faith. So, with the help of some field hands, he dug a deep hole at the corner of the field and with a large, solid staff for a lever, he put the enormous rock in the ground. Interestingly, the side of the rock with the words faced the opening of the hole. The old man kept reading them as he covered up the rock with dirt. He thought about it afterward for a while, but then soon forgot the words and what his father might have intended for him. The field soon went barren after that and so did the old man’s heart.

But when he saw his daughter unconscious and near death on his doorstep, his cold heart softened and he carried her inside, placing her near the oven on a pallet covered with blankets. He could see that she was half-starved and dehydrated. He vowed he would devote the next three months to her care and restoration, spending all the money he had, if necessary. He knelt before her and wept as he prayed to God and made his confession, offering his own life for hers as penitence. Then he unearthed the tin of money and took it with him in his search for someone who could help him cure his daughter.

In three months’ time, his daughter was well again. When she had arrived, she had been unable to keep any food inside her. She had been unwell since the birth of her child. She did not rest long enough and soon suffered from an infection. She never fully recovered from it, yet she still looked for work to help support her new family. She left her husband and son with his parents while she wandered from town to town, looking for work that anyone might give her. One look at her drawn face and sunken eyes and they turned her away, not wanting to hire a weak, broken woman. She was ashamed to return home empty-handed, ashamed of the condition of her life, so she begged what she could and lived on the grace of God. But her body continued to weaken to the degree that her body rejected whatever food she put into it. So, she thought, death will bring me rest. And coming near to death, she did find the peace she thought had eluded her.

Her father sent for her husband and son, and they rejoiced to see her healthy and well again. The old man welcomed them as he wished he had welcomed the young couple five years ago. The baby was now a child, who cried with joy in his mother’s arms and rejoiced to know his grandfather. The daughter’s husband offered to help the old man with the fields, to see if they could get something to grow in them.

The next day they went to the corner of the field, where the old man had buried the large rock. With the help of some neighbors they were able to remove the dirt until they could read the words, “The Heart of God”. But the rock was so large they could not get it out of the ground. Many days went by while the old man, his son-in-law and the neighbors chiseled away at the rock, bringing it out of the hole piece by piece. During an unseasonably hot day, many large segments of the rock were removed. Then a surprise: water started bubbling up from the riven rock. As more fragments were removed they could see that there was a natural spring. Quickly they worked to dig out the rest of the rock. The water was clear and cold. The neighbors went to their homes to get containers, convinced the water was a miracle.

The old man was grateful for a rest. He had been sweating profusely, and his heart seemed to beat outside of his chest with a raging spasm. His son-in-law helped him to a shade tree while his grandson brought him some water from the spring. The old man drank from the cup, the water spilling down the sides of his mouth, a sigh spilling out from his soul as if it had been buried with the rock. Then his eyes looked toward the leaves as they cut ribbons of sunlight that wove their magic in the curly hair of his grandson. The old man said, “My eyes are opened. I see God!” and then passed his last breath.

They buried the old man next to his wife, and for the headstone they carved out a small slab of the rock. It was the rock that had caused the field to go barren, for it had blocked the underground water supply that had nurtured the field when there had been drought. Now the field was again bountiful, and from it came the tallest wheat anyone had ever seen. The neighboring fields also did well, for the daughter and the son-in-law shared the water as a source of irrigation. The chiseled rocks were used to build a cistern around the spring. The daughter, her husband, and their son lived long and well on the farm, and it passed through many generations. They called the place Serdze Boga, the heart of God, for their eyes had been opened and they had seen God.

Now which of these was a neighbor, was family to the one in pain, to the one who had been robbed of what was precious? The one who showed mercy. Who in your family or in this family needs your mercy? From whom in your family or in this family do you need mercy? Go and do likewise. Amen.

The Good Samaritan, Vincent Van Gogh, May 1890

No comments: