Who Are You Calling Dirt?
Who Are You Calling Dirt?
Eighth Sunday after Pentecost / 15th Sunday in Ordinary Time
July 10, 2016
There’s a 7-year-old documentary about the environmental, social, economic and political importance of soil. It’s called "Dirt!" I think “Soil!” might have been better. When you think of the great farm fields of the Midwest prairie, you think of rich, dark brown - nearly black - soil. “Soil” doesn’t really become dirt until it’s out of place. If you have a yard with grass, under that grass is soil. When that soil gets tracked into the house, it’s dirt. You don’t look at a freshly plowed farm field and say, “Wow, that’s dirty.” If the farmer doesn’t take her boots off before she enters her house, then her house will be “dirty.” “Dirty” is what happens when something is not in its proper place and you don’t like it. Some of us don’t mind a dirty house, but none of us like a dirty house. The PBS web page for the documentary, “Dirt! the Movie,” describes soil (or dirt) as “Earth’s most valuable and under-appreciated source of fertility.” Good stuff. Until it’s out of place in a place you don’t want it to be. Then it’s dirty. Filthy. Unclean.
If you are a 1st-century practicing Jew and your practice includes paying close attention to the laws, the Torah — as explicated by scholars of the Torah, called scribes or lawyers, and as facilitated by the ritual ministrations of priests and Levites (priests who had religious duties in the Temple and political roles in the community) — then you’ve got whole lists of stuff that your religious practice tells you is out of place, dirty, unclean, and therefore not to be touched, starting with dead bodies. From there, scripture lists for you things that exceed dead bodies in uncleanness and not to be touched: the decaying flesh of dead animals, exceeded in uncleanness by a woman who is menstruating, which is exceeded by male bodily fluids, and so on. Now check this out: A dead body is unclean. Got that? Good. Also, male bodily fluids are unclean, and more so, apparently, than even a dead body. We covered that. So what could exceed those in uncleanness? A donkey or horse or ox ridden upon by a dead body or by a man oozing bodily fluids, like blood, for instance. Or snot. I know this is getting gross, but have you ever heard the saying, “They beat the snot of that guy?” Hold on to that. The scripture — the Hebrew scriptures called the Mishnah — even tells you what exceeds in uncleanness the beast bearing an oozing man. Ready? Whatever the oozing guy lies upon is more unclean than the horse he rode in on. Recapping: a dead body is unclean exceeded by decaying dead animals exceeded by the bodily fluids of a woman exceeded by the bodily fluids of a man exceeded by the horse he rode in on exceeded by the bed he lied on and exceeded by, finally, the man himself.
So if you’re a faithful, 1st-century-practicing-Jew who keeps Torah (obeys the law) as taught you by the priests and the scribes/lawyers, you don’t go near that stuff. Dirty. Out of place. In the wrong place, wrong time. Don’t touch. Unclean!
Oh, and one other thing. The descendants of Joseph, son of Jacob, the coat-of-many-colors, left-for-dead, sold-into-slavery, but-came-out-on-top-and-became-a-Disney-movie Joseph...his descendants are one of the twelve tribes of Israel. Jacob, a.k.a. Israel, bequeathed to the tribe of Joseph a land of fertile soil. The land was called Samaria. In 722 BCE, the Assyrians invaded and conquered Samaria and, as conquering armies do, impregnated the women, brought their own gods and religions, and everything got intermingled. In the minds of the Jews who lived south of Samaria, in the land of Judah, which included Palestine and therefore Jerusalem, the Samaritans were no longer pure. They were different: an intermingled race with different religious practices and beliefs. Dirt! And if dirt shows up where you don’t want it, where it’s out of place, doesn’t belong, you probably should get rid of it but since you aren’t even supposed to touch it, you should at least steer clear of it, give it a wide berth.
Why is all this important? Because we’re looking at the story Jesus tells to a lawyer (a scholar of the Torah) about a half dead man that’s had the snot beaten out of him, is oozing God-knows-what, left for dead by robbers on the side of the road, and these Torah-keeping, law-observing, practicing, 1st-century Jews come upon him, one after the other. A priest and a Levite. What do they do? They do what their religious leaders have taught them to do. Heck, they are the religious leaders. They steer clear, give the half-dead-oozing-guy a wide berth, leave him for all-the-way dead.
Then along comes another speck of out-of-place dirt: a despised Samaritan. What does he do? He sees the half-dead, oozing man but sees him, instead, as half-alive (how do you usually see: half empty or half full?). He’s moved with pity. He bandages the man’s wounds. He's moving down — or up? — the ladder of successive uncleanness. He risks touching an apparently dead man. He comes in contact with the man's fluid-oozing wounds as he cleans, bandages and binds them. He puts the man on his animal to transport him. Now the Samaritan’s animal is unclean. And, finally, he takes him to a public inn. Public inns were also considered unclean by Torah-observant Jews of the 1st century and public inn keeping was a despised profession. The Samaritan takes the half-dead, half-alive, oozing man on his horse (or whatever animal it was) and puts him on a bed in the public inn!! What was the second-to-last rung of uncleanness on the list from the Mishnah? The bed on which a man oozing fluids lies. And that leaves only one thing yet more unclean: the man himself.
Here’s the irony: Jesus tells this story of the so-called "good" Samaritan in response to a question from the lawyer: “Teacher,” the lawyer asked Jesus, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Inherit — receive, be left with. What must I do to receive or be left with...what? Eternal life? For a 1st-century Jew, “eternal life” is “Olam Ha-Ba.” What’s that? It’s the world to come. Not the “world to come” in the sense of somewhere else, pie in the sky in the great by and by when we die. When a 1st-century Jew was asking about Olam Ha-ba, the world to come, she or he was asking, “When will the age of the Messiah arrive? When will I receive, be left with, inherit the age to come — ushered here by a messiah, a savior — that is characterized by shalom. Shalom: “a state of affairs, one of well‑being, tranquility, prosperity, and security, circumstances unblemished by any sort of defect...a blessing, a manifestation of divine grace.” Shalom: mercy and compassion and reconciliation that leads to “the overcoming of strife, quarrel, and social tension, the prevention of enmity and war.”
How do I — how do we — get left with the conditions of shalom? Jesus’ answer is two-fold, no...it’s threefold: (1) Love God. (2) Love your neighbor. (3) Prove it. How do we prove it? If we are to believe Jesus, we prove it by radically expanding our notion of who our neighbor is; and having done that, by feeling genuine pity and extending abundant mercy. I know. No one wants to be pitied. But in Jesus’ story, the Samaritan traveler starts there: with pity, with a feeling of sorrow and compassion caused by the suffering and misfortune of others. But pity alone doesn’t get the job done. Pity gives way to mercy: compassion in action.
We’re still very much a tribal people, in case you haven’t noticed. You can discern different groups of people in our own country, connected around shared interests and common ideas and/or common leaders. We are not all the same. In his book, “Tribes,” Seth Godin points out it’s been this way for millions of years. It likely always will be, even in the age of shalom, of Olam Ha-Ba, if it ever comes. The work ahead of us isn’t to eliminate tribes. But maybe the work is this:
- To simply name it and be aware: we’re tribal. We’re not all the same. We don’t all adhere to the same beliefs. We don’t, as a country, have one monolithic set of shared interests. We don’t profess loyalty and belief in the same leaders. Not hardly.
- To locate ourselves in stories like the one Jesus tells of the “good” Samaritan. Who are we, really? Do we have the capacity to look in mirrors — both solitary and collective ones — and seek a less distorted view of ourselves? Are we the devotee and student of religious law who is seeking the answer to the question, “How do I inherit eternal life?” Are we earnest in asking the question? Are we ready to hear the answer? What do we even mean when we wonder out loud about “eternal life”? Are we concerned with pie-in-the-sky-in-the-great-bye-and-bye-when-we-die or are we concerned with ushering in notions of shalom, here and now? Are we the ones who have bought the party line about what is clean and unclean, what’s pure and what’s dirty, what we should consider to be out of place? Are we the ones who steer clear of what or who seems out of place to us? Are we the ones who, when we see suffering, give wide berth to risk and stay on the other side of the road? Are we the priest or the Levite? Or are we the Samaritan...perhaps despised ourselves (at least by some) yet willing to put our own safety on the line to relieve the suffering of others? Are we the Samaritan...seeing as half alive what others see as half dead? Are we the Samaritan...willing to sacrifice our own resources, both money and property, to restore those who have been broken and are bleeding out? Are we the ones who have had the snot beat out of us, left oozing and half-dead on the wrong side of the ditch, ignored by those who claim to have a relationship with the Holy, the Divine? Maybe you feel like you’re some of all of that. Where do you locate yourself in this story?
- And maybe the work is, ultimately, to show mercy: to embody compassion and healing, to see life where others see death, to see good, fertile soil where others see dirt, to resolve to be the ones who bandage and bind the wounds of those who have been beaten down, who suffer, who have been robbed of life to the point where they lie immobilized in life’s ditches.
How will you answer, “Who is my neighbor?” How will you answer, “Which of these — which of you — was a neighbor:
to Black men and women, boys and girls, who have been and are still targeted because of the color their skin;
to police officers of all colors who serve with courage and honesty and heroism each day while targeted because of the actions of a few;
to those of all tribes who feel disenfranchised because their economic condition has left them hopeless, feeling half dead;
to LGBTQ neighbors who have been labeled as unclean and out-of-place by too many for too long;
to others who exist, barely, half dead but still half alive, on the margins, the boundaries we so frequently concoct?
It’s been a lousy week. Tragic. Hope robbing. Life robbing. I feel overwhelmed with grief and burdened by not just a little despair. I, too, want to ask Jesus, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” And I know his answer:
- Expand my understanding and view of who my neighbor is.
- Watch and learn from those who have already figured out how to do that and how to show great, lavish mercy and love.
- Go and do likewise. The answer to grief and despair is right there. Go and do likewise.
Who’s with me?