It’s All Small Stuff

Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost

Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. Luke 16:10

My husband and I are of that certain age where we have joined the ranks of the early-morning mall walkers. Walking is (we hope!) a relatively enjoyable way to improve our cardiovascular health, as well as helping to maintain musculoskeletal strength and flexibility. We also enjoy discussing current events and our plans for the rest of the day. But at some point, it occurred to me that our daily mall-walks could also be an exercise in practicing other-centeredness. So as we walk, we’ve made an effort to smile and say “good morning” to people as we pass. It sounds simple, but in practice it’s more difficult than you might imagine, at least for me. It’s so easy for me to slide into my own mind, becoming preoccupied with my own thoughts and worries, that I don’t even notice the people passing by.

When you start greeting people, you start noticing them as people, not just part of the background scenery. There’s an elderly couple who always dresses alike and a family pushing the wheelchair of their severely disabled adult son. There are three men walking together, each wearing a different ball cap proclaiming that they are Army, Navy, and Air Force veterans. There is a man who wears a politically themed t-shirt that I agree with, and there are others whose politically themed clothing I dislike. There’s a middle-aged daughter holding hands as she walks slowly with her mother, who I would guess may suffer from Alzheimer’s. There are young mothers who come pushing strollers and pause at certain locations to do exercises together, and there are young women who walk alone at a frantic pace and look too thin to be healthy. And once you notice them as people, you start to wonder and then to care about them.

Jesus instructed his followers to “deny yourself, take up your cross daily, and follow me“. I don’t think he meant that all of his followers must literally be crucified. In the first place, dying is kind of a one-time event, not something one could successfully perform repeatedly on a daily basis. Secondly, seeking literal martyrdom can be a self-serving, rather than an other-serving thing. As an imprisoned Paul wrote to the Philippians, “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body.” Third, if you remove all Jesus-followers from the equation of the world, the parables of the kingdom don’t make much sense. Remove the yeast from the dough and the bread won’t rise; remove the seed from the field and there will be no crop; remove the salt from the meat and it spoils.

I think there’s a connection between being “faithful in a very little” and “take up your cross daily“. What Jesus is asking us to do is to practice thinking and caring about others and not just ourselves, to become other-centered rather than self- centered. The Good Place does an excellent job of exploring this idea. For example, the character of Tahani performs many extravagant good deeds, but viewers learn that these are motivated by her need for affirmation and approval. Her acts of charity stem from the same kind of self-centered worldview as the behavior of the more overtly selfish Eleanor. As Rick Warren puts it, “humility is not about thinking less of yourself; it is about thinking of yourself less.” And that’s hard to do. It takes practice, and that practice begins with the small stuff…like offering a friendly greeting rather than allowing myself to be preoccupied by my own thoughts.

It’s the attitude that matters, not because actions don’t matter, but because right attitudes lead to right actions and wrong attitudes often lead to ineffectual or harmful ones. Paul understood that when he advised the Corinthians squabbling over whose spiritual gifts were the best, “If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

The word usually translated “love” in modern versions of 1 Corinthians 13 is “agape” in Greek. In the KJV, the word is translated “charity” which may convey the concept a little better. It is not a feeling, but an attitude expressed in behavior. Paul goes on to explain, “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” Love isn’t self-centered; it’s other-centered.

Changing one’s worldview from self-centeredness to other-centeredness isn’t easy, and it doesn’t come naturally. We are all born self-centered; an infant who is hungry or uncomfortable knows only its needs, and demands that someone quickly and satisfactorily attend to them. Part of becoming mature (should I say adulting?) is learning to delay gratification and developing a realistic sense of one’s place in the universe. It’s easy to intellectually affirm that the universe doesn’t revolve around me and my needs, wants and desires, but harder to incorporate that understanding into my attitude and resultant actions.

Chaos theory postulates that a butterfly flapping its wings on one side of the world can eventually cause a hurricane on the other side of the world. I believe Jesus was a good teacher who knew how to break a desired learning outcome down into small steps, but I also believe Jesus understood the butterfly effect. Jesus asks us to pay attention to all the small stuff, because small stuff can lead to big stuff. We have no way of knowing all of the eventual consequences of our smallest actions of kindness, for ourselves and for others.

And that’s good news to me.

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The Power of the Cross and the Foolishness of Power

Holy Cross

Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried. -Gilbert K. Chesterton

For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom,but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 1 Corinthians 1:18-24

Constantine got it wrong, and in my opinion the popular understanding of what it means to be Christian has gone downhill ever since.

You may remember the legend of Constantine’s conversion. Prior to the Battle of Milvian in 312, he looked up in the sky and saw a cross of light, accompanied by the words “In this sign you will conquer”. He commanded his troops to paint their shields with a Christian symbol and sure enough, the battle went his way. Subsequently he made Christianity the official religion of the Roman empire. Christians went from being persecuted for their faith to being favored for it. Constantine used the power of his office to exempt clergy from paying some taxes and elevated them to high office. Non-Christians were required to pay for the building of Constantinople, thus giving people a financial incentive to convert. The church became rich and powerful, and in so doing obscured the message of the cross. “Whoever wants to be first among you must be last, just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

According to Paul, the message of the cross is not about power, but about weakness. It is not about control, but surrender. It is not about taking, but giving. It is not about self-serving, but about self-sacrifice. There’s a fragment of what appears to be an early Christian hymn in Philippians 2 which urges Christians to adapt the mindset of Jesus, “Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!

The message of the cross contrasts rather starkly with the popular understanding of how people are to find meaning and purpose in their lives, and that’s why it seems foolish to those who do not understand it. But to those who seek to incorporate the message of the cross into their daily lives, it is transformative. The message of the cross has the power to transform not only individual lives, but to transform society as well. I think tha’s what Jesus was getting at in his parables of the kingdom: it is like a tiny seed that start small, but grows into an enormous sheltering tree that gives sustenance to all living things. How different our world will be when the kingdoms of this world have become the kingdoms of our Lord and of his Christ!

And that’s good news to me.

God is Still Creating

Thirteenth Sunday After Pentecost

The word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD: “Come, go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words.” So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel. The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him. Then the word of the LORD came to me: Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done? says the LORD. Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. At one moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it,but if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will change my mind about the disaster that I intended to bring on it. And at another moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it,but if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will change my mind about the good that I had intended to do to it. Now, therefore, say to the people of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem: Thus says the LORD: Look, I am a potter shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you. Turn now, all of you from your evil way, and amend your ways and your doings. Jeremiah 18:1-11

Some understand the Bible as teaching that God created the world and/or the universe in seven days, and that was it. The heavens and the earth were complete, finished, so God rested from all his labors. There was nothing more that needed to be done.

But I think that kind of thinking has more in common with the watchmaker God of the eighteenth century Deists than it does with the God of Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and Paul. There are many other metaphors in the Bible where God is shown to be continuously, actively, intimately involved in shaping the universe into what God wants it to be. Isaiah pictured God as a gardener clearing, digging, planting, and pruning. “I will sing for my beloved, a song of his vineyard: My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. 2He dug it up and cleared the stones and planted the finest vines. He built a watchtower in the middle and dug out a winepress as well. He waited for the vineyard to yield good grapes, but the fruit it produced was sour!” Paul, along with many of the prophets, uses childbirth as a metaphor for the struggle of creation to become all that God intends. “We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.” In today’s passage, Jeremiah compares God to a potter at his wheel.

It’s a beautiful, intimate picture. God is not some remote observer, waiting to see what will become of his creation, as the Deists (or Zager and Evans) imagined. God is willing to get God’s hands dirty in shaping reality into God’s intended design. In most of the sermons and songs I’ve heard, the potter metaphor is applied on an individual level. Humans are urged to yield their will to God in order to be part of God’s design. For example, Have Thine Own Way is an older hymn and The Potter’s Hand a more contemporary interpretation of this understanding of the metaphor.

But the passage as written in Jeremiah clearly applies not only to individuals, but to governments and entire nations, and not only to the nation of Israel. Of course, the Hebrew Bible is written from Israel’s point of view, but as I understand it God planned for Israel to be a light to the nations in order that God might bless the rest of the world. For that reason God seems to have held Israel to a higher standard than the surrounding nations. Although the other nations weren’t required to observe the holiness code of Israel, or even to understand God in the same way, God still had certain behavioral expectations of them. Governments are meant to serve their people, not enrich their rulers. Rulers are supposed to protect the most vulnerable and marginalized members of society: the poor, widows, orphans, and immigrants. People should be kind, not cruel to others. If governments and people could not follow these simple rules, God would intervene, and it might not be pretty. “Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen.”

The potter metaphor teaches me that God isn’t passively observing us “from a distance“, but is still actively, creatively involved in bending the arc of the moral universe to specifications. As the children’s song goes, God’s still working on me, and God’s still working on the world as well. And that’s good news to me.

Original Sin?

Twelfth Sunday After Pentecost

My people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water. Jeremiah 2:13

The beginning of human pride is to forsake the Lord; the heart has withdrawn from its Maker. Sirach 10:12

.For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” Luke 14:10

What do you think of when you hear the phrase “original sin”? Usually, the term is applied to Adam and Eve’s disobedience to God in the Garden of Eden by eating its forbidden fruit. Some theologians, beginning with Augustine in the fourth century, have postulated that original sin is related to sexual desire. (I don’t agree with that particular theory…after all, God commanded Adam and Eve to “be fruitful and multiply” before their fall from grace, and I doubt IVF was a thing back then) As I read today’s readings I notice a common theme: they center around the harmful consequences of hubris. With that in mind, I wonder if “original sin” doesn’t go a bit further back than Eve’s first bite of the apple.

Why did Adam and Eve decide that it would be a good idea to disobey God? In the story, a talking snake persuades Eve by telling her that “God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” Did you catch that? Eve thinks that by eating the fruit, she will in some way become God’s equal. Her behavior echoes the story of Lucifer’s fall from heaven as imagined by Milton in Paradise Lost, who understood Isaiah’s prophecy against the king of Babylon as applying to a more primordial fall: How you have fallen from heaven, O Morning Star, son of the dawn! You have been cut down to the ground, O destroyer of nations. You said in your heart: “I will ascend to the heavens; I will raise my throne above the stars of God.

The first law God gave those who would be his followers was “Hear, oh Israel, the Lord, the Lord thy God is one and thou shalt have no other gods before me” Too often when we read the first commandment, we apply it to other people rather than ourselves. It must apply to those idol-worshipping neighbors of Bronze Age Israel, or to those in our day who understand God differently than the American Protestant tradition teaches. But when you think about it, you realize that thinking of oneself as somehow better than or superior to other human beings is the worst kind of idolatry. Whenever we act like the universe ought to revolve around us and our wants and needs, whenever we denigrate other human beings made in the image of God in order to elevate ourselves above them, we are essentially imagining ourselves as gods. We are as foolish as Adam and Eve if we think doing that makes us in any way God’s equal. In fact, such thinking is completely opposite from the nature of God as modeled by Jesus, “who, being in very nature God,did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!

As the great Hebrew prophets and Jesus understood it, the commandment to put God first was closely entwined with what we have come to call the Golden Rule. ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” and “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” We can’t claim to follow the first commandment if we routinely violate the second, because all humans are made in the image of God. If we think that we are superior to other human beings for whatever reason, we will most likely behave in harmful ways toward them.

Thoughts precede actions. As I see it, “original sin” wasn’t the act of eating the forbidden fruit, but the thought “I deserve to be on equal footing with God’. But I don’t believe God insists on having first place because he has a huge ego that needs to be stroked. Amos and the other 8th century prophets were pretty up front about that. “I hate, I despise your religious festivals; your assemblies are a stench to me. Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings,I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them. Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream.” That particular brand of bad theology has recurred again and again throughout time and space, probably because people have a tendency to anthropomorphize God. They imagine God would do what humans would do if they were in God’s place, but fortunately God is not human. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts”

Instead, I think God forbids humans from assuming the place of God because God knows that when humans try to do that, other humans get hurt. Humans have an innate tendency to think of life as a zero-sum game, where some are winners and others are losers. God didn’t plan this world to be a giant game of king-of-the-mountain, where a few winners battle their way to the top by trampling on the masses of losers beneath them. God planned for all humans to live in a shared world of abundance. But that only works when humans don’t try to be gods flexing their muscles against other humans, wasting the earth’s resources on things like war and hoarding possessions. As Gandhi observed, “the world has enough for everyone’s need, but not for everyone’s greed.

This world doesn’t need a lot of little would-be gods running around ordering their fellow human beings around and mistreating them. What this world needs is more human beings who understand and accept their place in the created order, who “love thy neighbor as thyself” and who take care of the rest of creation in a responsible way.

Whether this is good news or bad news depends on your perspective. It’s good news for those whose lives are being made miserable by petty would-be human gods. It’s bad news for those who would be gods, because God won’t put up with that kind of hubris forever. Jesus began his ministry by quoting these words from Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners  and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. “

I think that’s rather good news. How about you?

The Reason for the Rules

Eleventh Sunday After Pentecost

Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight.When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.”When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.”But the Lord answered him and said, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?”When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing. Luke 13:10-17

“We are a nation of laws”. How many times have you heard that statement, and in what context? Too often it is cited as justification for behavior that causes harm directly or indirectly to human beings created in God’s image. It’s against the law to cross the border without permission, even when fleeing persecution or famine. “Urban camping” is against the law, even if you are homeless and have nowhere else to go. In Arizona, members of a faith group are being prosecuted under littering laws for leaving jugs of water in the desert for travellers who might otherwise die of thirst.

The reason we have laws and rules is to serve and protect people. It’s against the law to murder, to rape, to steal, and to commit perjury, and for good reason. It’s against the law to run red lights, to speed, and to drive under the influence, and there is good reason for those too. But there are some laws and rules that are just pointless, silly, or outdated. Unfortunately there are some laws that are applied in ways that cause more harm than good, as the heartbreaking story of the death of Eric Garner attests. And also unfortunately, laws and rules are often applied unequally. Rich and powerful people get away with things that the poor and powerless are punished for doing, which is a pretty blatant violation of levitical law.

The passage from Luke above is just one of many where Jesus disputed with those who believed that people exist to serve and protect rules, rather than the other way around. God’s purpose in instituting the Sabbath was so that people and animals would not be worked to death. It was meant to be a blessing to people, not a burden, but over many years Sabbath-observation evolved into an absolute rule that must be followed regardless of the harm it might cause. Jesus believed that”The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” I don’t long for a return to the “blue laws” of the recent past, but I do long for a restoration of the principle of Sabbath. When people have to work two and three jobs to make ends meet, when workers in poultry processing plants are forced to wear diapers because they aren’t allowed bathroom breaks, when factory and warehouse workers have their every move followed and critiqued for efficiency, there is something profoundly wrong.

Jesus wasn’t the only one who got into trouble with those who prioritize rules over people. Peter and the other first apostles did too. When they were commanded to stop telling others about Jesus, they responded “We must serve God rather than human authority.” Too often rules serve to protect those in power, rather than all people. Paul got into trouble in Ephesus for cutting into business profits by sharing the message of Jesus.”God’s Smuggler”, Brother Andrew, who famously smuggled Bibles across the Iron Curtain, followed the same rationale when he wrote “The Ethics of Smuggling

“The law” does not have ultimate moral priority. Once upon a time in Europe, Hitler’s “Final Solution” was the law of the land, and it was illegal to shelter Jews. Once upon a time in America, slavery was legal and harboring runaway slaves was illegal. Once upon a time in South Africa, apartheid was legal and racial mixing was illegal. Once upon a time in the fictional universe, Jean Valjean was relentlessly pursued by Inspector Javert for stealing bread to feed his starving family. And in many places today, publicly identifying as a follower of Jesus is prohibited by law and violators are prosecuted and punished.

Ultimate moral priority is of divine, not human origin, and I agree with Jesus and Paul’s interpretation of God’s moral priorities: In everything, then, do to others as you would have them do to you. For this is the essence of the Law and the prophets” and ” For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Our ultimate loyalty should be to serve God’s moral priorities, not human ones. “But if serving the LORD seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD ” Depending on the time and place in which one lives, that kind of loyalty can be scary or even dangerous.

Good news? That’s where faith comes in. I believe that by following God’s moral priorities, God’s followers have the power to transform the world into the kind of place God intended when he created it. And that is good news to me.

Don’t Blink

Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into. So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.“Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom the master has put in charge of the servants in his household to give them their food at the proper time? It will be good for that servant whose master finds him doing so when he returns.Truly I tell you, he will put him in charge of all his possessions. But suppose that servant is wicked and says to himself, ‘My master is staying away a long time,’ and he then begins to beat his fellow servants and to eat and drink with drunkards. The master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he is not aware of. He will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Matthew 24: 42-51

This week’s post isn’t from the lectionary, but from some thoughts I’ve had in the wake of a recent personal experience.

My husband and I were driving home on the last leg of a vacation trip to visit with my family, and my mother had given me several boxes of old family photos and other memorabilia for me to sort through. We were almost home when suddenly a car veered into our lane and hit us, sending our car into a cable barrier separating traffic moving in the opposite direction. It all happened very quickly, and there was nothing I could have done that would have prevented the accident. We were very fortunate in many respects; there were no injuries to people, only to vehicles. The seat belts, air bags, and cable barrier all did what they were designed to do, absorbing much of the force of the collision and preventing our vehicle from being forced into oncoming traffic moving at freeway speeds. Unpleasant as the experience was, it could have been much, much worse. We could have easily found ourselves in the direct presence of God much sooner than we expected, with our children left to sort through all we left behind.

In the passage above (see a slightly different take in Mark here) Jesus was responding to questions about when the world as we know it would end. As I wrote in last week’s post on the parable of the Good Samaritan, he responds by telling his hearers they are asking the wrong question. It’s not important to know when the world will end, or when Jesus will return. What is important is what you are doing in the meantime. Are you living the way he taught, or aren’t you?

Growing up in the Baptist church, I heard many sermons on this passage, but as I recall, they all centered around the necessity of a personal conversion experience. You might die at any moment, and if you weren’t right with God when that happened, you would find yourself in a place hotter than Phoenix in the summer for all eternity. I was so traumatized by a sermon I heard as a young child about a boy who was bitten by a rattlesnake in his sleep that I had problems with insomnia and ophidiophobia for years. Then there were the ones which made a dramatic show of imitating the sounds of a heart beating, then stopping, all the while warning us that God could likewise stop our hearts at any second, so we’d better scurry down the aisle on the first verse of the invitational hymn, if not sooner.

But as I read and think about this passage now, I think those sermons were missing the point Jesus was trying to make. Yes, your life could end at at any moment, and you have as little control over it as I did over my auto accident. But in the judgement scene described by Jesus here, those who were commended and those who were condemned were both described as servants, so the criteria doesn’t seem to be based on different theological beliefs. The difference between the two groups was that the servants in the first group were taking care of their fellow servants, while those in the second group were taking advantage of them. The parable of the sheep and the goats in the next chapter is a variation on the same theme, but goes even further. You don’t have to be actively abusing others to find yourself on God’s bad side, just ignoring them.

None of us knows how much time we have left on planet Earth, but what we do know is that we’re supposed to make the most of whatever time we have. And if we are following in the way of Jesus, we have a pretty good idea of what that entails. Love your neighbor as yourself. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Or, as L R Knost has written, “Love intentionally, extravagantly, unconditionally. The broken world waits in darkness for the light that is you.”

Make it count.

Won’t You Be a Neighbor?

Fifth Sunday After Pentecost

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?”He answered, “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.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead.Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity.He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him.The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.” Luke 10:25-37

This week’s lectionary reading includes the parable of the Good Samaritan, which I am afraid is so overly familiar that it has lost much of its original impact. As is usual in Jesus’s storytelling, he takes an ordinary tale and adds a startling twist.

The ordinary tale was that of a man who was the victim of a vicious mugging. Then, as now, was distressingly common enough to perhaps not even make the evening news. The character of the injured man is, I think deliberately, not fleshed out. Was he a citizen or an immigrant? Did he take unnecessary risks in traveling alone down a road known to have been frequented by robbers? Was he unarmed, or armed yet overwhelmed by his assailants? Could he have been drinking and thus wasn’t paying sufficient attention to his surroundings? We don’t know his ethnicity or religion, or whether he was rich or poor. None of these things is important to the story. What is important is that he is a person who needed help.

The injured man was ignored by a priest and a Levite, who like the lawyer who asked Jesus the question that occasioned this story, would have been among the educated, religious elite of the day. (Lawyer in this context is an expert in the Torah, a religious academic) The two men who crossed the road to avoid the victim should have known the Torah well enough to be aware that it was their moral responsibility to help the injured man. Why didn’t they? What excuse did they come up with to convince themselves to cross the road and leave the man to die? Like the priest and the Levite, the Bible scholar who questioned Jesus would have known the scriptures well enough to know there was no good justification for their actions. Again, Jesus doesn’t mention anything about what might be going on in their heads, and I think that was also deliberate. Jesus wanted those listening to the story, including us, to fill in the blanks with our own possible excuses for failing to help when it is within our power to do so.

The story takes an unexpected turn when a Samaritan, a despised outsider, stops to help the man and becomes the hero of Jesus’s story. Since the time of Ezra and Nehemiah, Samaritans had been spurned by the stringent religiously observant because their bloodlines were thought to be impure. Not all the people of Israel were deported to Assyria or Babylon at the time of the exile; some of “the poorer people of the land” were allowed to remain. When the exiles returned to rebuild Jerusalem, they refused help from the locals because it was suspected that they might have intermarried with people who could not trace their ancestry back to one of the original twelve tribes of Israel. Bad feelings between the two groups of God-worshipers intensified in the centuries between the time of Ezra and the time of Jesus. Talk about polarization! Truly, there is “nothing new under the sun“.

When the story ends, Jesus delivers a zinger. The lawyer had begun by asking Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus changes the focus of the question by asking, “Who acted like a neighbor?” I don’t know if Jesus had ever studied the Socratic method of teaching, but he had it down pat. There was only one answer the lawyer could give: the Samaritan. Luke doesn’t tell us how this very serious student of the Bible reacted, but the inevitable answer must have felt like a punch to the gut. The Samaritans were despised by the lawyer and other “purebloods” for not obeying what they understood to be God’s clear command forbidding intermarriage with non-Israelites lest they fall into idolatry. Yet in this story it is not the priest, not the Levite, not the Torah scholar, but the Samaritan who understands the heart of the Torah best.

Who is my neighbor” is the wrong question. “Who is my neighbor” seeks to limit neighborly behavior to those who somehow deserve it. The question we should be asking ourselves instead is “am I being a neighbor?” If I am being a neighbor, I am not limiting my compassion to those who I think deserve it. If I am being a neighbor, I will try to help whoever I can whenever I have the opportunity to do so. My actions should not be dependent on what is in the heart of the other, but what is in my own heart.

God causes the sun to shine and the rain to fall on the just and the unjust. God pours out his blessings on all of us freely, without regard for whether we deserve them our not. God showed his great love for us when Christ died for us while we were yet sinners. God is continually asking us “Won’t you be my neighbor?” even when we run away from God and behave in very un-neighborly ways to each other. God invites us to “go and do likewise“and be a neighbor to everyone we meet on this road of life.

And that’s good news to me.