Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Old Stories through New Eyes

It always begins like this: The pastor is at the front of the church, casting the opening lines of his sermon out to the congregation. He baits us with some sort of joke or anecdote, and slowly he begins to reel it in. It's going great. We're all hooked on what he has to say.

And then it happens. He starts talking about Psalm 23 or the Parable of the Mustard Seed, and he's lost me. In no time at all, I've broken free and swum far away from lead-me-beside-still-waters. By sermon's end, I'm vaguely aware that there was a sermon on something from the Bible, but I've no idea what it was about.

It's like the cliché says, familiarity breeds contempt, and some passages are so familiar that it's hard to imagine there's anything there that I haven't heard before. Think of the Good Samaritan, and if you’'re like me, it's hard to see any message but "Love your enemies."

The funny thing is, the Parable of the Good Samaritan has been familiar almost from the first time it was told. It didn't even originate with Jesus. It was so well known that his audience would have recognized it immediately.

I imagine Jesus standing in the Temple court as he is questioned by the expert of the law. The expert asks, "And who is my neighbor?" and the crowd, eager to witness the verbal sparring that has made Jesus so famous, pushes in close to hear his response.

"Ah," someone whispers in satisfaction once Jesus begins speaking. "The wounded man on the road to Jericho. That's a good answer." Heads around the Temple nod in approval, and soon everyone's eyes have glazed over. The story follows its familiar rhythm as the traveler is waylaid by bandits and left for dead.

Everyone knows the story. After the first couple of travelers ignore the wounded man, he'll be rescued by a model citizen, the sort of person they've been taught all their lives to admire, respect and emulate. The moral? Your neighbor is any countryman in need.

By the time the first person walks past the wounded man, some people already are thinking about the Passover celebration. At the edge of the crowd, someone starts haggling over the cost of apples, but no one really minds. Everyone knows that a heroic and virtuous Pharisee is about to come along and save the wounded man.

Imagine their surprise at what comes next. The Pharisee doesn't help. Instead, he minds his own business. He doesn't get involved. He plays it safe. Suddenly everyone is listening. They couldn't have heard that right.

Then Jesus delivers the final knockout punch, and shocked silence gives way to angry gasps and a few strangled cries of protest. The hero of the story isn't respectable. He's not even one of them at all. He's an outcast so low that decent people would throw stones at him if they met him in the street. And didn't this all start with as a question over what to do to get eternal life?

With stories like that, it's no wonder people wanted to kill Jesus.

Today of course, we do exactly what that ancient audience wanted to. We think that we're righteous because we understand brokenness like the tax collector did, and we're proud not to be self-righteous like the Pharisee. We see ourselves in the prodigal son who's come home, rather than as the son resentful over his younger brother's unearned favor.

And we identify with the kind and neighborly Samaritan, even though practically no one in Galilee or Judea would have thought of Samaritans as either kind or neighborly. The surprising twist on whom God considers righteous and who receives eternal life is completely lost on us.

If Jesus told the Parable of the Good Samaritan today, I wonder if it would go something like this:

On one occasion, a Christian stood up to test Jesus. "Teacher," he asked, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?"

"What does the Bible say?" he replied. "How do you read it?"

He answered: "'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 'Love your neighbor as yourself.'"

"You have answered correctly," Jesus said. "Do this, and you will live."

But the Christian wanted to show that he was justified before God, so he asked Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?"

In reply Jesus said, "A man was driving through New Brunswick, when he fell into the hands of carjackers. They took his wallet, his cell phone and his laptop; shot him, and went away, leaving him for dead.

"A Republican happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed on the other side. So, too, a pastor, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.

"But a Muslim, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He put the man in his car, getting blood all over the seats, and took him to the hospital. The next day he paid the hospital three thousand dollars. 'Look after him,' he said. 'And when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.'

"Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?"

The Christian replied, "The one who had mercy on him."

Jesus told him, "Go and do likewise."

Copyright © 2006 by David Learn. Used with permission.


bluesbaby said...

That is really awesome. I have to pray on a regular basis to avoid the roteness of any king regarding the practice of my faith. it is really hard.

Jenn said...

Interesting truth that my hubby and I have pondered many times as my very liberal lesbian aunt sends a generous check every month to help pay my sister's expenses from relocated to the Lehigh Valley, and yet my "Christian" father--who retired at the age of 55--claims poverty and hasn't sent anything. Who is really showing Christian love?

Long time, no see, BTW. Jeff H. told me about your blog.

Minx McCloud said...

Jenn, it's hard to say who is showing more Christian love in the example you are using.

Is your "liberal lesbian aunt" rich and easily able to send money?

Is your "Christian father," whom you admit is retired, fully set for expenses he may incur in the future?

Perhaps he really IS "poor" or has overextended himself in some way. Perhaps, like my father, he is ailing. Perhaps, like my father, he is paying $7,000 per month for assisted living and is frightened for his future.

In the example Dave gave, there is no reason for people to pass by the injured man and not help. Even if they don't have money, they could at least direct help to him, even if it's only by dialing 911.

But your situation is a bit different. Before we judge someone's "Christian love," we have to analyze the situation. It is not always cut-and-dried. We would have to explore further before we judge your father OR your aunt.

I would help an injured person by taking him to the hospital in an emergency, but at this stage of my life, I cannot pay his hospital bill. That does not shame me in any way, nor does it make me less of a Christian.

Sometimes there ARE valid reasons for actions that make us seem selfish. Sometimes there is more to the story than we see.