Missing the Point

July 14, 2019

Series: July 2019

Category: Faith

Speaker: Rob McClellan

Luke 10:25-37

25Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. "Teacher," he said, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?" 26He said to him, "What is written in the law? What do you read there?" 27He 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." 28And he said to him, "You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live."

29But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?" 30Jesus 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. 31Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. 34He 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. 35The 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.' 36Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?" 37He said, "The one who showed him mercy." Jesus said to him, "Go and do likewise."  THIS IS HOLY WISDOM, HOLY WORD.  THANKS BE TO GOD. 

 Missing the Point

          There was an interesting little book some years ago co-authored by Brian McLaren and Tony Campolo called Adventures in Missing the Point:  How the Culture-Controlled Church Neutered the Gospel.  It is, as the title suggests, a litany of how the church and many Christians have, well…missed the point on topics such as sin, worship, gender and sexuality, and doubt in the life of faith.  We might choose other topics for the list.  I find much of my work to be trying to undo what many have been taught about Christianity.  Sometimes this is a source of comfort for people.  Other times it’s a source of great challenge. 

Surely, though, there are some basic pieces of the tradition that we get right, some stories whose meaning is unmistakable.  Rob Bell begins a reflection on the story we read moments ago this way:  “Let’s take a look at a familiar story from the Bible, shall we?  How about the Good Samaritan?  Because everybody knows that one.”  Well, I’m not sure everyone knows it, but you all have just heard it, so now you do.  “It’s about the importance of helping people in trouble, right?” continues Bell.  I presume most of us would agree.  “You could make it about that,” says Bell, “And that might be helpful.  But you’d be missing the point of the story.  Most people completely miss the point of the story.”[1] 

What?!  How could we have gotten that wrong?  Well, Bell doesn’t say we’ve gotten it wrong.  He simply claims this interpretation misses the point, the main message, and not coincidentally the most challenging point of Jesus’ teaching.  If we’re not careful we’ll conveniently overlook the most challenging aspects of Jesus’ teachings.

Let’s review this encounter to see what we might have missed.  A lawyer asks Jesus about how to attain eternal life.  Jesus redirects him to the law, which as a lawyer, he easily recites:  love God with everything you have and your neighbor as yourself.  So far so good.

It’s when the lawyer asks who his neighbor is that Jesus launches into a story.  Someone is bloodied by the side of the road, having been robbed and attacked.  Two religious leaders, a Levite and a priest, pass the beaten one by on the other side of the road.  Let’s stop there.  The common interpretation of that story is that these are hypocrites, superficial practitioners who haven’t internalized the true meaning of their faith.  Though they are supposed to be leaders, they don’t get it.  To be sure, Jesus had little tolerance of unrepentant religious leaders who were hypocritical.

Wrong.  At least, wrong, on a level.  You have to know something about Jewish law to understand this.  The person was likely bloody.  Blood is ritually impure.  That may not make sense to us today, but this was very important to them.  A person who came in contact with blood would likewise become unclean, and a religious leader who was ritually unclean couldn’t do their job caring for the community.  This wasn’t necessarily a selfish act.  It may not square with our sensibilities, but the action of these two religious leaders may have actually been intended to preserve their ability to serve the communities with which they were charged.   And, before we shower this text with outrage, let us consider the abandoned people in our own midst who we allow to suffer all the time.  I don’t just mean the unspeakable conditions at the border, but right here in Marin and the Bay area, one of the wealthiest places in the world.

Okay, so the two religious leaders aren’t the bad guys; clearly the message must be to try and be the good guy (or woman), to be the “Good Samaritan,” crossing lines to help others.  Indeed, at the end, Jesus does say, “Go and do likewise.” 

Well, sort of.  As Bell asserts, if the point of the story was to inspire the lawyer to act a certain way, Jesus would have made the hero a lawyer who violates the law in order to help a stranger.  In doing so, Jesus would have shown the lawyer what it would look like for him to do the right thing.  That’s how we all read it, isn’t it?  It’s our job to help people no matter our other obligations, because when people need it, no matter who they are, we help.

I was all ready to go all-in on this interpretation.  I was ready to challenge people to step outside their comfort zones to take care of those in need, crossing whatever barriers stand before them.  I was ready to use a perfect illustration, the case of Scott Daniel Warren.  You know who Warren is, right?  Warren is a man who was charged with crimes that could land in him jail for 20 years.  His crime? Providing, water, food, and shelter to desperate migrants making their way across the southern border.  I even had my punchline:  We now live in a time and place where being the Good Samaritan is illegal! 

I would have missed the point.  That’s not to say I would have been entirely wrong – I think Warren was doing the humane thing.  I think it’s the thing Jesus himself would do and would have us do.  I know some will balk because of the illegality of the act.  To that we should remember two things:  1) seeking asylum, which many migrants are doing, is legal, and 2) Jesus himself broke the law, and he did so specifically to feed people who were hungry.  Breaking the law to feed people is a time-honored Christian tradition.  I’d say I missed the point not because that application of Jesus’ teaching goes too far, but because it doesn’t go far enough.  It’s not challenging enough.  It doesn’t go far enough in urging us to expand our consciousness and the bounds of our compassion. 

Here’s what I mean, and what Bell means.  Jesus makes the Good Samaritan the hero, not the lawyer or person of the lawyer’s same ethnic identity or the identity of the likely hearers of this story.  In doing so, Jesus signals that the point of the story is not about our ability to cross lines and help.  The point of the story is about cultivating our ability to see and believe that others, that they our enemies, are capable of crossing lines to help us.  Do you see the difference?  I cannot overstate what bitter enemies the Samaritans were.  It’s hard to even think of a modern example.  Ten or fifteen years ago, I would have said Al Qaeda.  Those of you in the Cold War will have an easier time making a connection. 

What’s radical about Jesus’ teaching is that it features one of them, one of the enemies, exhibiting compassion, basic human decency and kindness.  In fact, it may even feature the Good Samaritan displaying a good bit of cultural competency and sensitivity.  Perhaps the Good Samaritan knew something of the Jewish culture, recognized why Jewish religious leaders couldn’t help this beaten one and thus stepped in knowing a Jewish religious leader couldn’t.  The hated other becomes the hero, and the challenge is for the hearer to recognize and acknowledge that a Samaritan could be capable of such an act.  Helping a supposed enemy is hard enough, though I think we can all imagine it because we like to think of ourselves as the bigger party.  To believe that the hated “they” could be capable of risking helping us, well that’s beyond our comprehension.  Beyond our current comprehension is precisely the territory Jesus most wants to explore.  In telling this tale, Jesus tries to disavow us of this commitment to seeing only shallow, evil, caricatures of others God also made in God’s image. 

The story offends our sensibility today in another sense.  We are a people of doers, of helpers.  Taking this parable as only a lesson in being charitable reaffirms a widely held cultural story we tell ourselves, that we are the helpers, the rescuers, the ones who go in and make things better.  We are the good, the charitable, and the just.  There are worse qualities to which to aspire, but they’re not the whole story.  There is a shadow side to always being the helper, being the giver.  Charity also keeps the giver in power.  The giver gets to set the agenda.  The giver gets to keep the other indebted to them or feeling indebted having had their debts forgiven.  A world of only giving is a world of imbalance, even injustice for it can be a way of preserving a mythology of superiority.  Jesus wants to challenge even our most deep-seeded mythologies. 

In the end, Jesus leaves us not left to marvel at how good we can be, but rather to wonder how good others can be, others we are taught from our youth to hate, fear, and dehumanize.  It changes the whole thrust of the story.

Bell puts it this way: 

Do you see why I began by talking about the point of the story?  You can make it about roadside assistance, which is fine, and maybe even helpful, but Jesus is calling us to something way bigger and higher and deeper and transcendent.  Jesus is calling the man to love like God loves.  Which means everybody.  Even those you hate the most.  Jesus is challenging the man to extend divine love to those who are the most difficult to love.  That’s where it’s at.  That’s the answer to the question.  That’s where eternal life is.[2]

 One important caveat, and it’s one Bell makes.  Especially in day and age in which we are waking up to the experience of abuse victims, we all know that some relationships are so toxic the best we can do is love from a distance.  Just like you should never be compelled from the outside to forgive, you shouldn’t be forced to view someone who has hurt you a certain way.  Part of the way victims get their power back—and Jesus is always about empowering the powerless—is by getting to choose when and how they see their perpetrator.  That’s not letting us off the hook from doing our difficult work.  It is helping us do our wider work of service and caring without forestalling it prematurely.  There is a time, as our story shows, to cross the street so you can live to help another community another day.  I know you wouldn’t abuse that permission so I am glad to give it to you.

So, as you forth from here today, it’s fine to go and be the Good Samaritan, but take it a step further and see if you can go and see the Good Samaritan too.  Amen.      

 [1] https://christianity201.wordpress.com/2015/01/01/the-people-whose-name-you-cant-speak/

[2] https://christianity201.wordpress.com/2015/01/01/the-people-whose-name-you-cant-speak/