Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The point of the Good Samaritan

Years ago, a XA student asked me about the point of the story of the Good Samaritan (Lk 10:25-37). The story ends with Jesus saying, “Go and do likewise.” The student asked, “Go and do what?” I said, “Be the Good Samaritan – have compassion on people who don’t like you.”

The student said that the story was answering the question of who is my neighbor, not about being a good person. Therefore, what are we supposed to do?

I was really confused by the conversation. It was one of those times when Bill (the wise and intelligent Bible scholar) was completely stumped by something in the Bible that should have been obvious. The student was right. The passage was not about being a good person or about having compassion on bigots. There are other passages that teach those things. So what is Jesus telling us to go and do?

I preached on this subject this past week. I was asked by Colton’s teacher to speak at a camp meeting for kids. The topic was clicks – exclusive groups that lord over others in a hierarchy of prideful put-downs. (Most clicks in grade school are really just one loud mouthed bully and his or her posse of weak willed kids who lack the guts to tell him to shut up!) I was happy to take on the topic, because it makes my prophetic spirit rise up in anger. I was the 2nd most unpopular kid in grade school. My sole friend was the most unpopular kid. As such, we were the excluded victims of many cruel kids and their popularity clicks. The time when clicks become really obvious is gym class or recess, when it was time to pick your team-mates for baseball or volleyball. I and my sole friend (the most unpopular kid in school), were both good athletes. I was one of the best baseball players in my grade. But when it came time to pick teams, we were the last kids left. Why? Because the team captains were more concerned with popularity than they were with winning the game. Once the game began, I’d start scoring points. My team was glad to win, but when the game was over, they all ditched me like a stinky diaper. They preferred image over substance. What’s really amazing is that the unpopular kids in school wanted to be associated with the popular ones—even though the latter were not nice people.

That was exactly what was going on in the parable of the Good Samaritan. The Jews hated the Samaritans because they were half-breeds. The Samaritans were the remnants of the Northern kingdom of Israel. Over centuries of occupation and forced dispersion, they had intermarried with pagans. As such, they had a little bit of the real faith mixed in with pagan concepts. They were like a lot of people in the United States and Peru, who have a Judeo-Christian vocabulary, mixed in with Eastern mysticism, humanism and witchcraft. To the Jews who really took their faith seriously (the Evangelicals of the day), the Samaritans were a despised minority. When Jesus tells the story, it is assumed that they bloody victim was a Jew. As such, it was horribly discourteous and offensive for the Priest and Levite (religious leaders who should have shown exemplary compassion) to leave the guy in the street. Then Jesus does the unthinkable by bringing into the story a Samaritan. Nobody would ever want a Samaritan to touch them. It would be unthinkable. Yet, the Samaritan is the one who “took pity” on the Jew and “bandaged his wounds.” (Lk 10:33-34)

Jesus painted a stark picture. The people that his listeners would have normally applauded (because of their public influence and authority), turned out to be the bad guys. The Priest and Levite were members of the exclusive group that lorded over the Samaritans in a hierarchy of prideful put-downs. Then the Samaritan shows up and does something that was truly remarkable. He was compassionate, generous, loving – exemplary.

This whole story begins with a question. An expert in the Jewish law was trying to justify himself by taking on Jesus in front of a big crowd. He had just listed the two most important commandments in the Bible—to love God will all your guts and to love your neighbor as yourself. Verse 10:29 says, “But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’” That question is the key to the whole passage. Who am I supposed to love in the same way that I love myself? You usually would think that your neighbor would be the people in your close proximity. But what if they’re people that are religiously or culturally offensive? The question then becomes, are they willing to have a relationship with you? Are they willing to show you compassion, even though they know that you don't agree with their lifestyle? Years ago, we lived next to a lesbian couple. It would have been easy to diss them, except that they were so helpful. I remember one morning when they helped dig our car out of the snow, so we could go to church. They were really nice about it. They knew I was from a religious perspective that did not agree with their morality choices. The overlooked it and helped eagerly. There may have been evangelicals on the street that morning. I’ll never know, since they didn’t come out and help. (They may have already left for church.) The point is that it would be crazy for me to withhold love (which is not the same as moral approval) from people who were reaching out to me, while I pursued relationship with people who were religiously similar, but were playing some kind of better-than-thou game of moral superiority. The “expert in the law” wanted to be justified because he wasn’t hanging out with the wrong people. Ironically, he was!

So, when Jesus says to love your neighbor, he basically means to see the people in your life not by their power or popularity, but rather by their willingness to be your neighbor. He especially wants you to do this with the people that you would otherwise overlook.

There are some obvious lessons/applications here:

1. Don’t be a jerk.

2. Beware of justifying yourself – especially when it has to do with the purity of your associations.

3. Open the doors of your click to include geeky kids who are unpopular, but who can hit a home run.

Some final thoughts:

1) God loves people who are morally bankrupt and lead corrupt lives. He selflessly lavishes them with love, while saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand!” Love and kindness do not mean that we compromise the holiness of God or that we approve of other people’s life choices.

2) When I preached this message on another occasion, I included two verses: James 3:9, “With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness.” And, 1 Cor 12:21-26, specifically verse 21, “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you!’ And the head cannot say to the feet, ‘I don’t need you!’” It is imperative to recognize that all people (even the ones who are public sinners or self righteous jerks) are made in the image of God and continue to reflect a part of His glory. To value these individuals and to value their gifts (the skills they bring to the game) is to be like Jesus.

1 comment:

Jonathan said...

Awesome! I didn't know you guys had a blog. It's like listening to a Chi-Alpha Sermon all over again, except they are now twice as wise. I hope you all are doing well. One suggestion -- you really baited me with the opening reference to the student's question. It's a crystal clear image, especially for me, having been one of your students. It would be cool to see that worked into the conclusion, something like, "Now I know how I would answer that student" or "And that's the likewise we are supposed to be doing." (Ok, those are both lousy, but you get the idea.) Also, for some reason, your blog text turns to black about half way down. I have to select it with my mouse to read the entire thing.