These past two weeks I have been writing about the parable of the Good Samaritan as it appears in Luke’s Gospel. As a refresher: when asked by a lawyer, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus’ response to this question is to tell this parable about a man who is beset by robbers, who strip him, beat him, and leave him for dead by the side of the road. Both a priest and a Levite, both well-respected members of Jewish society, see him (the story tells us) and pass by without helping. Then a Samaritan man, marginalized and despised in society because of his ethno-religious identity, passes by, is moved to pity, and helps the man.
Why is it that the priest and the Levite do not stop to help this man, when they are the ones we might expect to be in a position to help? Why is it that the Samaritan is the one to show compassion?
While the text tells us that the priest and the Levite see the man who has been hurt, I think it is a safe bet that they do not really see this man. Let me explain. The priest and the Levite were upstanding members of society who followed the religious rules and gained respect. Likely they had food to eat each day and a roof under which to sleep at night. As they walked along the road, their eyes may have registered a human figure in the man who had been harmed. But they likely did not expect, and thus were not been able to see, that this man was in distress. For we often see only according to our own expectations. We often see only that which we are used to seeing.
The light turns red, so I stop my car. At the corner of my vision, I see a human figure holding a sign. I fiddle with the radio dial, check for a text that is not there, anything to pass the time so that I do not have to look this homeless man in the eyes. The light turns green, and I move on. Having always had a warm place to sleep, I do not know what homelessness is like. This makes it all too easy for me to drive by without really seeing the homeless person as a person. And when I do not see him as a person, then his troubles ask nothing of me.
It is also possible that the priest and the Levite did not wantto see the distress of the man by the side of the road. To see his wounds would involve acknowledging the frailty of their own bodies. To minister to him would remind them that they, too, someday, would find their bodies failing them and need to be cared for themselves. Since life was good for them at the time, it was easy to forget about their mortality. They may have even resented the man by the side of the road for bringing a vision of their own death to their minds, even if just for the briefest of seconds.
I walk down the hallway to my grandmother’s room. This means passing elderly people in wheelchairs, none of whom seem to have clothes that fit them properly, many of whom are staring out into space or talking to absent conversation partners. I cross my hands in front of me, almost as if in prayer, because the elderly always seem to want to pat your arm or grab your hand, and I really do not want to be touched. Arriving at my grandmother’s room, I am relieved to find that she is asleep. I do not want to wake her, I tell myself as an excuse for not sticking around, and quickly jot a note that I hope someone will read to her later. In it I promise to visit again next week, but deep down I know it will be at least a few weeks before I work up the courage to come back to visit her.
It was the Samaritan who was moved to pity by the man at the side of the road. The Samaritan himself had suffered in a society that expected nothing good to come from Samaria. Maybe he endured taunts or having objects thrown at him. Maybe he was used to being seen personally and professionally as less than everyone else. Having been wounded himself, he was able to recognize and not turn away from the wounds of this man who needed his help. He was able to demonstrate compassion.
In what ways are you like the priest and the Levite? In what situations do you not see?
In what ways are you like the Samaritan? What hurts have you endured that may enable you to be compassionate toward others?
In our world and in our time, who are the people from whom we do not expect to see goodness and compassion?
Last week’s Gospel story was the infamous parable of the Good Samaritan, a story Jesus tells about a Samaritan man who stops to help someone who has been beaten by robbers and left by the side of the road to die (and who has also already been ignored by two well-respected members of society who passed by, a priest and a Levite). As I wrote about last week on this blog, one of the key things to know about this story is that the Samaritans were marginalized people in Jesus’ time, despised by Jews and non-Jews alike. While we today are used to saying the phrase “good Samaritan,” easily associating “good” with “Samaritan,” people at Jesus’ time would have been shocked by pairing “good” with “Samaritan.” They believed nothing good could come from Samaria.
In high school, I was one grade ahead in math, which meant having to sit through math class everyday with students a year ahead of me, most of whom simply ignored my presence. There was one boy from my year who was in the same situation, someone with whom I might have chosen to be friends—Alex. But Alex was on the hockey team, and I was confident that nothing good could come of being friends with someone on the hockey team. So I simply ignored him.
Where did my prejudice against hockey players come from? Well, I grew up in basketball household in a state that loves its hockey. My parents were very clear about their disdain for hockey (and I made the logical leap to assume that anyone who played this Neanderthal sport, which was completely off limits to my siblings and me, must be an idiot). Not to mention the hockey players in my middle school had been arrogant and mean, playing pranks on unsuspecting bystanders and cracking jokes at the expense of whoever was their target of the day.
On the first day of senior year, Alex was not in my first hour class, but then he was in my next four classes. I began the year as I had the other three before: by pretending he did not exist. But as we were forced to work together on class projects and to participate in discussions together, we slowly (and begrudgingly on my part) got to be friends. It turned out we both loved math and playing Trivial Pursuit, listened to the same music, and enjoyed our fiercely competitive tennis matches against each other. Turns out something good can come from the hockey team.
Talking about my prejudice about hockey players in high school may seem like a trivial example, and it is in the face of the very real prejudice that people face everyday based on their sex, race, class, ability, sexuality, and religion, both here in the United State and around the world. (For example, I think of the prejudice that people of the Muslim faith in the U.S. face in the aftermath of 9/11. Many of us likely know a person whose prejudice was, and still is, that nothing good can come from Islam.) But the root of any prejudice is the same: our willingness to ignore or erase the humanity of others. For a long time, I was not willing to treat Alex as a human being; rather, I thought of him as a mere cog in a group of worthless hockey players. When we act based on our prejudices, on our prejudgments about people, we cease to treat them as human beings, as beloved people they are simply because they are children of God.
In the story of the Good Samaritan, Jesus told the crowd that good could indeed come from Samaria. If he were here today, he would likely tell us that good can come from where we least expect it, if we train ourselves to look for goodness everywhere.
As you think about your school, are there groups of people from whom goodness and compassion is not expected? Where do you think these prejudices come from?
As you think about your city and our nation, are there groups of people from whom goodness and compassion is not expected? Where do you think these prejudices come from?
What do you remember about the Good Samaritan story? What would you say the moral of the story is from what you remember?
This Sunday’s Gospel from Luke is one of the better known gospel stories: the parable of the Good Samaritan. In fact, we even use the description “good Samaritan” in our contemporary language to describe someone who generously helps others who are in distress. This story may be so familiar to us that it has lost its radical flavor. We may think that its meaning begins and ends with the fact that we are called to help others in need. But it is a much more interesting story than this when we read the entire passage in which the parable is included and when we know a little bit more about how Samaritans were viewed at the time of Jesus.
The parable of the good Samaritan is told by Jesus in response to a question asked to him my a lawyer. The lawyer begins by asking Jesus, “What must I do to inherit everlasting life?” It is likely not too hard to understand why the lawyer asked this question to Jesus; many of us, at one point or another, have wanted to know what we must do to really be happy in life or to make sure that we are saved in the eyes of God. Like the lawyer, we want some practical guidance as to what exactly we are supposed to do to make sure we are living a good life.
Jesus’ first response to the lawyer is to ask him what is written in the law. By “the law,” Jesus is referring to the law of the Torah as written in the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament, of which the Ten Commandments are central. This lawyer would certainly have known the Jewish law well, for that was his job. His response is to quote Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.” It is important to note here that the idea of loving the neighbor as yourself was not an idea original to Jesus, but rather part of the Jewish law. As we will see, however, Jesus puts a radical spin on this idea in this parable.
At hearing this, Jesus tells the lawyer that he has answered correctly and that if he does this, he shall live. We are told then that the lawyer wishes to “justify himself.” Maybe he felt a bit sheepish that he actually knew what seems like the relatively straight-forward answer to his question. Maybe he was looking for more specific direction in terms of exactly what he had to do to gain eternal life. (And so that he could know what he could get away with!) Whatever the reason, the lawyer then asks, “Who is my neighbor?” and in response, Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan.
Now it is instructive that Jesus tells a parable to answer the man’s question about who counts as his neighbor. Jesus does not just start listing people the man needs to love as his neighbor; rather, he tells a story. And in this story, a man gets beaten up and is left by the side of the road, half-dead. A priest and a Levite (a member of the Hebrew tribe of Levi) both pass by this injured person, see his pain, but continue on their journey without stopping to help. Jesus’ audiences would have known that the priest and the Levite were good Jewish men, men who would have been expected to follow the rules of God, particularly, loving the neighbor as the self. And then the Samaritan passes by and is moved to pity by the sight of this ailing man. Not only does the Samaritan dress the man’s wounds, he also carries him on his own animal to an inn, where he pays for the man’s treatment there.
To understand this surprise ending to the parable, we have to know a little bit about the Samaritans at the time of Jesus. They were a marginalized people, a people despised by Jews and non-Jews alike. The majority culture would have held prejudices against them and believed that nothing good could come from Samaria. For those listening to Jesus’ parable, it would have been shocking to hear that one of these despised Samaritans, someone barely even seen as a person, someone with whom a Jewish person would not be caught dead eating a meal or conversing, would be the one to show compassion.
In telling this story, Jesus demanded that his audience expand their imaginations in a radical way. For the story is just as much about the lawyer as it is about the Samaritan. In telling this story, Jesus informs the lawyer that our neighbor is defined by the needs of others we encounter, even, or perhaps especially if, that person is need is someone we despise the most. In the end, this story is not just a call to help those who need it. It is the message at the heart of Jesus’ mission: that to be happy, whole, saved we must love God by loving our neighbors, even those we do not understand, even those we do not like, even those who do things that we find hateful.
Having read a little bit more about the Good Samaritan parable, how would you now state its meaning in your own words?
Who are the Samaritans in your life? That is, who are the people from whom you do not expect any good to come?
In this Sunday’s Gospel from Luke, we are told that Jesus sets his face to go to Jerusalem. His journey, which is narrated over the next ten chapters in Luke, will take him first to his death on the cross but then to new life in his resurrection. Jesus’ disciples travel with him, a journey that shapes their understanding not only of who Jesus is but also of who they are as children of God. This is truly a life changing journey, not just for them but for all those throughout the centuries who will call themselves Christian. In this journey, the love of God is revealed, a love over which even death has no power.
I read this Sunday’s gospel curled up in the front seat of our minivan, trying to find the position that best optimized a combination of the cool breeze from the AC and the warm sun’s rays as they poured through the windshield. We were on the road for our own journey to the Wisconsin Dells, home of America’s biggest water parks. Certainly, this family vacation pales in comparison to the earth shattering implications of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem. But as I anxiously checked passing license plates, hoping to see the elusive Alaska, and read billboards for 24-hour Perkins, I was flooded with memories of the road trips my family took when I was growing up. Or rather, the one road trip that we took each year at Thanksgiving.
Each year on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, my four siblings and I clamored into the family minivan, having devised an elaborate plan of who got to sit where and for how long—because no one wanted to be stuck in the middle of the back bench seat for the five and a half hours it would take us to get from St. Paul, Minnesota, to Rockford, Illinois, to visit my mom’s sister’s family. By the time we reached the freeway, I had pinned some friendship bracelet string to my pants leg so I could keep my fingers busy while humming along to either Buddy Holly or the Beatles, the only music we could all agree on for any stretch of time. We always stopped for lunch at the “cool,” cow-themed McDonald’s in Tomah, Wisconsin. After checking in to our hotel, we would go to spend time at my aunt and uncle’s house, pitching in with Thanksgiving food preparation and playing board games and the old Atari with my three cousins. Then it was off to the Godfather’s pizza buffet for dinner, so my aunt would not have to cook.
Thursday morning my uncle would be up early to hunt at his deer stand, but he always left a pile of dollar bills on his kitchen table, money that funded our favorite part of Thanksgiving. Each remaining kid and adult got one dollar bill, to be spent on a Thanksgiving-morning trip to Walgreen’s. When he returned from hunting, my uncle would find all of our purchases laid out on the kitchen table and he would judge which item was the best deal for a dollar. The only prize in this context was pride, but much thought went in to our shopping over the years, as we tried to predict which bauble would most capture my uncle’s attention. Would he like the practical hand- warmers or the amusing keychain? Would he be hungry and thus swayed by beef jerky or a bag of jelly beans?
Over the years, the rest of the weekend also fell into a predictable pattern: Thanksgiving dinner, followed by pie and football in the backyard; a Friday morning shopping trip, including a stop at Aunt Mary’s Cafe for delicious cookies and muffins and a chance to sit on Santa’s lap; Saturday morning donuts from the mom and pop shop the next town over before hitting the road to return home. Over the years, this trip became part of our family story. It was part of what made us who we were. To be in our family meant that you participated in this ritual, and we never tired of enacting it or retelling humorous incidents from years past.
Just as the journey to Jerusalem formed Jesus’ disciples and enabled Jesus to enact his saving mission, our more mundane family vacations form us, too. They tell us something about who we are, both as individuals and as members of our families. I do not think it is too much of a stretch to say that family vacations can be part of our spiritual journeys, since it is through them that we live and strengthen the bonds of love in our families, love that is reflective of God’s love for us. And just as our birth families enact identity-constituting rituals on vacation or over the holidays, our Christian family comes together week after week to participate in the ritual of Eucharist, never tiring of enacting this celebration of God’s love for us.
What rituals or journeys have are part of your family story? What do these rituals or journeys tell you about who your family is and who you are?
Have you been on other trips or journeys that have changed you?
June 23, 2013
About a week ago, I was feeling a bit down. And then I found in my inbox an e-mail from one of my favorite clothing stores: “40% Off Most New Arrivals for Summer!” it proclaimed. Now 15% or 25% off would have meant hitting delete, but 40% off? What a steal! Plus, I reasoned, after such a long winter, I deserved to indulge in some new clothes (never mind that I had in my closet enough clothes in good repair that I could go at least a month without doing laundry and still be able to clothe myself). So I spent the next hour browsing the site, adding a pink v-neck here, a black peasant top here, until I had over a dozen selections in my cart. Click “Submit Order.” I do not love the actual act of shopping, but the act of buying new clothes—the promise of a new look, the hope of feeling better about myself because of this new look, the possibility that even my identity will shift slightly as I clothe myself differently—brings with it something akin to euphoria.
“Thump … Ding dong.” Packages hitting the ground, the UPS carrier ringing the doorbell before retreating to his brown van. I pause for a second, considering the environmental impact of my online shopping (the plane that had to bring the clothes here, the van that delivered it to my door). But that thought does not stay in my mind for long, as I giddily dash to my bedroom, ready for my own personal fashion show.
In this week’s Gospel, Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do the crowds say that I am?” As it turns out, there are rumors going around that Jesus is John the Baptist, Elijah, or another prophet of old who has come back to life. Jesus follows up this question by asking his disciples who they say that he is. Peter’s response demonstrates that he has sensed that Jesus is someone different than who the crowds make him out to be, as he proclaims that Jesus is the Messiah of God. Peter believes that Jesus is the Chosen One of God, someone foretold by the prophets who will come to restore power to God’s people and to defeat the enemies of God’s people.
Jesus does not deny being the Messiah, but he goes on to provide a very different image of who the Messiah is, using a different messianic term, Son of Man, to describe himself. The Son of Man is not a political ruler who will overthrow the Roman government and institute a golden age for Judaism. The Son of Man will suffer, be rejected and put to death, and then be raised on the third day. Then Jesus lays out three conditions of discipleship: deny yourself, take up your cross daily, and follow me.
The first thing Jesus says is to deny yourself. Talk of self-denial likely brings to mind Lenten seasons without chocolate or television or video games, but as Joan Mitchell argues, “Jesus asks something more positive and deeper. He challenges his disciples to reorient themselves radically so that the self is no longer the center.”* The point is that we are not called to give something up just for the sake of giving something up; we are called to think about others and God before we think about ourselves. We are called to develop a new relationship to the self, one in which the self is not always the most important.
So as I read this Gospel surrounded by my two boxes of new clothes, the point for me is not that I deny myself the experience of shopping. Rather, the point is that I learn to think about how my shopping reflects who I am before God and how my shopping affects other people and the world in which we live together. Does my worth as a child of God come because I am a consumer? Did I get these clothes so cheaply because a woman or small child worked in horrible conditions and did not get paid a living wage? How does my desire to have new clothes and keep up with trends go against the idea of living simply so that others (and our earth) may simply live?
Mitchell goes on to write, “The requirement to take up the cross daily makes clear that following Jesus will inevitably and regularly bring us into conflict with the powers that be.” Consumerism is a major power in our society. It is easy to go along with that power, buying new things so that we feel better about ourselves. For me, taking up my cross certainly needs to involve working to change my attitude toward and behaviors of consumerism. And this cannot just be denial. Instead of just thinking of consumerism as bad and beating myself up for feeling good when I put on new clothes, I need to think constructively about what I can replace this part of myself with positively. I can celebrate my identity as a beloved child of God, accepted and beautiful as I am because God made me this way. I can practice thrift store shopping and feel good about getting something that is new to me while also allowing me to reuse something someone else was ready to be finished with. I can make a point of researching where the clothes I buy are made, so that I can support companies that provide good working conditions and pay a fair wage. Taking up our cross is never easy work, but that does not mean we shouldn’t find ways to feel good about the disciples we are training to be as we follow in Christ’s footsteps.
Who do you say that Jesus is?
When you hear the phrase, “Deny yourself,” what do you think of? Does it help to think of denial as not just self-denial in negative terms but rather as re-orienting yourself to think more of God and others? Why or why not?
What do you think is a cross you are called to take up daily? How might taking up this cross put you in conflict with the powers that be in the world?
*Joan Mitchell, Sunday by Sunday, vol. 22, no. 40, June 23, 2013.
Shannon and I are sitting at a table in our relatively quiet school library during homeroom. I am trying to get a few math problems done, and Shannon is filling me in on whatever social issue is most important to her at this moment. As she talks, her voice gets louder and louder, her language, harsher. As she talks, I slide down in my chair, knowing that EVERYONE is looking at us. When she looks at me pointedly and asks, “Don’t you agree?” I seriously contemplate diving under the table and crawling away, partially because I really have no idea if I agree with her or not, partially because I have worked hard to cultivate an image of invisibility in high school, which her rant is in serious danger of undoing. I make a habit of not having opinions, at least not any that might have even the slightest chance of offending someone, and do not want to be deemed guilty by association. But Shannon is funny and shares my sarcastic sense of humor, and she has been for me when I have most needed it, so I settle on a compromise. Instead of slinking away, I just mumble, “I’m not sure,” and pray she will leave me alone as I pretend to struggle mightily with the math problem before me.
Simon, a Pharisee, has invited this new preacher Jesus to dine at his house. He wants to see what all the fuss is about. The Pharisees are well-respected teachers of the Jewish faith who help the Jewish people learn how to live the laws of Judaism. This is tricky work, since eating the wrong food or associating with the wrong person could lead someone to be considered unclean or a sinner and thus not worthy in the eyes of God. Simon has a passion for helping people be right before God.
As Simon, Jesus, and some of Jesus’ followers (who seem a bit rag-tag to Simon) recline at the table, a woman comes in carrying a jar of expensive ointment. Simon recognizes this woman; she is a well-known prostitute, a sinner through and through. To Simon’s utter dismay, this nameless and “unclean” woman starts weeping, bathing Jesus’ feet with her tears. She then dries his feet with her hair, kisses them, and anoints them with the ointment she has brought. Simon is uncomfortable with this sensuous show of love and service by this unseemly woman.
Simon had been certain that Jesus was a prophet, but now he knows this cannot be true. A prophet would have known that this woman was unholy and not allowed her to touch him, lest he, too become unclean and unworthy in the eyes of God. Simon is shocked that Jesus has let this woman taint him this way.
In Jesus’ response to Simon in this Sunday’s gospel, Jesus teaches us some important things about human identity, as well as what it means to be hospitable and to show love. First, Jesus shows us that who we are is not dependent on the actions of the other people in our lives. Just as I was afraid that people would think negatively of me because of my friendship with Shannon, Simon is worried that Jesus will be made guilty by association with this woman, who Simon can only see as a prostitute. While Jesus never says so in so many words, the fact that Jesus does allow the woman to wash, dry, and anoint his feet demonstrates that he is not worried about what his association with her means. Who other people are does not change who he is: a man of compassion who reaches out to all those in need of love and forgiveness. My self-consciousness in the library made it hard for me to see that who Shannon was did not mean I could not be who I was meant to be. While human beings are certainly made to be in relation to others, we also each have our own individual dignity as children of God.
But even more importantly than that, Jesus also helps us to see that all people are more than just one thing and calls us to see other human beings (and ourselves) in their entirety. In response to Simon’s concern, Jesus asks him, “Do you see this woman?” Whereas Simon had not provided water for Jesus to wash his feet when he entered his home (a sign of hospitality in Jesus’ culture), this woman had made this gesture of welcome to Jesus. Beyond this, she shows affection for him. When he asks Simon, “Do you see this woman?” Jesus is asking Simon to see beyond her identity as a sinner in order to see her as more than this, as someone who is capable of being a host and a friend. In Jesus’ eyes, this woman is not defined by her past sins but rather by her status of a beloved child of God who is able to give love in return.
When have you been worried about how your reputation or identity would be affected by those with whom you spend time?
When have you been guilty of judging people based on just part of who they are?
Have you ever been afraid that you were defined by the things you least like about yourself? What strengths do you have as a person? What gifts do you have to offer the world?
What does it mean to show hospitality in our time and place? How can you show hospitality to the people you encounter?