Thursday, June 9, 2011

What is Love?

Who are our Samaritans? Nationally, culturally, who plays the role of our modern-day Samaritans? We don’t really have a rival like that. I can see the contemporary Israel-Palestine tension being similar to the Jewish-Samaritan conflict in the bible. But who are our collective nemeses?

I’m asking because in today’s gospel lesson (Luke 10:25-37), I want to know just how difficult (painful) it was for the lawyer who was seeking to justify himself to answer Jesus’ question about which of the three who passed by the injured man was actually his neighbor. “The one who showed mercy on him,” the supplicant stammered out, unwilling to actually say the word “Samaritan.” The power of Jesus’ proverbial tale is the background that lay between Jew and Samaritan. The real meaning of the instruction for us is caught up in an historic cultural situation to which I’m not sure we have a parallel. So who are our Samaritans?

As an individual who cheers for the University of Alabama, I’m not particularly fond of rabid Auburn fans, but I don’t hope they all burn in hell. Yankees, too, stick out to a southerner, but we’re well beyond Reconstruction, and I’ve even been known to sit down at a meal with a northerner when the occasion presents itself. As an American, I recognize that there are some terrorist extremists who hope for my demise, but I don’t have enough cultural history in common with them to make their hatred anything more than an abstract yearning that I hardly comprehend. There was a time when many Americans weren’t fond of  the French because they were critical of our military campaigns, sparking a movement to rename one of my favorite side dishes “Freedom Fries,” but that’s just silly.

I don’t really think that we have a communal cultural rival who shares a lot in common with us, split off at some point in the past, and has sense become a bitter enemy upon whom we look with unqualified disdain. But, if we did, they would be our Samaritans. So this story about the Samaritan who goes out of his way to do what neither the Priest nor the Levite would do—take care of a wounded man—doesn’t really have a corporate resonance in our society. It’s not “cool” these days to hate people just because of their race, religion, or other demographic identity.  I’m not saying we need someone to hate, but, since we don’t have anyone to vilify in that way, it’s hard for me to grasp the emotion behind this lesson.

We read the story of the Good Samaritan and know the right answer. We know what the man is supposed to say, and we know what Jesus is trying to communicate—neighbors aren’t just people who live next-door to us. But, when this episode was initially unfolding, I’m not sure the right answer was known. I almost wonder whether the lawyer answered with an upturned, questioning voice: “…the one who showed him mercy? I guess? But how can that be?

The lawyer had just quoted a summary of the law that we still use today: “Love the Lord…and love your neighbor as yourself.” And Jesus had just told the lawyer that the one who is his neighbor is the one he’s always thought of as enemy. “Loose lips sink ships, but Jesus wants me to befriend the enemy? He’s saying that loving God and loving the Samaritan go hand in hand? Wouldn’t it just be better for the Jew lying in the ditch to die than for him to be rescued by a Samaritan?”

This isn’t a parable about being charitable to strangers. It isn’t a story about breaking down walls and being reconciled to archrivals. It isn’t even a story about discovering what unites all of humanity. This is a story about love. And loving God is worthless unless we love the one we hate the most with the same intensity. Love isn’t an emotion. Love isn’t something we generate in response to a relationship with those who are like us—relatives, friends, compatriots. Love is an openness. It’s an invitation. It’s a way of being. One cannot love only a few. To love anyone is to love everyone equally. Otherwise, it isn’t love—it’s just sentimental preference.

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