Thursday, July 11, 2019

Answer The Question

When everyone was preparing for exams in Cambridge, the Dean of St. John's College would offer some helpful advice during the Sunday-morning chapel breakfast. He'd offer a few valuable insights, and, as he concluded his remarks, he always finished with some form of "ANSWER THE QUESTION." In that model of examination, students spend an entire academic year reading and writing and learning in anticipation of the final exams. It's tempting, therefore, to see a question about Paul and misogyny and start regurgitating the practice essay you'd written about Paul's treatment of women in his letters, when, in fact, the question was something like, "What was Paul's vision for gender roles in the church?" They're related topics, but, in order to get a good mark, the student must tailor her response to the question that has been set.

On Sunday morning, as we hear the familiar parable of the Good Samaritan, we need to pay attention to the question Jesus is answering with his story or else we might come up with an answer that doesn't actually fit the situation. Notice that a lawyer comes to Jesus and asks what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus responds by asking the lawyer to demonstrate what is written in the law, and the man offers the expected response: love God and love your neighbor. There's nothing wrong with that. But the lawyer goes a step further. "Wanting to justify himself, he ask[s] Jesus, 'And who is my neighbor?'"

Jesus answers the man's question with a story. In the parable, we see that neither a priest nor a Levite stop to help a man in need. Instead, a Samaritan checks on the man, tends to his wounds, carries him to a nearby inn, spends the night caring for him, and provides the money to the innkeeper and promises to pay whatever is needed to care for the man.

The story is a remarkable challenge to ethnic prejudice. Samaritans hated Jews, and Jews hated Samaritans. Preachers who use football rivalries to convey the enmity between the peoples do not do it justice. I don't like Auburn fans in the sense that they cheer for Auburn, but I don't have a problem respecting their humanity, calling them friends, and loving them. Samaritans and Jews thought of each other as less than human. If three Samaritans were in a bar, and one of them said to his friends, "What do you call a robbed, beaten, and left-for-dead Jew?" the presumed answer would be, "Good news." For the hero in the story to be a Samaritan, therefore, is to throw all of the assumptions of the lawyer, Jesus' Jewish audience, and those of us who read and retell this story out the window. If you understand the ethnic background, you cannot hear this story without being challenged.

This is not a story about caring for those in need. Even though the Samaritan did far more than what would have been expected of any good citizen, this is not a parable that teaches us to drop everything and care for the wounded, homeless, sick, malnourished person we come across. Remember the question that the man asks Jesus: "Who is my neighbor?" When Jesus finishes the story, he says, "Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?" Refusing, perhaps, to say the dreaded name of the rival people, the man replied, "The one who showed mercy." This isn't a story about showing mercy. It's a story about neighbors. The final instruction Jesus offers, "Go and do likewise," means "Go and treat even Samaritans with mercy, loving them as much as you love yourself."

Love your neighbor as yourself. Who is your neighbor? Exactly. We don't need help loving the people who love us. We don't need God to send God's Son to the world and take our nature upon himself and die on the cross and be raised again to learn how to love our family and friends. Following Jesus and pursuing the reign of God is about loving the ones who hate us, who persecute us, who wish we were dead and loving them as much as we love ourselves. That's the barrier-shattering love that God shows us in Jesus. This Sunday, as we hear a familiar story, don't forget the question that is being asked. This isn't about "What must I do?" but "Whom must I love?"

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