Affirmation No. 7: We are all good and bad

Enjoy this monthly post from Patrick Riecke, director, Chaplaincy and Volunteer Services.

One day an expert in religious law stood up to test Jesus by asking him this question: “Teacher, what should I do to inherit eternal life?”

Jesus replied, “What does the law of Moses say? How do you read it?”

The man answered, “‘You must love the Lord your God...’ And, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”

“Right!” Jesus told him. “Do this and you will live!”

The man wanted to justify his actions, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

Luke 10:25-29

This question may seem meaningless to you. To qualify what Jesus means by “neighbor”, you realize, is a futile semantic game. But it was a valid question in the first century.

This commandment was an ancient one, but Jesus’ contemporaries had a certain way to interpret the “love thy neighbor” directive. They mostly would have applied it only to those religiously similar to themselves.

In other words, “love your neighbor” meant to “love those who are like you”.

Crazy, right?

This may sound totally foreign to you, but let me couch it in more familiar terms.

They took “love your neighbor as yourself” as applying to some people, but not to others. For many of Jesus’ listeners that day, the world was divided into “us” and “them”. The approved people and “Those people”

Crazy, right?

I mean, can you imagine living in a world that sometimes divided people into two categories, considered some people more valuable that others because of race, religion, geography or ethnicity?

Crazy, right?

Sounds awful.

Dividing the world in this way did not end with the in the first century. Let’s be honest for a minute. We still often divide our world into two categories—good and bad, friends and adversaries, right and wrong, in and out. Or, more simply, Us and Them.

Who qualifies as “them” for you?

People from another country? Another religion? Another sexual orientation? Another gender? Another political party? Another team’s fan base? Old people? Young people? Rich people? Poor people?

Who qualifies as “them” or “those people” in your mind?

So, the man says, “who is my neighbor?” He wanted to be clear about who was in and who was out. Who did he actually have to love? He doesn’t realize that he is asking the wrong question, but he is about to find that out.

Parable of the Good Samaritan

Jesus replied with a story: “A Jewish man was traveling from Jerusalem down to Jericho, and he was attacked by bandits. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him up, and left him half dead beside the road. By chance a priest came along. But when he saw the man lying there, he crossed to the other side of the road and passed him by. A Temple assistant walked over and looked at him lying there, but he also passed by on the other side. Then a despised Samaritan came along, and when he saw the man, he felt compassion for him. Going over to him, the Samaritan soothed his wounds with olive oil and wine and bandaged them. Then he put the man on his own donkey and took him to an inn, where he took care of him. The next day he handed the innkeeper two silver coins, telling him, ‘Take care of this man. If his bill runs higher than this, I’ll pay you the next time I’m here.”

“Now which of these three would you say was a neighbor to the man who was attacked by bandits?” Jesus asked.

The man replied, “The one who showed him mercy.”

Then Jesus said, “Yes, now go and do the same.”

The man asked, “who is my neighbor?”

Jesus asks, “Who was a neighbor to the man in need?”

Expansion and Contraction

Each of these questions has a trajectory.

The man’s question, “who is my neighbor?”, is directed inward, it is constricting.

He wants to draw the circle only as large as absolutely necessary—to keep it as small as possible. The trajectory of his question is inward—it is one of constriction.

Jesus asks, “Who was a neighbor to the man in need?”

The trajectory of his question is expansion. Could even this Samaritan be a neighbor to the man in need? Yes, the circle is expanding enough to include him.

 

Jesus effectively takes the category of “them” for this man and says, “Not only can you love them, but you can be loved by them.”

Progression

There is a progression as we learn to love our neighbors. Where would you gage yourself on this continuum?

  1. I love those like me and hate them (people different from me).
    1. In childhood our dividing lines tend to be age, gender, or affinity.
    2. In adulthood our dividing lines tend to be social or cultural.
  2. I love those like me and treat them as a charity case.
    1. I give them money, I allow them to have rights.
    2. I am nice to them primarily to make myself feel like I am loving my neighbor.
  3. I love those like me and I begin to understand them.
    1. I actually know them now and begin to understand their perspective.
    2. The wall between us and them begins to slowly crumble.
  4. I realize I am one of them.
    1. Once understanding has broken the walls down, there is no longer any us/them.
    2. I begin to accept that we are all on level playing ground and I actually begin to love my neighbor.
  5. I can accept love from them.
    1. No longer must I fancy myself the giver of charity and them as the meager beneficiaries.
    2. I can allow a person with whom I would not have associated in Stage 1, to actually care for me in a real and practical way.

Jesus leads us, in this parable, from loving only those like ourselves to being not only a giver of love to them, but also a receiver of love from them.

Here is the critical question we have not asked about the Parable of the Good Samaritan: With whom would those listening to the story of the Good Samaritan have identified?

Not the Samaritan. The crowd was not Samaritan, and they didn’t have affinity for Samaritans. Not the priest—any more than a crowd of any size would associate with a priest in a story today. Not the temple helper.

The character in the story they would have associated with? The man on the side of the road. They would have identified with the average person, victimized as he went about his daily duties.

Like any good story teller, Jesus knew which character his crowd would connect with and feel sympathy for. He lures them in, and then delivers the climax of the story. The man is loved by them. The other. The outcast. The “bad person”. The outcast, the ‘bad person’, puts his hands on him. Picks him up. Puts him on his donkey. Bandages his hurt places. Pays for his stay. And checks back on him some time later.

We usually identify with the Samaritan—and this parable is used today to tell us to help other people (obviously a good message). However, the original hearers would have identified with the hurting man on the side of the road.

How do I know when I live up to the message of this Parable? Not when I help my neighbor who not like me. But when I can let him help me.

Who is they for you?

If you were broken and bleeding on the side of the road, could you let a person from your least favorite group of people help you?

The ultimate climax of my intention to love my neighbor is not when I help them. It’s when I can accept the love from my neighbor.

Three questions to close:

  1. Who are “those people” for you?
  2. And where are you on the progression from #1 to #5?
  3. How skilled are you at accepting mercy from people unlike you?

 

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