Sunday, July 15, 2007
The Upside-Down World of Jesus
When my wife Renée and I were expecting the birth of our son William about three years ago now, we were given a popular book that many mothers swear by: What to Expect When You’re Expecting. I’m sure that some of you recognize it. The cover has a picture of a young mother-to-be, rocking peacefully in a serene scene full of bliss and joy. It sounds nice doesn’t it. It didn’t take long after William was born—a couple of sleepless nights to be exact—for me to begin to think that there was something a little slick and slightly dishonest about the title. It’s not that I’m not grateful for books which try to prepare parents-to-be for what they are about to experience. It’s just that having a baby and becoming a parent is such an unexpected, interrupting and world-altering experience that by definition, expecting what’s going to happen is a stretch, to say the least.
We may go into life and the situations we encounter along the way with all sorts of expectations and, if we make the mistake of taking ourselves too seriously, we can be bound to those expectations—and we can get bitter if things don’t work out the way we want. When your world is turned upside-down by something like the birth of a child, you quickly realize that what you thought you recognized as the lay of the land, is actually a completely different landscape. It’s unsettling and it takes time for our eyes to adjust to our new surroundings.
Something similar is going on in today’s gospel with the lawyer we meet. We’re all somewhat familiar with this parable. The parable of the Good Samaritan has indeed seeped into our common vocabulary and popular culture. It’s just another example of the Golden Rule right? “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you?” This is usually what we think of when we read the parable—at least that’s the way it was always taught to me. It’s a moral lesson about being good to people, about helping others, about loving thy neighbour as thyself. It’s about being ‘good’ just like the Samaritan, right?
Well, that’s certainly part of it, but if we leave it at this we really miss the subversive nature of Jesus’ parable and indeed of the gospel as a whole. There’s something much more radical going on here—the parable, if we actually read it, or rather allow it to read us, is quite a challenging and unsettling one—it’s a world altering story. And here’s a tip: if we read one of Jesus’ parables and we feel comfortable and settled, chances are that we’ve misread it.
A lawyer, one soaked in the Hebrew law and Jewish religious customs, approaches Jesus, not with a question but with a challenge, with a test, with a public legal dispute. In the Greek we have a strong verb here—and with the tone we get the sense that the lawyer is trying to entrap Jesus—this certainly wouldn’t be the first time. There’s a sense of hostility here—this is no courteous conversation over a cup of tea. The lawyer means business, as they often do.
The lawyer came thinking he knew what to expect from Jesus—he knew what Jesus would say—he had it all figured out, this legal stuff. After all, he had studied the law for quite a long time. “Rabbi, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” The lawyer is asking the question, not in order to hear something—he didn’t come ready to listen to Jesus, rather he wanted to say something—he wanted to test Jesus’ fidelity to the law. This legal question may indeed be a veiled assault on Jesus’ ministry with the unclean, with those whom Jesus treated as his neighbours. The lawyer came expecting Jesus to play ball.
But instead of answering his question, Jesus throws it back to lawyer—“Well, you, lawyer, you know the law better than anyone—how do you read the law?” This is really a trick question on the part of Jesus and you can sense Jesus’ sarcasm here—of course any good Jew knew the law: 1) Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind, and 2) Love your neighbours as yourself. “Rabbi, that’s an easy answer!” “Well”, says Jesus, “you know the law, A+, bang on—do that, and you’ll find all the life you need.”
The lawyer’s feathers are ruffled, he wants to justify himself, to defend his case, he wants Jesus to meet his expectations. So he can’t just let it go at that. Loving God, well, that’s the easy part of the law…we all know who God is. But, on the neighbour thing, we’re a little less clear. “So, just who is my neighbour, exactly Rabbi”? His question is that of a point of legality and did in fact concern a central issue in Jewish law. Ancient Jews defined the neighbour in terms of insiders and outsiders and generally a neighbour for a Jew was considered to be a fellow Israelite. But this lawyer wanted an exact definition just in case the legal question of loving one ever came up. He wants to know who the law demands that he love. He wants boundaries, because boundaries make life easier to live. He wants a reality defined in terms of those inside and those outside. If we know who are neighbours are, we can offer them our love. We can meet the demands of the law if we know what the law demands.
But Jesus doesn’t answer his question...he doesn’t play ball here either. Instead, Jesus did what he did best: he told him a story. A traveler who was on his way to Jericho, is attacked, robbed, beaten and left for dead in a ditch. By chance, a priest and then a Levite pass by without offering any help. The priest and the Levite would have been two people extremely stringent on the law (in fact, many priests were also lawyers—a point certainly not lost on the lawyer questioning Jesus). They pass by, presumably, to avoid contamination and defilement by a dead, or a soon to be dead body—the only dead body a priest could defile himself with by touching was a member of his own immediate family for the purposes of burial.
But now a Samaritan came walking by, he had pity on the stranger, bandaged his wounds and brought him to an inn where he could get well and made sure that he did. We need to understand the radical nature of this dramatic turn of events. What Jesus’ audience would have understood is that the Jews saw the Samaritans as the lowest of the low. A neighbour was one on the inside and anyone outside of that circle was excluded from this category. Samaritans were definitely on the outside—no group was more unacceptable to the Jews of this time—they ranked lower on the scale than did Gentile slaves. For example, if a Samaritan volunteered to pay the temple tax, it was to be returned to them.
So, Jesus asks him point blank, who here was a neighbour to the man? Notice Luke’s intent: he reminds us again that Jesus is speaking to ‘the one who was an expert in the law, and so the expert answers “The one who showed mercy.” Luke wants us to appreciate the great shock of the lawyer’s confession. “Go and do likewise” Jesus tells him.
Jesus was very intentional in his choice of characters here. He chooses the most despised outsider who was unfit for friendship with a Jew as the hero of this parable to deliberately shock, provoke and scandalize his audience. What Jesus’ story does is to effectively turn the lawyer’s world upside-down and inside-out. The lawyer came expecting one thing, but he got another thing entirely—he is confronted, challenged and striped bare with this parable. Everything the lawyer takes for granted, everything he expects is put into question and revolutionized. And notice that Jesus never answers his question, “who is my neighbour” but with the parable, with the story he tells, he forces the lawyer to re-think his presuppositions behind his question. Jesus doesn’t answer his question because in Jesus’ world, the question is unanswerable and ought not even be asked in the first place.
In Jesus’ world, love doesn’t begin by defining its objects but rather discovers them. Jesus turns the question around and inside-out: he never gives the lawyer the boundaries, the restrictions he wants because “neighbourhood” is defined for Jesus not in terms of the object of love. Rather the identity of neighbour is caught up with the subject, the one who shows mercy. The identity of the neighbour shifts from the one who receives mercy (from who is eligible for our love and mercy) to the subject who shows mercy. The question is not, “who is my neighbour?”, but “who am I as a neighbour to those I encounter along life’s way?”—and by this shift Jesus effectively erases any boundaries—if a Jew could admit that the hated Samaritan was the neighbour in this case, then there are no boundaries, no working definition to make life easier. Jesus places the enemy in the position of the elect and becomes the example for the community. This is a mind-blowing, reality altering way of looking at the world and it’s a hard reality for the lawyer to swallow. And notice that we aren’t left knowing how the lawyer reacted to all of this. Jesus’ intent was to clearly change this man’s perspective on reality, but we’re never told how the story ends for the lawyer. Did he go and do likewise, or did he remain stuck in his way of doing things?
We come to church sometimes like the lawyer came to Jesus, don’t we? We may not be hostile (or, indeed sometimes we may). But we do come with our expectations of what church should be, how things should be done, and sometimes with a very strict definition of who is in and who is out. And, more often than not, we come thinking we know what Jesus is all about—we don’t expect to be confronted by Jesus. But, just like the lawyer who thought that he knew what’s what, Jesus doesn’t leave us, with our boundaries and definitions, and expectations unchallenged or unprovoked.
Jesus told this parable to turn the lawyer’s world upside-down and today this parable is for us an invitation to the quite unexpected world of Jesus where Samaritans, the despised outsiders of society and not the religious leaders of the day are the heroes of the story. Where enemies, those we consider to be on the outside are really on the inside. A world where we are shocked to find out that the first are really last and the last are in fact, first.
It is an invitation to a way of life, to a community that doesn’t seek to set boundaries of who is in and who is out—who we love and show mercy to, and who we leave in the ditch for dead. It’s an invitation to live as a follower of Jesus not with our expectations controlling our lives (for we all sometimes get caught up with the expectations we place on each other and on God or especially with the expectations we feel are made of us) but an invitation to have our lives overwhelmed, turned upside-down and inside-out by the miracle of God’s grace.
And just as we don’t know how the lawyer reacted to this provocation, to this quite unexpected turn of events, I don’t know how you’ve reacted to the reality altering world and ways of Jesus in your own life. The invitation to encounter this Jesus who transforms and revolutionizes our lives is open to everyone—and if we let him, he will turn our worlds upside-down.