In the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 10, verses 25-37, Jesus engages a superstar in the religious world in a dialogue. The man asks Jesus the requirements for “inheriting eternal life.” Jesus points him to the Word, asking him what it says. The religious guy fuses Deuteronomy 6:5 to Leviticus 19:18, answering: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.'”
Jesus responds: “Bravo. Great answer. Now live it.” And with three quick words, blood has been drawn. The man is good at everything…but living it. So, trying to recover, he asks Jesus to explain what he means. Insightfully, he asks Jesus the key question: “Who is my neighbor?” In other words, what does it look like to love your neighbor? Maybe his study of scripture has made him a good lover of his neighbor. After all, knowing God’s Word will help the whole world! What about all of the God-stuff he does? That certainly is helping the world! We need more people in churches. That’s the reason the world is dying. No one even goes to church anymore! Right?
Most probably, this man is asking Jesus to help him improve his religious performance. Growing up in a church surrounded by men and women who have truly known the Lord (or not!), many church people grow up learning to meet every requirement of them. They become like trained pets. All they need is a description of the behaviors necessary and they can do them. If it is about going to church, they go to church. If it is about worshiping, they worship with more passion than anyone. If it is about giving, they give the most spectacularly. If it is outreach you are after, they serve with their entire family at the city’s most esteemed nonprofit. The technical term for this is “isomorphic mimicry.” It is when a person never actually becomes something authentic but rather learns to mimic genuine things. The religious leader in the story is asking for his lines and directions so he can go and add even better technique to his religious life. He is missing, however, the heart and power of God and Jesus uses the conversation to go right to the man’s heart. Always, Jesus is after our hearts.
We think of the supernatural power of God being demonstrated in Jesus’s life only in the miracles. However, if we really read the Gospels from a fresh, open place, we can see the power of the Holy Spirit coursing through every word, particularly when Jesus enters into conversations. He has the capacity to read the other person’s heart, to speak out of Father’s heart and to speak out of the reality of the Kingdom in a way that changes the life of the person He is talking to. Yet beyond that, many times Jesus says things in conversations that change the course of history. The parable of the Good Samaritan is one of these instances.
It can be hard for us to take stories from the Bible, particularly Jesus’s parables, and to understand them in our context today. This hurts us because the exact purpose of Jesus using parables was to take eternal truths and to draw them down into people’s daily lives to help them see exactly where they stood. So I want to take the Parable of the Good Samaritan and retell it as the Parable of the Good Suburbanite. Please be careful in reading this. Parables, we have to remember, are meant to blow our lives apart and reconstruct them around the person and power of God.
The story starts with a man taking a trip that originates in Washington, D.C. or Los Angeles, CA. In order to decide what this city should be for you, remember that Jerusalem was the Holy City, particularly for the religious. So for you, in our culture, what would be your holy city? I think you first would have to look at what you worship with your life: Do you spend endless hours enveloped in pop culture? Then your holy city is L.A.. Are you absolutely wrapped up in politics, hanging on every hour of content from CNN or Fox, depending on your bent? Then D.C. is probably your Jerusalem. If you are huge on the stock market and investments, you probably want to see NYC as your holy city. Addicted to technology? Probably want to focus on Silicon Valley.
So you jump into your hybrid car and are heading from your holy city to Jericho. Stop. What would Jericho be for you? In New Testament times, Jericho was a thriving economic center. So Jericho is the place that your holy city gets its funding! While this would most likely be online right now, lets choose instead a city an hour away from your holy city, a place where a salesman might go to make a pitch. LA to San Diego? DC to Baltimore? Silicon Valley to San Fran?
As you are driving, you see an immigrant family broken down on the side of the road. It is clear that they are crying and bloodied. You can’t tell this as you approach them but, after their car sputtered to a stop, they were beaten by a group that came up on them and everything they have was taken from them. The wife is seven months pregnant and moaning, in need of medical care. The husband has been beaten unconcious. The children are crying and stepping out into the road. I will let you fill in the details of the motive of their attackers for yourself.
So now, you enter the scene. You get to pick who you are in the story. Cool, huh?
In the first take, you are a member of a church planting team or a home group leader at your church. You are late for a conference on being missional and really, really aware of how much the enemy is after you and your family. You have dedicated yourself to God’s work and know that you have to walk carefully. Your quick heart read of the situation is that you are late, this is probably a satanic trap and then you rationalize how the family is out in such a public area that law enforcement will surely come quickly. This inspires you to turn on NPR radio and you see the hand of God in how the next segment is on tax reform. You see the Holy Spirit leading your day as you think about how important our public services are and start to write a small sermon for your next meeting about our place in the public space.
Ok, take two. This time you are an amazingly gifted guitarist with a voice like honey who is headed to a worship practice. The past few weeks have been powerful. In fact, you just wrote a great blog post about how God is moving and, by His grace, allowing you into it on your blog (www.hishandmovesme.wordpress.com) You stayed a bit too late in your quiet time and, now on your way, just remembered that you forgot to buy new guitar strings last night. Many pharisaical people have been pushing you about attention to details in your life but you have really seen it as a ministry opportunity to redirect them back to a life in the Spirit, living by His grace.
And now you see them…a poor family, so hurt. So vulnerable. Your heart leaps to your throat. You start to slow down. You even see the small boy stumble out into the road and you narrowly swerve to miss him. As your heart races, you see the clock and perform a mental Google search, looking for some idea of what you should do. You really have had so little interaction with anyone outside of church for the last decade. Between family time, time with your fiancee, time in bible studies, going to grad school and the worship thing, there just is not time in the day. You realize that you wouldn’t do this family justice. They don’t need you. They need someone who does this thing. So you start to pray: “Lord, send the right guy or girl to help these beautiful people.” And then it happens. The miracle. The lyrics to a new song come about how people are vulnerable, like lost sheep. You describe the little boy inching to the road. As you work on the bridge, the family disappears in the rear view window.
So the next part gets almost too spicy to touch. The Samaritans were not simply outcasts: They were the despised enemies of the Jews. As Dr. Amy-Jill Levine discusses in a column in the January/February 2012 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, the parable offers “a vision of life rather than death. It evokes 2 Chronicles 28, which recounts how the prophet Oded convinced the Samaritans to aid their Judean captives. It insists that enemies can prove to be neighbors, that compassion has no boundaries, and that judging people on the basis of their religion or ethnicity will leave us dying in a ditch.” So who would Jesus have used in this story to shock your heart if it were you in the conversation? Would it have been a member of the opposite political party? A poor person? A refugee? Someone within the LGBT community? A Muslim? A murderer? The truth is, it would have been whoever you would have hated for it to be.
Jesus’s point in the story is that the person you most despise, as they pulled their car over, interupted their day and their life and cared for this family, that person who “had mercy” on the family, is the one who loved their neighbor. Good thoughts, good living, good theology are all trumped by love. Love is an action verb. If God is love, anything good has to draw us to love better and, in fact, to “live a life of love.”
Jesus’s final words in the conversation reverberate across the millenium. “Go and do likewise.” What will you do today to love better? Will you be the Good Suburbanite?