As I prepare for Sunday, and think about the Gospel Lesson, here are my thoughts.
It’s an argument between worthy adversaries. The lawyer vets him before he really gets to the heart of the matter. He asks an easy question, one known to anyone that might study the Torah, “What must I do to have a deeper relationship with God?” And Jesus lobs it right back at him. “What do you read?” Ah. The Socratic method. This expert in the law is ready for a real debate. This is a guy who can hold his own. This is a guy that knows his stuff. And so, the lawyer asks, “And who is my neighbor?”
It’s there that this argument between these two men is interrupted. We no longer pay attention to their give-and-take and instead get sidetracked by this story that Jesus tells — a story many of us know very well. It’s this story that answers the expert’s question. But, I want to stay with Jesus and his lawyer friend. I want to understand what allows them to debate in this way. Is it respect? Or esteem? What else have they argued about? Or is this the very first time that they have allowed themselves to agitate each other in this way? I find myself thinking about the people that I love to argue with — those that I love and deeply respect. And we might agree on some things but there’s one thing that we don’t agree on. There’s one topic that whenever it emerges, we both get that sly smile, knowing that we could rip each other’s heads off with great wit. We could totally piss the other off if we choose to enter into this debate.
|Vincent van Gogh’s The Good Samaritan|
Because it seems to me that it’s that kind of debate. And because of that I can’t quite wrap my head around the interruption in this debate — where this story we know so very appears and steals all of the attention. As readers, we give this story all of the attention. We ignore this expert of the law. We dismiss that it was his question that made Jesus tell this story. We let the parable trump the whole interaction which is fine, I guess.
But, it means that the lawyer has to put himself in the story. He asked who his neighbor was. This is personal. This isn’t an abstract argument where you get to judge the first two passerby knowing very well that you would fulfill the role of the Samaritan. No, no. You don’t get to be the hero. You want to know who your neighbor is? You have to find yourself in the ditch. You were passed over by a priest and then Levite and then the last person on earth that you would have ever accepted help from comes along and helps you out of that ditch. The trouble is: it’s so much easier to see yourself as the hero than as the one who was stripped, beaten and left for dead.
The lawyer — this expert in the law — certainly didn’t see himself this way. And yet, even his first question to Jesus, even in the softball question, he wants to know how he might have a deeper relationship with God. Even if he didn’t want to see it — something in him had already been stripped, beaten and left for dead. Surely you’ve been there before. You’ve fallen into that ditch where you feel stripped of any answers, beaten by too many questions and part of you (if not all of you) feels dead. Barbara Brown Taylor describes it well in An Altar in the World:
The questions people ask about God in Sunday school rarely compare with the questions we ask while we are in the hospital. This goes for those stuck in the waiting room as well as those in actual beds… To spend one night in real pain is to discover the depths of reality that are roped off while everything is going fine. Why me? Why now? Why this?
Because there in that ditch is where all your assumptions (all of those things that you think you know) fall apart. You’ve asked those questions. You know what it feels like. You know that from that place — looking out of that ditch — you are hoping that someone will offer you some kindness. Someone will understand. This is no longer an argument between worthy adversaries. Because Jesus just pointed out what the lawyer was trying to hide. He didn’t want this part to be seen — but there it is in his very first question. He is longing for a deeper intimacy with God. And he expects someone else to make that happen for him.
And Jesus tells him a story where he has to feel that pain and recognize that if he wants to pull himself out of that place — if he wants to feel God’s presence — he’s gotta accept another’s help. Not just anyone either. The last person on earth that you would ever want to help you. That’s who your neighbor will be. That’s who will teach you about God’s kindness. That’s who will reveal God’s presence to you — if you can see that man in the ditch as yourself.