The Good Heretic
Southminster Presbyterian Church
May 3, 2015
On one occasion, a legal expert stood up to put him to the test with a question: “Teacher, what do I have to do to inherit eternal life?”
He said to him, “How do you read what is written in the law?”
And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and will all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”
Jesus said to him, “You’re right; do this and you will have life.”
But trying to justify himself, he said to Jesus, “But who is my neighbor?”
“This man was on his way from Jerusalem down to Jericho when he fell into the hands of bandits. The stripped him, beat him, and went off, leaving him half dead. Now by coincidence a priest was going down that road; when he caught sight of him, he went out of his way to avoid him. In the same way, when a Levite came to the place, he took one look at him and crossed the road to avoid him. But this Samaritan was traveling that way. When he came to where he was and caught sight of him, his heart went out to him. He went up to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring olive oil and wine on them. He hoisted him onto his own animal, brought him to an inn, and looked after him. The next day he took out two denarii, which he gave to the innkeeper and said, ‘Look after him, and on my way back I’ll reimburse you for any extra expense you’ve had.’
“Which of these three, in your opinion, acted like a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of bandits?”
He said, “The one who showed him compassion.”
Jesus said to him, “Then go and do the same yourself.”
Not long after I decided to explore the call to the ministry, my mentor asked me to teach a class. To prepare for it I looked through old commentaries the church had. One was the old Interpreter’s Bible that was published in the 1950s. I remember being disturbed. I was reading a commentary on the Gospel of John. The commentary was demonstrating how the dialogue Jesus had with his opponents fit a literary pattern. In other words, the author of the Gospel of John created the dialogue.
I thought, “What? This isn’t the actual dialogue that Jesus had with these people?” It was my first introduction to critical study of the Bible and it disturbed me. It wouldn’t be the last time. When I finally made it to seminary I learned a great deal more things that disturbed me. Critical study of the Bible as well as church history and theology seemed to disturb more than it enlightened. Eventually it did enlighten but that was harder and it took work and time.
I know why ministers don’t share the information they learned in seminary. It disturbs. When people get disturbed they get angry often at the messenger. Or ministers think that their job is to build up rather than disturb. They don’t want to damage a fragile faith. So we clergy tend to answer faith questions for people rather than let the questions do their important work.
When I learned that the gospel writers shaped the dialogue around Jesus, I wondered what else did they do. Were these stories about Jesus recorded history or literary creations or some combination? How can we trust that the Bible was God’s word if you couldn’t trust it at face value?
There were many authors who jumped in to defend scripture and its infallibility. These apologists would go to great lengths to show that the critical scholars were wrong and that the gospel accounts were accurately portraying events and conversations as they happened. I tried to take solace in those apologists until I could no longer perform the mental gymnastics necessary to believe in the unbelievable.
I really didn’t know about the Jesus Seminar in particular until I had finished seminary. Although what the Jesus Seminar was doing was no different than what I was learning in seminary. The Jesus Seminar was more open about it. They were good with the media.
In 1994 right around Easter the three big news magazines, Time, Newsweek, and US News and World Report all came out with cover stories about the conclusions of the Jesus Seminar as recorded in their publication, The Five Gospels. I had only been in the ministry for two years.
By that time I was embracing critical study of the Bible. I was no longer disturbed by it. Many of my colleagues, those who I had considered liberals, were downplaying the Jesus Seminar and trying to dismiss them. They didn’t want to disturb their congregations. They didn’t want to worry them with this scholarship and with the conclusions the seminar had reached regarding whether Jesus said this or that or didn’t. They felt their job was to protect their congregations from this scholarship.
I went a different direction. I did sermons on the work of the seminar and invited people to check it out. There were some people who were disturbed, probably more than I knew. Some people were disturbed and told me about it and probably others didn’t say anything. However, I plugged along. What I found is that the spirit of curiosity was stronger than the spirit of protection. People went along for the ride. In fact, it was a parishioner who introduced me to John Dominic Crossan’s book, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography. Another one told me about Peter Gomes. Many shared with me their own questions that they had been reticent previously to ask.
Over the course of this I realized that my gut decision to share what I was learning worked well. It wasn’t about me disturbing them. It was about allowing the questions to do their work. Disturb perhaps but then deepen. Asking the questions and then following wherever they lead has been a good ethic. This progressive ethic is about curiosity. When we read or hear something that sounds uncomfortable or disturbing, an instinct might be to protect or judge.
“That is wrong. You can’t say that. If you do that, you are this and certainly not that!”
But if we notice that instinct and then step back and allow a spirit of curiosity to work, we might find that some interesting questions are being explored. We might ask what is being said here? What is at stake? Why is this happening now? Where am I being moved?
I offer all of that preamble to introduce the parable of the good “bad” guy. It is a good parable to show how the gospel writers created different frames for the portrait of the historical Jesus.
In Mark chapter 12, there is a dialogue between a scholar and Jesus. The scholar asks Jesus what the greatest commandment is. Jesus combines a text from Deuteronomy with another from Leviticus:
“Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your might and love your neighbor as yourself.”
Jesus offers this answer to the scholar. Jesus might have said this, but he might not have been the first to combine these two texts. The Jesus Seminar voted gray, meaning possibly. It sounds like him, but not sure.
Then we get to Luke. Luke takes this dialogue between the scholar and Jesus and turns it upside down. In Luke’s case Jesus doesn’t provide the answer, but the scholar does. Then Luke has the scholar ask Jesus, “But who is my neighbor.” Then Jesus tells the parable of the Good “Bad” Guy. After the parable ends, Luke creates more dialogue by having Jesus ask, “Who acted like a neighbor?” The scholar answers and Jesus says go and do likewise.
You have two independent traditions, the dialogue with Jesus and the scholar about the greatest commandment found in Mark on one hand. Then you have the parable of the Samaritan on the other. Luke combines them. They don’t quite fit. In the dialogue before the parable the neighbor is the one you are commanded to love. In the dialogue after the parable the neighbor is the one who does the loving. Go and do likewise.
The parable really isn’t about that at all. It isn’t about caring for the neighbor or being neighborly. Although that preaches. We name hospitals and ministries in honor of the Good Samaritan. We say that someone is a Good Samaritan if they help someone whose car is stalled along the road. That is a good message. Yes, be a good neighbor. Be a Good Samaritan.
That is a good message. It just isn’t quite the message of the parable. The parable does likely go back to the historical Jesus. The seminar voted it red, not the dialogue before and after, just the parable. The parable is not about being a neighbor or helping the neighbor as important as that message is. Actually that is easier than what the parable is saying.
The parable is about something more disturbing. It is about the discomfort and the disturbance of receiving help from the person you despise. We would all rather be the Good Samaritan than be the person in the ditch. The parable is about the person in the ditch.
To set the stage, we have to know a little bit about the relationship between Jews and Samaritans. This is from Robert Funk’s book, A Credible Jesus:
The Samaritans, although near relatives of the Judeans, were regarded as mortal enemies. They occupied the land separating Galilee to the north from Judea to the south. The Samaritans were a strict Torah-observing sect who claimed to preserve the true heritage of the Pentateuch—the first five books of the Bible. They revered the same books as the Jerusalem cult but disagreed on everything else. The Samaritans had built their temple atop Mt. Gerizim, a few miles north of Jerusalem. They regarded the Judeans to the south as heretics who had strayed from their original worship on Mt. Gerizim by building a temple in Jerusalem. John Hyrcanus, a Judean ruler, destroyed the Samaritan temple in 128 BCE. That only deepened the hostility between the two cousins.
So fierce was the rivalry between them that Jewish pilgrims from Galilee often crossed the Jordan to the east to make the journey south via Jericho in order to avoid contact with the Samaritans, even thought the route through Samaria was much shorter. The Galileans who sometimes ventured across that alien terrain were regularly refused hospitality and occasionally met with violence.
In that setting, Jesus tells this parable.
Jesus tells a parable of a pilgrim who is beaten and left for dead. Jesus’ audience was Jewish and mostly of the peasant class. Parables like jokes are told in threes. Three guys go into a bar…
You hear two typical answers and then the punchline.
The Levites and the priests would be typical. They would pass by of course and not be of help. The audience would be expecting the third person to be the good guy. This is the punchline. He or she would be someone like us. A Jewish peasant is the hero. That is the one who really helps. They are expecting an anti-clergy and anti-elite parable.
Jesus disturbs. Instead of a Jewish peasant, someone like his audience being the hero, he instead has their sworn enemy be the hero. The despised Samaritan is the helper. You can imagine the grumbling at this parable.
It is hard enough to receive help. But help from them? “Come on, Jesus! Boo! Throw him off a cliff!”
The listeners to be in the parable are not the helper. The helper is the enemy. They have to identify with the person in the ditch. The one who needs help and who gets it from the enemy.
That is the setting. Imagine today. Who is our enemy. Is it the Muslim? Probably not for us. It is probably the conservative Christian. Or maybe the liberal Christian. It is the one like us but different. The relative who really annoys us. That is the one who helps us when the chips are down.
From whom in your life would you definitely not want help? Yep, that is the one.
It is hard to receive help. It shatters our pride. If we could manage it, most of us would not want to receive help from anyone. Industries are set up to keep people, at least those with means, help-free from birth to death. We try to set our lives up so that we are not in need, not vulnerable, not dependent upon anyone. We don’t want to be dependent on our family members. We don’t want to be dependent on friends. There is no way we want to be dependent on “those people.” You fill in the blank on “those people.”
We make it a virtue. Being self-made and independent
“She never complained. She never asked anyone for anything.”
I have heard that preached at funerals. Then at the same funeral for the same person:
“But she was always there to help others.”
The definition of virtue: Being a helper and never needing help.
That is common wisdom and we all know it. We don’t want to be a burden. We don’t want help. It makes us feel vulnerable. It makes us feel shame. Because we know what receiving help might mean. We might be seen as weak. We might be seen as needy. Others might have power over us. We might be seen as a burden. We will be embarrassed that we couldn’t pull ourselves up by our own boot straps. And on and on..
One of the reasons for suicide is the combination of alienation, that is being isolated from others and of thinking that one is a burden. It is not an act of selfishness at all. It is a fatal thought, a tragic thought that life would be better for others if I didn’t exist. It is not true, of course. It is not true that one’s death is worth more than one’s life to others, but the suicidal person thinks it is true. Combine that with fearlessness about physical pain and you have a fatal combination.
Common wisdom is that we don’t want or need help. We don’t want to be a burden and we imagine that we are burdens more than we think.
The truth is we all need to know what grace is when we are in need.
Jesus knew the pain of needing help when you are in the ditch. He knew the shame of thinking that one is a burden. He knew the pain of being acted upon. Half of the gospels present Jesus as the actor. He heals. He teaches. He walks on water. He is super god man. The last half of each gospel has Jesus be acted upon. He is vulnerable. He is beaten. He is alone. He is in need.
He is, in Christian terms, the anointed, the Christ, in both settings. He showed not only how to bind up the wounds but how to be the one who is wounded and in need of care. Both are positions of grace. We need not only learn how to be the neighbor who helps but also to be the neighbor who receives. That second is harder.
If we think receiving is an act of weakness, we have definitely got that wrong. Receiving requires great strength. Being vulnerable is the act of a big heart.
In his own life and passion Jesus showed the grace to be a giver and a receiver. Jesus knew that the challenge was receiving help. He knew that unless his people knew how to receive help as well as give it, and receive it from their enemies, they would not survive. He knew that the only way human beings were going to survive was to move beyond our tribalism.
Jesus needed to communicate that in God’s domain we receive help. In God’s domain we receive help from unexpected people and places. In God’s domain we receive help from those from whom we don’t want help. That is the kingdom of God. That is God’s domain.
How true is this today. We need to move beyond our tribalisms more than ever. The only way to survive in this world is to receive help from those we don’t want to receive. The challenge is not to help the other. We need to do that. We need to do it with incredible sensitivity and dignity. But the real challenge is to receive help from the other. That is the meaning of grace.