The Navajo and Me:
As many of you are well aware, the ministry I work for has had God open doors to us to serve the Navajo people. Our calling as a ministry is to bring formative and biblical theological training to those who would otherwise go without, and, over the last few years and for what looks like many years to come, our main focus is on some small, isolated churches and their leadership on the Navajo Reservation.
However, especially with racial tensions being what they are in our country and the history white persons, such as myself, have had with persons like the Navajo, it would be pretentious of me to go and “teach” these people without so much as an invitation. So, for years, before our ministry ever offered our true gifting as we have been called by God, we served in other ways in order to show the Navajo that we were not simply out there to complete a task or check a box off our list, but that we were first and foremost out there to love. Is that not what our faith comes down to, true love?
This hasn’t always proven easy for me. It is not that I am not a loving person, but we all have ways of showing love that are different from one another. Many people have come to call these “love languages,” a term popularized by the “marriage help” book by Gary Chapman, The Five Love Languages. As the book points out, we might be very adept at showing love in our own ways, but persons speak other languages than simply our own. I might be trying to tell my wife I love her all the time by buying her gifts, which might make me feel special, but her love language might be “words of affirmation;” just a simply thank you might light up her day (and cost much less), while gifts don’t really speak her language.
I think this can perhaps be a reality, not simply on an individual level, but on a social level as well. I love people, and one of the ways my heart yearns to reach out to them is by teaching them. However, I am sure that the majority of people, who have heard me speak, even if they were moved by my words, did not pick up on the fact that the reason I stoodd before them is because I love them.
Likewise, I could have gone to the Navajo reservation and asked to speak in church, and, because they are such hospitable people as a church, they would have allowed me to do so, but that does not mean they would have understood my motives. They might simply think that I think I know more than they do. I wish I knew as much about living in faith and by the power of the Spirit as they do. If only…
Having said all of this, I have had to show my love for them in ways that make me very uncomfortable. I have to lead short-term missions groups to the reservation for the organization and execution of a Vacation Bible School. Let me tell you something about myself. I am not an administrator. I can lead people in class as a teacher, but when it comes to planning logistics, executing travel across the country for over twenty people, moving them into a place they are very unfamiliar with, and keep them together as a team, that is a challenge.
Likewise, I have been most gifted to teach an adult crowd, a serious crowd who will pay attention and wants to hear what I have to say. I have no clue how to impact children with a message. However, that is what all the planning and traveling leads us to do, four days of Vacation Bible School for a group of children that are harder to heard than cats.
But, you know what? That has proven to be the most effective way of reaching the Navajo people. We hear them say things like, “Thank you for caring so much for my children,” and “ We cannot believe you keep coming back year to year. Most white people we meet never come back.” Finally a few years back Becky, our partner at Pure Water Ministry, and I were finally able to ask the Navajo, “What is it that we could do for you as a church,” and we got an answer they would never give people they did not trust. They said, “Will you teach us the Bible?” In the end, all the discomfort God keeps putting me in to gain the love and respect of the Navajo has proven worth it all.
An Unexpected Incident on The Reservation:
If you have ever been on a short-term mission or know someone who has, you have inevitably said or heard it said, “The trip was more for us going than the ones we served. They did more for us than we could ever do for them.” That is true. However, when you go on a trip, you go with some religious sense of duty to serve those in need, and that is a good thing, but that mindset, if overblown, can become dangerous.
There are times to have pity on the reservation. When you meet a woman with a black eye from a domestic dispute, when you meet a grieving family because one of the children committed suicide out of a sense of hopelessness, when you walk into the home of two teenage boys whose parents abandoned them and there is no food in the house, all these times are for pity. However, the danger is then to grow a blanket sense of pity over the whole people. Just like any culture, yours and mine included, there are people in despair and there are people who are making an honest living who do not want or need our pity. Sometimes, religious duty overrides the heart that is supposed to look at each person as they are, not prejudge them.
I have been leading missions teams to the reservations since 2008, and we have had some bumps in the road, but nothing like being flooded in at our Church last year, but that is not the story I want to tell. Just know that before the flood, this next story was probably what I would have considered one of the worst things that had ever happened to me while on the reservation.
One afternoon after all our VBS duties had ended and we had dropped the children safe and sound back home, a few team leaders went out on our own to do a few things back at the church and to generally talk about what was next. As we were leaving the church, Becky Holland, a woman I would consider my “Reservation Mother” and close friend, had what she thought to be a brilliant idea. She pointed out across the desert and said, “You see that little spot over there. That is an artesian well they have dug. The cattle drink from it, but the church also does baptism there. It is a sight to see.” I would still to this day follow Becky on any ministry journey she has, but I will be a little more careful to follower her site seeing (love you, Becky).
The team in the car found themselves excited and asked to see it, but the driver, my cousin, Lane, and I protested. The only path was an ATV path. But, Becky, who admittedly knows more about the reservation than any of the rest of us, thought it would be a good idea. So, reluctantly, Lane turned down the path. We drove for a while, but eventually, we found ourselves stuck in the sand.
We were in the middle of nowhere, and no matter how hard we tried, we could not get ourselves unstuck. I had a credit card in my pocket and a number to a tow company, but I had no service. I was hopeless. So, I prayed. Just then, I heard a diesel engine roaring over the dunes. Off in the distance, a young Navajo man hoped out his huge truck at a little shack, and it seemed he was feeding or caring for his sheep in some manner. He also had his water tank on the back of the truck.
If you know anything of the Navajo people, you know that many of them do not enjoy the amenities we enjoy ourselves. They do not have running water or electricity much of the time, and so they plan their budget around their gas money to ensure they can get enough water at the filling station to provide for the month. Obviously, he was going to make one of those trips soon, and I knew that helping us would cost him gas and time. I had only a credit card and some small bills, nothing to make up for his help. So I did not want to ask.
Even though when he was pulling over the hill I was praying for a miracle, when he stepped out of the truck, I did not think, “Oh, thank you, Lord.” Instead, I thought, “Oh, poor, pitiful man.” And that is when God said to me, “You are the one stuck in the desert in the blazing heat, not him” So, I swallowed my pride and walked hundreds of yards to speak. He smiled and then laughed before saying, “What were you guys doing?” He gladly pulled us out, but it took him a long time and I could see in my minds eye his gas gauge needle moving to the E.
Afterward, I offered what little money I had, and asked, “What can I do?” He replied, “Just keep doing what you are doing. We appreciate it,” and he drove off.
The Good Samaritan:
Without having to tell the story here, I bet most you know the basics, and I am sure you can see how the man in the story above proved to be like the good Samaritan, but the story I just told was not simply about a man helping out, but another man who, even with good intentions, had prejudice towards his would be helper. At the end of this essay, I want to talk more about that issue, and I think it is an issue Jesus addresses here. But, before we look at this issue, let’s simply look at the primary meaning of this story. Hold the story I just told you in the back of your mind as we hear another story told by Jesus.
So, here is a close look at Jesus’ challenge to us all in Luke 10: 25-37:
25 Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Just to set this lawyers challenge up, let me mention what has just happened in the previous verses. Jesus has just sent seventy-two disciples into the cities He is about to visit to prepare His coming. They have come back with great reports about the receptiveness of the people in these cities. Jesus then turns to the twelve and they are celebrating.
Obviously, this lawyer does not know what is going on, but he sees this rabbi with His disciples celebrating, and He undoubtedly knows of Jesus and apparently wants to burst His bubble. A lawyer and a rabbi debating was not an uncommon scene in this world. As a matter of fact, this debate style here in this passage is very common, and I am going to be pointing out the various practices throughout.
A lawyer and a rabbi both had to know the Torah, the first five books of the Bible known as the Law. Israel not only read the Bible to shape their spiritual lives, but their civil lives as well. So, the lawyer would be an expert in the law for civil reasons, to be able to discuss law in the courtroom so they could shape peoples’ civil lives. Likewise, the rabbi would be an expert in the law to show His followers how to shape their spiritual lives in light of God’s will. It was not uncommon for a match of wits between these two types of people to form.
The lawyer’s question here, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” is really a challenge to Jesus. Essentially, the lawyer is saying, “You think you know the law so well, see if you can sum it up for me. What is the big point?”
26 He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?”
In Israelite society, many questions were answered with a question. This is still the case today in Jewish society. This was another part of this common debate. Jesus is accepting the challenge by putting the ball in the lawyer’s court, giving Him the chance to share his big idea.
27 He [the lawyer] answered, “You shall 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 your neighbor as yourself.”
Do you recognize the answer here? It is the same answer Jesus gives in Matthew 22, an answer that impresses everyone. Jesus was asked to sum up all 613 commandments into one, and He does so with the same answer the lawyer gave above.
Now, if you are like me, you might be impressed with this lawyer. He must be close to the Kingdom, right? We might not have liked him at the beginning of the story for trying to burst Jesus bubble, but now it seems they are on the same page.
28 And he [Jesus] said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”
Wow. Jesus says the lawyer is right. Of course he is, but notice what else Jesus says: “Do this, and you live.” This is a challenge. Jesus is saying, “You have answered correctly, but are you practicing what you preach?
Again, this is a common practice for the Jewish people. If you want to see another example of this, see the conversation between Nathan the prophet and King David. In 2 Samuel 12:1-15, Nathan tells David something. He says that there was a rich man with a lot of sheep and a poor man with only one lamb. A visitor came to see the rich man, and, as is custom, the rich man had to prepare a lamb for the man. But, instead of taking from one of his many sheep, he takes the poor man’s lamb and cooks it. David is enraged, and calls for this man’s life. That is when Nathan says, “You are that man.” In other words, Nathan says, “David, you know what is right, but you do not practice it.” David had a whole kingdom and could marry any virgin he chose, but instead, he took Uriah’s only beloved wife and killed Uriah to have her. David is immediately convicted and repents.
Likewise, Jesus says, in essence to the lawyer, “You speak correctly, are you acting on what you say?”
29 But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
This is proof that the lawyer sees Jesus command, “do this” as a challenge. The Bible says the lawyer wants to defend his self. So, he asks, who is my neighbor. Now, remember, when the lawyer says we are to “love our neighbor,” the lawyer quoted Leviticus 19:18. This verse clearly is speaking about a fellow Jew. So, in essence, the lawyer is saying, how many Jews do I have to help? He has a checklist, and wants to see if his matches Jesus. He might be able to say to Jesus that he is already doing all of this.
This reminds me a little of myself at times. I have often brought my checklist in unwittingly. One of my favorite verses is Jesus’ proclamation to the Church, the body of believers, is that they will preach in all of Jerusalem, in all of Judea, in all of Samaria, and, finally, to the ends of the earth. The concentric circles starts at home and move to the farthest reaches. Sometimes I pat myself on the back because I serve in Brunswick, in the county I live, at a downtown ministry. I serve in Claxton, a couple hours away, by teaching on radio, I serve on the reservation, on the other side of the country, by pastor training, and I serve people in Peru and Africa by financial support, and sometimes, in my mind, I think I have completed the check list of Acts 1:8, but that is not the point. The lawyer and I are asking how far is far enough, how much is good enough, and Jesus turns us away from our checklists.
This is where Jesus turns up the heat.
30 Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead.
A few things to point out here: The road from Jerusalem to Jericho was known to be dangerous. The robbers did not strip the man simply to be cruel. Clothing was a sign of wealth and was costly. It would be something to steal. Finally, Jesus says he was left half dead. This would be to say the man appeared lifeless.
31 Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.
A priest had to be ritually clean to perform his duties. Touching a dead body would make him unclean. So, he does not want to get down to check to see if the man is alive. His religious duty kept him from helping. But, notice: He is said to be going “down” the road. In our day, we might say we are going up to Savannah or down to Jacksonville (that is if you live where I do. We mean we are heading north or south, but in this day, going up or down meant elevation. Jericho is downhill from Jerusalem. The priest worked in Jerusalem. He wasn’t even on his way to serve the people as priest. He had time to get ritually clean if need be. Instead, he not only passed by, but also he is said to have passed by on the other side. The Pharisees believed that even if one’s shadow touched something unclean, the person would be made unclean. In the priest’s mind, he helps hundreds of people by mediating between them and God, taking broken lives and making them whole. Here is just one man; he has a duty to so many more. Even if he wasn’t heading to work, he would have to take time out of his day to cleanse before he could serve as priest again.
32 So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.
A Levite had even less reason to worry about ritual cleanness. He was a temple worker, not a priest. But, likewise, he passes by
33 But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity.
Two good Jews have now passed by. We know they are good Jews because they want to stay clean. Cleanliness was their religious sense of duty. Now comes a Samaritan. Not only was a Samaritan not a Jew, but Jews and Samaritans hated each other. But, in his heart, he is moved to pity.
34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him.
This verse shows that the Samaritan went to great length, sharing his valuables to heal the man.
35 The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’
In fact, he goes above and beyond helping.
36 Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”
Remember the lawyers question: He is asking how far a good Jew must go to help a neighbor in need, and Jesus responds with this parable to suggest that it is not about being a good Jew. The priest and Levite were good Jews, but terrible neighbors. There is no checklist. It was about the heart.
37 He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”
What this primarily means for you and me:
This parable is not too hard to understand. Everyone is your neighbor. We are to care for everyone God puts in our path and our hearts are moved in pity to serve, even those we might have prejudice against. The great truth is this, I can help as many people in Brunswick, Claxton, the Navajo Nation, and Peru as I can, but as soon as I pass by a person in real need and think to myself, “I’m in too much of a hurry; that will have to be someone else’s problem, I have proven that all I have done to help all the other people was simply for a checklist, not about love.
Religious duty is good when it is followed in service to God, but not when it becomes about “my” performance. Religion is about so much more: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for the orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (James 1:27)
We can be as pious as a saint. We can have more quite time than anyone else around. We can know Scripture backward and forward, reading it hours a day. We can serve on every church committee there is. We can work three times a week at the soup kitchen, but if we do not do so out of love, but out of duty, we have gained nothing. We can have the whole world figured out, but if we have not love, we lose (see I Corinthians 13). Why do we act as Christ has called us: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” So, we must first learn to ask the question, “What is my motive?”
Quick Bible Study Tip:
Often times Christians, especially those in ministry, read the Bible to form lessons, but often we use those lessons for and against others. Sometimes this is good. A pastor preaches a message from Scripture that changes the attitude of the people to be more Christ like, and he has done well. But, we cannot be like the lawyer. He was using the Bible to attack Jesus, but Jesus turns it around on the man, and, in essences, asks, “Are you living like this.” Nathan as well asked this of David. When we read and discover truth in Scripture, we must always ask, “Do I live by this truth,” before we can ever tell others they ought to do so.
Yet another layer:
The beauty of stories such as the parables is that they often have multiple layers. For example, think about the parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15:11-32. The story is simple enough: A young man dishonors his patriarchal culture by asking the father for autonomy and his inheritance. In essence, he is saying he knows better what to do with his life than his culture or father. His father allows the boy to take what is his, but was meant to be enjoyed as part of the household, and the boy goes out on his own. The boy’s foolishness proves itself when he squanders what is his.
When he is at his lowest and is in danger of dying from lack of protection or inheritance, he goes back to his father with a plan. He will now no longer be a son, but a worker, a slave, but as he approaches home, before he can utter a word, his father lavishes him with everything the son had squandered and restored him to his place as a son. This is what God does for us when we finally realize our place is with the Father. We cannot earn our way back, but He gives us all we need to be His children. This is a reflection of the Kingdom of God. Straight forward.
However, there is another character, the elder son. He has worked diligently for the father and protests that it is unfair that the prodigal does not have to work for his place. The father shows the eldest that it has never been about work. Work in the father’s house is good, but is simply about being a part of the father’s accomplishments. Work is a privilege, but inheritance is based on being a son, not work. This too is a deeper image of the Kingdom.
Likewise, I think Jesus is giving us a deeper level to the parable of the Good Samaritan. Let’s look at the characters. The Priest’s and the Levite’s motives are clear; they are based on religious duty outside the context of love. Likewise, the Samaritan’s motive is very clear, for the Scripture says explicitly that he was moved with pity. But, what about the silent character, the man left half-dead. I had never considered looking at the story from his perspective until reading Dr. Elsworth Kallas’s, Parables from the Backside, but when I did, it cut me to the heart.
The lawyer was asking what was necessary for a Jew to do to help his fellow Jew. While it is not said, in context we assume the man left for dead was Jewish. It was his own people, his own religious leaders, leaving him to die. It was a Samaritan, a person that the whole of Jewish culture hated, that helped. Who do you imagine he would have picked to serve him, to be a Christ-like figure to him in his time of need. More than likely a fellow Jew, especially a priest or Levite
How many times have you been in a situation looking for help and someone that you normally would not associate with lends a hand? You almost want to say “No thanks,” if you were not so desperate for help. Jesus uses a Samaritan, and sure, He could have done so simply for shock value, but I think He was also trying to say something about the people of God. We need to learn to help and be helped by His people.
I think a big question Jesus was asking to us is this: “Who do you see as your brother and sister? Should they not be fellow workers of the Kingdom?” I can remember times when I have been around a group of people who talk like me and sound like me, but do not share in my faith, and yet have felt at home. I can also remember times I have been around fellow Christians, but they did not look like me, talk like me, or culturally act like me, and I have been uncomfortable. This should not be. We should be more at home with our family from all over the world than any person from our own neighborhood that does not believe like me. I should love that person as well, but when it comes to teaming up to do the Lord’s work, I need a brother or sister, not a buddy.
That day on the reservation, I was about to let my prejudice of pity steal away another man’s blessing of being able to help out a group of God’s children in need. We need to open our eyes. Jesus was the Great Samaritan (see Isaiah 53). He came to a world full of people who did not share His thoughts or ways, who did not like Him or the way He acted, but He loved them anyway, and He gave His life to and for them. We should do likewise.