Wednesday, January 1, 2014

The Good Samaritan Revisited: A New Year's Message

I love that we have seasons. As time moves forever forward, seasons repeat themselves so that year-to-year we have some semblance of the past. Times is, as an English professor once told me, linear, yes, but not perfectly straight. It is more like a gyre, having regular ups and downs, a repeating pattern that makes time spiral, like a spring lying on its side.

And so it never fails. No matter whether we are ready for it or not, Christmas comes every year, and for many of us, Christmas is something we look forward to with great expectation and anticipation, because we know, from prior experience, that Christmas should be joyful. And why do we think this? We think this way because we are reminded of all the Christmases before.

Think about it like this: For those children that do have joyous Christmas expectations, the child’s first Christmas (that he or she can remember that is) is not nearly as fun as the next one and the one after that. Why? This is because they are looking forward to Christmas as being like last year. The past gives a frame of reference for the child so that expectations are made: “You mean that Christmas is going to happen again!” How could each year not be more exciting?

As adults, many of us are still just as excited as the children. We look forward to watching our own children open their gifts with wide-eyed wonder. We love some time off from work. We love the cozy comforts: Hot chocolate or Christmas blend coffees, fuzzy socks, ridiculous pajamas, and those movie reruns that give just the right ambiance to the family wondering about the house.

But, as much as we should celebrate the joy of the Christmas season, because God has chosen to give us such a great Gift, we cannot forget that the very reason for sending His great Gift, His only Son, was because of the sin and death that permeate our present world. And, as long as this present age continues, while the Lord patiently tarries for the lost, this world will have pain and suffering, toil and struggle, sin and death.

As a matter of fact, Christmas for many is an acute reminder of sorrow. All the Christmases in the world, for some, could never bring the joy we espouse as the reason for the season.  Christmas is a reminder that loved ones that are supposed to be here with us no longer are. Jobs and incomes that we had last year are gone. Friends and loved ones that were once close are now estranged. For these people, this is a season of depression, desperation, and loneliness.

But, for Christians, Christmas is more than just memories of our own past, and that is what makes Christmas so great for us, even in light of all the pain and suffering the season can bring. Christmas is that celebration of Christ’s coming to us. Like other Church seasons, Christmas is a time to remember the great acts of God in our past that promise that our future will be unlike our present, which is a good thing. In these times, we experience the gift of hope, which is like a memory, but imagines the future instead of the past. We become nostalgic for a time and place we know, but have never been. Hope is, therefore, not like saying, "Well, I hope it happens," but is more like saying, "I can't wait until it does."

For Christians, Christmas is a reminder of hope, hope for a day when the world will be put to rights (as N.T. Wright would say), a day in which all the pain and sorrow will be done away with, a day when the tears will be wiped from our eyes by no less than the hand of God. To the rest of the world, hope is an illusion. The only thing that is certain is death, waiting for each of us. We will all be swallowed up into oblivion.

Yet, for the Church, while we might not be able to articulate our joy all the time, we know it is there. It is spiritual, and it is more real than simple physical pleasures, although we cannot express them as we might tell a friend about how it felt to walk on the beach last night. Instead, it is like explaining sight to the blind, but, in this case, the blind want to deny your sight is real and are angered by your assurance that it is. And we should not be angry with these people for denying our joy or not wanting to recognize Christmas for what it is. We should realize that what their anger is a sign of their pain and lack of joy. Christmas joy is real, and it is restful and restorative. At least that is one of the blessing God decides to give to some of us during this time.

As I began to reflect on this reality—that Christmas is so restorative to some like me and not for some others—I began to reflect on the question, “Why? Why would God give me this gift? What is this blessing of rest for?” So, as I began to ponder this question and focusing on the resting aspect of the holiday that so many of us enjoy, I tried to put his gift into context.

So, as I reflected on biblical rest, I reflected on the familiar rest that God gives us each Sunday if we but take it, Sabbath rest, which is a reflection of that final rest with God we will all enjoy one day.  Rest in God is an experience of the future in the here and now, a time to rest in God. Christmas is an intensified Sabbath. Loved ones we have long missed surround us. We are excited about giving. We are excited about rest. It reminds us that our first assignment on earth was to rest. He created us on the sixth day and rested on the seventh. In other words, we rested to get ready, not to recharge. Rest is a sign of purpose, of a job yet to come. If God is giving you rest, you have to ask, “What for? What for, God?”

And, yes, we might call Christmas hectic, but you know how I know that many of us feel rested, even when we say things like, “But, I have to go here and then there. I have to buy all these last minute gifts for all these people. I have to cook for all these other people”? You know how I know it is restful regardless of some of the hustle and bustle? Because, only a week later, we are ready to do all these ridiculous things we call “New Year’s resolutions.”

Six months ago, the plans we are making for the New Year sounded absurd:

“I’m going to lose that fifty pounds.”
“I’m going to exercise at least an hour per day.”
“I’m going to spend at least two hours per night with the kids.”

And, yes, it might be because we are excited about a new year, but that seems so abstract for a real reason to feel (actually feel) it can be done, when at all other times of the year it seemed impossible. I think that for many of us, we feel like the impossible is possible, because we experienced the joyful rest of Christmas, and, as another Christmas passes, because, for now, Christmas joy cannot and will not last forever (there is still work to be done), we have to ask, “God, what is it that you have in mind?” The blessing of rest tells us that God has a purpose for us greater than the vanity project, greater than the self- growth, greater than “me.” We are asked to rest in Him so that we are ready to go and do His will.

So, perhaps a sensible thing to do with all the rest is to make a New Year’s resolution that is mindful that God gives us rest for more than rest’s sake. Perhaps a good New Year’s resolution is to simply say, “This year, God, I’m yours. My heart is open to what you have for me, because you obviously have something for me to do.”

However, let’s not let this turn into the sour resolutions of yesteryear, when we let the nonessentials become the essentials and the essentials fade away. Let us not try to make our resolution into something we find more manageable, as we inevitably do when the going gets tough again and the New Year proves to be as busy as the last. Isn’t this what we finally result to as the year progresses?

We say,

“Well, fifty pounds might have been a bit ambitious. I’ll shoot for ten.”
“Exercising an hour a day is too much. I’ll stop after thirty, and if I eat well, I might consider that good enough.”
“Spending two hours with the kids gives me little time to myself, maybe dinner at the table is good enough.”

Let’s not say to God later this year, “God, I gave you my heart, but you are asking too much. Give me a list, and I will fit you in. Yes, you are the one that gives me my days and my rest to do all the things I have to get done, but I have a life. Tell me what is enough for you, and I promise to do that.”

You know who this reminds me of. It reminds me of a person in Scripture. It reminds me of Jesus’ telling the story of the Good Samaritan. Now, I know I just wrote about this a few months ago, and my breakdown of the Scripture will be about the same as last time, but, in the last article about the Good Samaritan, we focused on the man who was beaten and left for dead. This time, I want to focus on the Lawyer. Now, if your brain is hurting, trying to remember if a lawyer was actually in the story, let me ease your mind. He was not. He was the man Jesus was telling the story to. He was the one that reminds me of me when I say, “God, give me a list!” And the whole point of the story Jesus tells is to shift our thought away from “The list,” away from the idea of “good enough.”

So, put yourself in the lawyer’s shoes, and let’s see what we can learn. Perhaps this will help you re-envision the way you think about doing well with a New Year’s resolution:

Let’s look at 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 lawyer’s challenge up, let me mention what has just happened in the previous verses. Jesus has just sent seventy (or seventy-two depending on the translation) 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 to boil down the discipline to its most basic core. 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?” And, as we all know, a person does not challenge another to a debate unless they think they already know the answer. Note Jesus’ response:

 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.

And this is where I see myself so clearly. He wants Jesus to give him specifics to the job. He is thinking, surely I cannot help everyone. So, who is it. The guy next door, the guy two doors down: “How far do I have to go, Jesus, before you’re happy?”

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.

I have often brought my checklists in unwittingly. One of my favorite verses is Jesus’ proclamation to the Church, the body of believers, 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. He thought to himself, “Well, I help hundreds (if not thousands) of people day in and day out get right with God. I serve people. In a week I serve more people than most will serve in a lifetime. Here is one, perhaps dead, man. But, if I stop now, I will have to spend time with this guy and become ritually clean (perhaps), which will prohibit my work with so many others. What is one guy in light of my checklist of many?”

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 for the sake of their job serving others. 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. He also gave of his time, forfeiting his ride on an animal to walk the hurt man into town. He also took care of him over night, giving up on his sleep. Valuables, time, and sleep, all given up for the sake of a person this man did not know, who was not on his agenda for the day.

35The 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. He is willing to go to whatever length to serve.

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.”

Jesus did not have to hear the lawyer’s response after this. His question (who is my neighbor; tell me what’s good enough) had proven he was already wrong; Jesus parable only brought the lawyer’s flaw to light. For the lawyer, a checklist was good enough. Likewise, the priest and Levite had their lists. The Samaritan did not have a list, but an open heart. He had pity. He was open to the appointment God had set up for him that day. And that is how we need to think about our saying, “God, I’m yours.” We need to say, God, I’m waiting for whatever purpose you have for me, whatever divine appointment you have for me. Your purposes are bigger than mine, and, because I am me and You are You, I cannot predict or imagine what you have in mind, a list just won’t work. My heart is open.

And now a word to those who are hurting, to those who are saying, “Being rested and ready for God is well and good, but my Christmas was not a joyous rest. I am in pain. I am suffering. I am the one who you talked about when you said all the Christmases in the world would not bring the joy that they should.” To you, I have something short to say:

Jesus is for you. This is what He demonstrates in His parable. While the world passes you by, and all those people who are supposed to care are too busy to notice, Jesus' eye is on you. His heart is open to you. His ministry, as He has shown in the story He told above, is emphatically for those in need and in pain. He is the one who said that those who mourn will be comforted. Your future, the future His gift promises you, is a future in His arms, resting in His bosom. I hope that you can find joy in reflecting upon what He has done (and is doing for you). The acts of Christ in the past (and today) promise that your future will not be like your present. Your destiny is enveloped in Christ’s joy.

Maybe you are thinking, “Well, I have not had anything devastating happen to me or anything, but I certainly did not have a season of rest.” I have this little bit of good news for you. The only work that is essential is the work God has assigned you. Yes, that includes (more than likely) your occupation.  But, if you are too busy to do what He has for you to do, including ministering to those in need, you are too busy. He gives us permission to rest from the work He gives us (every Sunday, or what ever Sabbath day you take). It is His gift to you. And if you are feeling encouraged to give your heart to God, don’t jump off the starting block running. You will tire out. Be sure to rest first. You have to be poured into by God before you can have anything available to poor out.

And let’s all be prepared to open our hearts to God’s love. He has a purpose for you, a purpose to spread His love to all those in need. Remember that for some, only God’s grace will bring them joy and renewal, and you might just be the means of grace He wants to use. Forget the lists and wait on Him; He sets divine appointments for us all. It is often because we are too busy to notice. Let your heart slow down this year. Don’t be too busy for Love.

Happy New Year and bright blessings upon you in 2014,