Monday, February 9, 2009

Not Our Kind

But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came to the place where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him.

                        Luke 10.33

Note: This runs substantially longer than the typical post, but I hope you’ll take a few extra minutes to read it through and pray you’ll benefit from it.


In the late Seventies, a group of fatuously privileged college grads hammered out a bestseller called The Official Preppy Handbook, a coy, self-satirizing guide to all things upper-crusty. As a middle-class preacher’s kid about to enter a snooty Midwestern university, the book was a godsend in that it tipped me off to the customs many of my classmates learned growing up. The lifestyle and behaviors it described gripped me with anthropological fascination. The Handbook included a glossary of coded lingo snobs used to talk above or about outsiders. All these years later, one phrase sticks in memory: NOKD, an acronym for “Not our kind, dear.” I remember it because it alerted me to two unalterable facts about myself. First, no matter how well I mimicked my school chums, I would always be NOKD in their eyes. But more important, its cruelly elitist, out-of-hand dismissal of less fortunate people violated every value and principle of my Christian upbringing.

Crossing the Street

Reading Jesus’s parable of the Good Samaritan inevitably brings NOKD to mind. A traveler gets mugged. Thugs rob, strip, and beat him, leaving him half-dead in the gutter. A priest comes along, sees the victim, and crosses the street to avoid him. A Levite soon follows and does the same. Both dismiss the wounded traveler as unworthy of their time or attention, possibly thinking his misfortune results from his own criminal pursuits, the proverbial deal gone wrong. Then a Samaritan arrives. Crossing the street never crosses his mind. Without questioning, the Samaritan treats the man’s injuries, puts him on his donkey, and checks into an inn, where he spends the night caring for the victim. The next day he leaves after paying for the traveler to remain until he recovers. He asks the innkeeper to look after the traveler, promising to return and reimburse any additional expenses.


Ironies abound in this, Jesus’s most touching story on record. To start, it’s illuminating to note what prompts it. A legal expert challenges Jesus to single out the most important law. He immediately identifies two: Love God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself. We see this as the watershed moment when Christ crystallizes His core ideal. But the lawyer hopes to trick Jesus into playing loose and fast with the Law. So he presses Him, asking, “Who is my neighbor?” Once Jesus finishes the tale of the Samaritan, no doubt the lawyer regrets he asked. This initial irony introduces the others.

By not assigning a nationality to the traveler and setting the story on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho, Jesus makes it plain he’s a Jew. What’s more, a passing detail—the man’s nakedness—rules out the priest and Levite’s NOKD responses might be justified since simply seeing the traveler is circumcised reveals he is “their kind.” Jesus’s choice of both occupations also carries ironic indictments. Together, they represent the religious and legal establishments’ heinously phobic rejection of “unclean” members of society. There are also contradictions exposing each man’s failure to do his job. The priest practices salvation through blood sacrifices; yet he refuses to stain his hands with the traveler’s blood while ministering to him. The Levite embodies the Law; yet he overlooks the love-your-neighbor statute Jesus just quoted from Leviticus 19.18. What we’re left with is intolerant religion and skewed legalism at their worst.

Jesus’s point would have been taken had He stopped there. But He lands the final blow by making a Samaritan His story’s hero. Centuries of animosity divided the Jews and the Samaritans. The latter regarded themselves “the forgotten tribe” of Israel. They practiced a variation on Judaism that also worshiped the One True God and awaited a Messiah to restore status unjustly denied them. This infuriated the Jews—God’s “chosen people”—no end. And here’s Jesus, saying a Samaritan who stops to care for a half-dead Jew does the work of a priest, a Levite, and then some. He’s not concerned about dirtying his hands to save the man’s life. He fulfills the law to love his neighbor. He gives up comfort, time, and money for the man’s welfare. He promises to settle the traveler’s tab, knowing in all likelihood he’ll never receive the gratitude and recognition he deserves. The biggest irony of all: from the Jewish perspective, the Samaritan is NOKD; from the Samaritan’s perspective, however, the Jew is “his kind”—a neglected victim urgently needing compassion and care.

“Go and Do Likewise”

After the story, Jesus asks, “Who was the man’s neighbor?” “The one who had mercy on him,” the lawyer concedes. “Then go and do likewise,” Jesus tells him. The abiding power in “The Good Samaritan” rests in its explanation of how to obey Christ’s commandment to love. It’s easy for gay and other ostracized believers to read the story and latch onto the traveler, closely matching their personal experiences with the religious and legalistic prejudice he suffered. And it’s easy for all Christians to picture themselves as the open-minded, concerned Samaritan. But what about the priest and the Levite? It’s not merely easy, it’s lazy and incorrect for us to smugly look down on them as “not our kind.” Indeed, it saddles us with the very sin we revile in them. Loving our neighbors as Christ expects starts by accepting God has no NOKD children. Everyone is “our kind”—including those who have no time and interest and feel no obligation to care for us. Samaritan love is an all-or-nothing proposition. Instead of listening to reasons why others don’t merit love, we hear and obey Christ’s voice. Go and do likewise.

"Love your neighbor as yourself."

(Tomorrow: Underneath)


Sherry Peyton said...

Tim, your talent for making the scritures come alive with teaching is amazing. As I engage time and time again with those who think so differently than I, I am always struck by how much time they spend telling me what "Paul, Peter, Timothy and others" said. They never mention Jesus or his teaching, only those that claim to interpret him, and often so badly in my estimation. Thank you as always for this brilliant post.

Tim said...

Hi, Sherry. It's always lovely to hear from you. Your point is one of the toughest things for many Christians to accept, let alone factor into their understanding of Scripture.

While I think there's much good to be had from Peter, Paul, et al., it's negligent on our part to read them word for word with blanket application of everything they say. Some of their thoughts are confined to their time--they're written in reaction to specific norms and mores that no longer exist. And others reflect personal bents and frustrations we'll never fully understand. Then, of course, there's editorial imposition: cuts and additions made during later transcriptions, compilations, translations, etc. These factors continue to drive us further from "accurate record" to this very day. As a result, not even Jesus's words survive fully intact and in context.

Unfortunately, however, what we've got is what we've got, making it our responsibility to do our best with it. Faith in the Bible as God's Word becomes more important than ever. His Word IS infallible. But we cheapen that belief when we refuse to recognize that the apostles and editors who so generously contributed "op-ed" pieces to Scripture's pages were just as error-prone (though no doubt better informed) as we. We look to them for insight into the truth and judge them for how well they provide it.

Thanks so much. Your comments never fail to make give me great joy and always provide much needed food for thought!

(PS: Hang on in there... we Midwesterners are on the backside of winter!)

genevieve said...

Jesus' teaching is so simple. Sadly, in some circles, the letter of the law has overriden the spirit of it. I thank you for illustrating what it means to love your neighbor as yourself.

Tim said...

It is so simple, Genevieve, yet it requires so much of us that I believe we try to complicate it to avoid doing it. Love can't be legislated and when we get caught up in rules and regulations, instead of motives and behaviors, we miss the mark by a wide distance.

Thanks so much for chiming in--it's always great to hear from you!

Davis said...

Our speaker, a theology professor, spoke on Sunday reminding us that Paul probably didn't think he was writing the Bible.

Jesus reminds us to always seek the outcast.

thanks, Tim

Tim said...

I think the professor errs on the side of caution by adding "probably," Davis. I find nothing in Paul (or any of the epistles) to suggest he and his colleagues remotely imagined they were writing for the ages. Even the "pastoral" letters (e.g., 1 John, James, Hebrews) written for wide circulation are laced with specific instructions that indicate they were intended to address the Early Church's immediate, urgent issues. To presume they consciously left an archive of doctrinal law for subsequent generations to obey literally to a tee contradicts many beliefs and attitudes conveyed in the letters themselves.

First, they all fervently expected Christ's eminent return, quite possibly within their lifetimes, which negates the idea that they envisioned any need for their letters to survive centuries later. (This goes double for John of Patmos, which is why I have big problems with preachers and theologians who try to superimpose his apocalyptic vision on modern events.)

Second, even allowing the possibility that they might have foreseen a day when Christians would study a canon on par with the Law and Prophets, as Jews who held Scripture in highest respect, it's improbable they would have volunteered as its authors. The mere notion would have made them tremble in their boots.

Third, their primary passion centered on keeping the Church true to the life and teachings of Christ, Who did indicate full expectation His words would be passed down through time. The letter writers could hardly have countenanced the idea that their words had lasting value as Biblical truth. They reserved that status to Jesus alone.

Finally, from a purely pragmatic standpoint, it's crazy to think the letters we have comprise the whole of the writers' output. Surely other epistles they dispatched got lost, discarded, or ignored over time. If we give their writing the weight of Gospel truth, we have to ask what went missing that they wanted us to know.

It's entirely possible to believe all Scripture we have is God-inspired, written by the prompting and light of His Spirit, and grant inadequacies exist on both ends--in the writers' contemporary focus and our limited access to historical events that first spurred the writers to write. Both these factors call for us to read the epistles with delicate care, balancing edict with example and admitting not everything we read in black and white should be taken literally as black and white.

Which brings us back to the legal expert who challenged Jesus. He was a hair-splitter who took the whole of the Law at face value, much like many Christians do with the whole of the New Testament. By not stumbling into his snare to single out one of the Ten Commandments, Jesus provides a sterling example of finding fundamental truth "in the creases"--in secondary comments that support obviously obsolete ideas. We should learn from Him.

(And, yes, we should do as He says and seek the outcast, knowing we are all outcasts in some way or another.)

My, Davis, what a torrent you and Sherry unleashed! I apologize for rambling on and on, yet I couldn't pass up such a juicy chance to hold forth on a gnarly issue that continues to bog down untold thousands of believers at this late, supposedly learned date.

Blessings of peace and happiness to you always.

Davis said...

It's a rich torrent, Tim.