Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Faithful Attraction

Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. (Matthew 5.7)

The Pharisees and the teachers of the law who belonged to their sect complained to his disciples, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” Jesus answered them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.” (Luke 5.30-31)

A Merciful Response

The parables of Jesus are designed for easy access, which is why parents and Sunday school teachers are so fond of them. We grow up with the prodigal son, the wise and foolish builders, and the Good Shepherd alongside the tortoise and hare and Red Riding Hood. We need Jesus’s stories when we’re kids, as they’re the best way to establish His basic teaching in young hearts. Unfortunately, though, too many of us outgrow them (or think we do). We store them next to Aesop’s Fables and Grimm’s Fairy Tales and rarely revisit them when we’re older. But Jesus’s parables aren’t fables or fairy tales. They’re remarkably nuanced studies in human behavior, stories about adults for adults. When we reread them later in life, we’re often amazed by the subtleties we missed as kids.

No better example exists than the story of the Good Samaritan. A Jewish man is brutally mugged on the Jericho Road. A priest and a temple steward—both Jews—see him, cross the street, and keep going. A Samaritan, whom Jews view as racially inferior, finds him, picks him up, tends to his wounds, and sees to his recovery. Jesus tells the story after restating His command to love our neighbors and someone asks, “Who is my neighbor?” For children, the answer is simple: everyone is our neighbor; no one is beneath our care. Yet as adults, we study the Samaritan’s behavior more closely. Luke 10.33-35 says, “When he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’”

Merely seeing him, without asking why or how the man got beaten, evokes a merciful response. The Samaritan goes to him. He touches him. He pours valuable oil and wine into the man’s wounds and binds them up. He lays the victim—bloodied, bruised, and broken—across his own donkey, unconcerned about contamination or suspicions he’ll raise in Jews and Samaritans alike when he’s seen walking his donkey with a severely injured Jew in his saddle. Nor is he daunted about stirring up controversy when he finds a room, where he sits with the victim overnight to ensure the man’s safety and wellbeing. The following morning, he entrusts the man to the innkeeper, promising to return and pay for his healthcare. There’s a lot more going on in this story than first meets the eye.

One of Them

With so much information packed in a few sentences, we may overlook what’s not there. The Samaritan has no idea who this man is. He could be a random target. He could just as well be a casualty of gang life—a criminal left for dead. We don’t know where or why the Samaritan is traveling, when he’s expected to arrive, and whom he keeps waiting while he delays his trip to stay with the victim. We know nothing of his background, beliefs, experience with Jewish prejudice, or financial means. All we know is he sees someone in need of mercy. He goes to him and cares for him—at great risk, as the extent of his kindness breaks all sorts of taboos. Yet something inside the Samaritan trusts the mercy he gives will be returned. And so it is. His efforts aren’t thwarted by others’ prejudices and fears, which are so commonplace even “holy” people feel no compunction to care for one of their own. That expands the parable’s meaning to include the fifth Beatitude: “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.”

If Jesus were all sermon and no substance, we could dismiss the Samaritan story as a fable—a wise tale with a high-flown, idealistic moral. From start to finish, however, we watch Him practice what He preaches. Jesus surpasses the Old Testament edict to welcome the oppressed and outcast. He goes looking for them and becomes One of them. Many have romanticized His tendency to gravitate toward society’s margins as intentionally subversive, casting Jesus as the ultimate Rebel with a Cause. While it’s true, Jesus upsets many apple carts—and ends up being executed for it—His purpose runs deeper than crusading for social change. He cares about the people He associates with. Their need for mercy attracts Him and He sees the risks He takes to offer what society withholds from them as legitimately worth the flak and derision He faces in the process. Mercy drives Him to the cross. Over and over, we see a band of naysayers hovering nearby to condemn Jesus for the company He keeps. When He persists, they turn on His disciples. “Why do you eat with tax collectors and sinners?” they ask. Before they can patch together an answer, Jesus explains, “It’s not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.” (Luke 5.30-31) Jesus doesn’t hang with a tough crowd in order to be seen with them or to look tough. He’s there because the tough crowd needs His care, kindness, and healing. His faithfulness to them constitutes an act of mercy on par with the Samaritan’s.

Needs on Both Sides

Our faithfulness as disciples automatically includes a faithful attraction to those who are excluded, oppressed, and prejudged. Waiting for them to come to us—“being there for them”—isn’t an option. Beside the unlikeliness they will seek us out, expecting them to make the first move automatically suggests a sense of superiority on our part. There’s no equal exchange. Mercy makes equality possible by creating needs on both sides of the equation. Our need to offer it becomes as pressing as others’ needs to receive it. As we travel through life, we look for opportunities to be merciful. When we find people who’ve been battered, wounded, and left by the wayside, we ignore the risks, taboos, and customs—even when more “qualified” leaders submit to them—to show them mercy. We go to them and become one of them, not to be seen with them or to gain notoriety as social activists and do-gooders. Mercy drives us. Whether or not we share anything in common with them socially, religiously, or politically, their need for mercy attracts us, because we too have needed, will always need, mercy. And however logical our hesitance may be, something inside reassures us mercy we give will be returned. Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.

Jesus’s attraction to the oppressed and outcast runs deeper than social subversion. They need His mercy and He needs to provide it. (The Journey Project: “RSVP.”)


Aluwings said...

Re: "...not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick..."

I think there is a sad irony in Jesus choice of words, for surely the sickest of all is the one whose self-righteousness blinds him to his own need of healing.

I picture Jesus saying this line as he looks deep into the eyes of the one(s) who asked the question, hoping they might see he was referring to them most of all.

Tim said...

Grant, I'd considered the sad irony in Jesus's words; I've always thought they frame a somewhat unfortunate metaphor. given the inadvertent labeling here. (I cringed both times when typing it.) But your added touch brings them back around for me. The ironic angle adds a gentle invitation to the Pharisees, doesn't it? As if in saying, "These people need me," Jesus is also saying, "You need Me, too." And, of course, He's right to say that.

Wow. You've just lifted this passage to another level, giving us much to think about when we slip and find ourselves standing with the naysayers. Thank you!


Word in the Hand said...

My scripture group is studying Mark's Gospel within a theme of social justice adn loving your neighbour. But how often the discussion turns, with the kindest of intention, into 'them and us' when there would be only us. But how hard it is to get the group to see it and admit it. It is easy to think ourselves doctors and outside of need, hard not to feel we are in control.
Thank you

Tim said...

WITH, you touch an important point here. Launching our efforts on behalf of the needy as "helpers" introduces a boundary that distances us from them. Showing them mercy--which is not at all as sentimental as sounds, because it entails identifying with them, as one of them--breaks through these barriers. We're not doctors, but patients all. And if there's any difference between them and us it's in our having met the Great Physician Whom they may not yet know. It's a big difference, but not one that divides us.

That "as yourselves" clause in The Great Commandment is the most elusive part for us, I think. It is not a call for empathy but for mercy and identification, a discipline, not an emotion. Asking us to relate to our neighbors in that way sets very high expectations, indeed. But we can do it.

Thank you for your comment. It brings a very important point into sharp relief here.