17 April 2021
Courses and Events
ANGER AND RIGHTEOUSNESS
What, if anything, do anger and righteousness have to do with each other? Is there a state that may be referred to as “righteous anger” and, if so, what is it and how do we find it?
In my experience the world is an increasingly angry place, fuelled in no small measure by the way social media platforms distance people and are devoid of many of the factors that restrain the expression to anger. The tensions in the political arenas of the USA and South Africa provided further fuel for social anger. People on both wings of the political spectrum have been quick to give expression to their anger. American politics has become more fiercely oppositional than ever. Inflammatory statements have provoked raised levels of anger among those on the political right wing – many of them, sadly, professing Christians.
At the same time there has been plenty of answering anger from those on the left wing of the political spectrum, much of it focused around issues of racism, gender-based violence and other expressions of social injustice. Here again, some of these outspoken expressions of anger come from professing Christians. Sometimes the impression is created that the anger expressed by the right wing is always unrighteous and the anger of the exponents of left wing causes is always righteous, but this is a very unhelpful caricature.
The truth of the matter is that anger is always a dangerous emotion, especially when it is held in the heart and nursed, whatever cause it purports to serve. James1:20 categorically states, human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires. From this it would appear that anger and righteousness stand in opposition to each other. It is certainly an important caution for us to heed. Equally in Ephesians 3 and Colossians 4, Paul explicitly counsels us to get rid of anger, rage, bitterness and malice.
We know, however, that there were occasions when Jesus exhibited what can only be understood as “righteous anger”. There is the incident in the synagogue on the Sabbath when Jesus encountered a man with a shrivelled hand. Jesus knew the custodians of Jewish orthodoxy were looking for grounds to accuse him. Mark tells us,
esus said to the man with the shrivelled hand, ‘Stand up in front of everyone.’
Then Jesus asked them, ‘Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?’ But they remained silent.
He looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts, said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ He stretched it out, and his hand was completely restored.
The most notable occasion is the anger Jesus displayed when he fashioned a whip and forcefully cleared out the merchants and money changers who had set up their operation right within the Temple, in the Court of the Gentiles.
What can we learn, then, about righteous anger? The obvious first lesson is that it is other-centred. Jesus was not angry on his own behalf, but was indignant on behalf of others – the suffering and the marginalized. Secondly, Jesus’ anger was a springboard to action, not an attitude he harboured and nursed within his heart. There is the world of difference between anger that moves us to action and anger that shapes our personality and character. Jesus, the holy Son of God lived in a world full of human evil, whether it was expressed personally or structurally, but he was not constantly angry, and he cannot be characterized as an angry person – on the contrary, he was a man of joy.
I think there is something in this that is very important for us to grasp in a world that is increasingly characterized and shaped by anger. When I make a nesting place for anger within my heart, even if it seems to be anger for some just cause, it begins to shape my character and becomes an atmosphere that colours my every interaction. Though it may seem to serve a cause beyond myself, it increasingly grows into “my anger” and begins to become about me as much as anything else. In other words, I personalise it. At that point, I would do well to heed James’ caution,
human anger does not produce the righteousness of God.
Harbouring anger quickly turns my focus onto the rightness of my point of view, and it hooks into the inner working of the self. It then positions me in opposition to those who don’t share my viewpoint and who act in such a way as to cause offence to my system of belief. In this case the whole process serves a “righteousness” which is closer to self-righteousness than the righteousness of God. When I harbour this sort of anger it gives me permission to feel “justified” when my words and actions express that anger, even if they are critical and judgemental. In my experience, that is a false “justification”, and it is very different from the justification that God gives, which is always born of grace.
The practice of what might be termed the politics of anger, creates an oppositional environment which tends to close options, and hardens people in their “positions”. It quickly becomes a win-lose game and often simply ends with lose-lose. As I look at Jesus, even in his moments of expressing anger, he always aims at opening horizons for people and providing them with room to change. That is because anger was always a servant to grace. Jesus was clear about his mission,
I did not come to judge the world, but to save the world
There is so much that is wrong in our world and in our society. Human sin expresses itself personally and systemically. We feel the pain of all this, as, indeed, we must. Pain naturally stings our emotions and stirs anger within us. What will we do with this anger? Will we harbour and nurse it? Will we personalise it? Will we weaponise it? Or will we subordinate it to grace and then act on it in a way that brings God’s redemption into areas of social or personal infection? Will we steadfastly choose to honour people for their intrinsic worth and look to open options for transformation that yield win-win results? That, I think, is what righteous anger looks like.
Rob Taylor, 04/02/2021
JESUS AMONG THE GADARENES
- PART 2.
The demon-possessed man in the Gadarene region has terrified all who have come into contact with him and lives as a wretched but wild outcast on the hills alongside the Sea of Galilee. When Jesus enters the scene, however, it is the demons who are fearful as they recognise the divine authority of Jesus. Significantly they beg to be allowed to inhabit a nearby herd of pigs. Pigs were unclean animals according to Jewish kosher laws. In that sense they were natural hosts for unclean spirits. The Gadarenes, however, had no scruples with regard to pigs. The towns of the Decapolis were prosperous trade centres and, for them, the herd of pigs would simply have represented a valuable asset. So there is implicit in the pigs a significant difference of culture.
Jesus’ entry into their territory, then, has an immediate cultural and, for them more importantly, economic impact. He may bring remarkable healing and deliverance, but the Gadarenes also recognise that there is a cost involved in having him around. They are confronted with a decision. Whereas the Samaritans eagerly welcomed Jesus into their village and, presumably, also accepted the cost to their lifestyle of receiving and following him as Messiah, the Gadarenes ask him to leave their territory. Their culture and their economic preoccupations made the cost of welcoming him look too high.
In each of these two instances, Jesus’ arrival quickly becomes a highly visible public event, with all the townsfolk coming out to see what has happened. In each instance they are faced with irrefutable evidence of personal transformation in the life of someone well known to them. They are able to see the miraculous inbreaking of the Kingdom of God. The coming of the Kingdom always provokes the crisis of decision. The Samaritans rejoiced and wanted to hear more, the Gadarenes were afraid and moved to create a protective distance between them and Jesus.
This shows me that resistance to the gospel of Jesus is often occasioned by fear. Unless we recognise that often lies behind people’s refusal of the offer of grace, we won’t properly grasp the dynamics that are at work in the context. Strikingly, the opposite of fear is at work in the man who is delivered of the legion of demons. This once tortured soul emerges “clothed and in his right mind”. He has been powerfully impacted by grace and knows himself to be delivered, healed and transformed.
In this context, the man’s racial and cultural constraints become irrelevant to him. Of all those in the Gerasene territory it is he who sees most clearly and, as such, he begs to go with Jesus. The grace of the gospel of the Kingdom has formed a deep bond; so deep that he is willing to leave his people and his cultural and step into the alien world of Jewish society, such is his desire to be with Jesus!
Is this not what has often happened in missionary contexts? The liberating grace of the gospel is so powerful that people are willing, for the sake of Christ, to identify with and espouse the culture of those who have brought the message of Christian salvation. It is telling, therefore, that Jesus refuses the man’s request. Jesus knows that what is needed is for him to re-enter his own cultural group as an authentic evangelist. Jesus instructs him, “Go home to your own people and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.”
So, this once uncontrollable, demon-possessed man becomes a very effective evangelist whose words, backed by the visible evidence of his life, caused amazement among the people of his community. There is historical evidence for the early establishment of Christian churches in the Gadarene region, and there is every likelihood that it all grew from the founding evangelistic ministry of this man.
The Gadarene community, which was resistant to Jesus and his Jewish companions, was more open to hearing the gospel coming to them through one of their own, and in terms that they are able to understand. Mission in many, many contexts down the ages would have been freed from unhelpful enculturation if heralding the gospel of the Kingdom had been more completely entrusted to those who were first impacted by it and who were able to share it in a shape that would be more understandable to their own people.
In our South African context, centuries after the coming of the first missionaries, there is still, often legitimate, resentment about the way the gospel came wrapped in British culture, and with acceptance of the saving message of Jesus carrying with it the requirement that people cut themselves off from their culture and adopt Western practices. Western culture was identified with “Christendom” and commended, while African culture was denigrated. This is a violation of the way of Jesus and has not borne the good fruit that could have resulted had the gospel been free to find its place in African culture.
Rob Taylor, 07/09/2020
JESUS AMONG THE GADARENES
- PART 1.
Mark here gives us another account of Jesus deliberately choosing to go into non-Jewish territory. This time he instructs his disciples to take their boat across the lake to the far shore, which was the region of the Decapolis. Jewish relations with the people of the Decapolis don’t seem to have been as tense and conflicted as those with the Samaritans, probably because the history between the two communities was less fraught. But because the cities of the Decapolis had a strong Greek influence, having been established in the reign of Alexander the Great, their way of life and cultural assumptions were very offensive to Jewish sensibilities. Though the Sea of Galilee is never wider that 13Kms, the Galilean Jews kept their distance from the people on the other side of the lake.
Jesus, however, chooses to go there, and, just as with the Samaritan woman at the well, he seems to have a “divine appointment” with a specific person. Just as with the woman at the well, this single interpersonal engagement has the effect of unlocking an apparently resistant community to the message of the Kingdom of God. This is even more surprising given that both these people for whom Jesus came were marginalized and outcast members of their respective communities. At the same time, they were well known to their fellow townsfolk, so that the dramatic change in them would have been unmistakably apparent and their testimony to Jesus as the source of their transformation would be listened to with attention.
Why did Jesus choose these people on the fringes of their cultural groups? Perhaps because people on the margins don’t have the luxury of being too heavily invested in social divisions or clinging too tightly to prejudice. Their position of humility within their own group makes them less protective and assertive of their cultural distinctiveness and more open to simple, direct human encounter.
So we come to the scene where Jesus and his disciples step onto the shore and are immediately confronted with this wild out-of-control man rushing towards them. It pictures the sense of threat that so often comes with stepping onto culturally foreign territory. What is strikingly apparent, however, is the calmness of Jesus. He is secure in his authority within the Kingdom of God and no threat from the devil has any power to shake him.
Another surprising thing is that, though he is on a foreign shore, the demons within the man recognise him as “Son of the Most High God”. I get the impression that their recognition of Jesus translated to the understanding of the afflicted man. Just as the woman at the well was the unlikely one who first recognised Jesus as Messiah, so something similar is happening here. Equally, there is a sense that, just as Jesus completely knew that woman and saw the true longing of her heart, so he does with this man. In seeing each of them with compassion and recognition of their inherent value, Jesus has the potential to free them from what holds them in bondage and heal and transform their lives. That is the power of grace that comes with seeing people through the eyes of Jesus.
Rob Taylor, 03/09/2020
JESUS AND THE WOMAN AT THE WELL
- PART 3.
Jesus keeps this conversation at the well focussed on thirst. He begins with physical thirst, but quickly moves to the inner thirst of the soul. He is spiritually alert to the inner thirst that is beginning to stir within this Samaritan woman. I am intrigued that Jesus was aware of something about this woman that had nothing to do with her race, social standing or moral track record. The thing that weighed in the scales above everything else for Jesus was spiritual thirst and readiness to respond to God. We place value on so many other things that have to do with human pride, but the Lord places his value on this, “How blessed are those who know their need of God”. The telling thing is that in Jesus’ context, and in our own, this hunger and thirst is frequently most in evidence among those at the ragged edge of society, the marginalized, the poor, and the morally broken.
So Jesus alerts this woman to her thirst, above all the other social factors inhibiting her from engaging with him. “If you knew the gift on offer, you would have asked for it”, in other words, nothing would have held you back from entering into this interaction. I wonder how many gifts of God I have failed to receive because I have allowed external factors, and my own preconceptions, to prevent me from pressing in and asking.
There is a gift of God to be had here, the gift of his grace – amazing grace! In this account we see how the gift of grace frees this woman from the guilt of her choices and all that caused her to feel shame and inferiority. Even beyond that, we see the power of grace to bridge the Jew/Samaritan divide and welcome her into the fulfilment of the promises of God. Yet the grace on offer is not cheap grace. There is a doorway through which she must walk and that involves facing and acknowledging the mess of sin that is blocking up the well of her heart.
Sin is a complex thing and it is formed from a mixture of what has been done to us and what we have done. It has its roots in our moral choices, our economic preoccupations, our cultural influences, our pride and our shame. Somehow we have to let God bring it all to the surface and lay before him all these forces that block up our hearts.
Repentance is hard, and it is complex. There are all sorts of reasons, from shame to self-righteousness, that make us resist owning our poverty before God and calling on his grace. It wasn’t easy for this woman, she tried all sorts of ploys to head the conversation in other directions. It took the prophetic directness of Jesus to open her brokenness and sin and bring it into the light. All of us stand in need of Jesus’ action in revealing our sin to us. All of us have sins we try to hide and others that we are blind to.
I find it interesting that, just as the expert in the law tried to use his skill in biblical interpretation to hide from the lack of compassion in his heart, so this woman, though she is no expert theologian, also seeks to use questions of belief and styles of worship as a means of holding Jesus at arm’s length. It is both instructive and disturbing to see how we use these elements of religion and faith as screens to hide behind and as ways of avoiding the need to honestly face our need of cleansing and grace. It challenges me to ask where I use my systems of biblical interpretation and my assumptions about the practice of my faith to actually protect sin in my heart and to keep Jesus at a safe distance.
This woman is seeking to assert the historical divergence between Samaritans and Jews to legitimise and perpetuate the ongoing barrier between the two groups, and its application, specifically, to this uncomfortable conversation. How often has theology been trotted out to legitimise various expressions of human apartheid? How much do you and I still function according to these assumptions in terms of who I relate to and how I do so?
It is not that Jesus is naive or simplistic about these differences, nor does he minimise questions of right belief, he acknowledges that salvation is from the Jews as God’s covenant people, but his perspective is that right understanding and knowledge isn’t the defining or limiting factor when it comes to how far the gospel’s invitation stretches. We as church folk can so easily put our theological convictions in the way of simply engaging with people. We make too much of the outward customs of other religious or cultural groups and become blind to the gospel possibilities that exist there. Just as when Jesus swept aside the kosher laws and took away a major impediment to the inclusion of Gentiles within the table fellowship of the Church, so here he sweeps aside all entrenched questions of modes of worship and keeps his focus on the essential thirst of the heart and the call for each person to engage personally and directly “in spirit”.
This whole account is about the richness of heaven reaching through layers of social, conceptual and personal sin to quench the soul thirst of this woman and then her village. It is a dramatic conversion story, as unlikely, in its way, as that of Saul of Tarsus. He too needed the Spirit of Christ to cut through his social, conceptual and personal misconceptions and sin to dramatically transform him. He too, in his way, was immediately compelled to rush back and “tell his village”. As the change in him was dramatic, so it seems to have been with this woman. People knew her and her lifestyle, and now she appears before them radiant, excited, confident and free of shame.
When she went out to the well that day, she did not know how thirsty she was! But having had the living water that only Jesus can give pour into her soul, it irresistibly flows out of her. Do I really know how thirsty I am? Do I truly come to the One who offers me the water of life? Does its transforming power flow out from me and bear powerful witness to all I encounter that I have been in the presence of the Lord of life? Jesus kept this woman focussed on the primacy of spiritual thirst, that needs to be our first focus as well.
Rob Taylor, 27/08/2020
JESUS AND THE WOMAN AT THE WELL
- PART 2.
The account of Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well, begins, simply, with the statement that Jesus “had to” go through Samaria. Under almost all circumstances Jews would choose to go right out of their way to avoid travelling through Samaria. This was both because of their antipathy to the Samaritans and also because of their apprehension that they were likely to encounter hostility and even intimidation by virtue of their being on foreign “turf”. What was it that compelled Jesus to go via this route? Was it a deliberate choice to resist spiritual and cultural “Apartheid” and be present to the “other” in their space? Did he perhaps “know” in his spirit that God had an appointment prepared for him somewhere along this path? Certainly the interaction with this woman could not have happened if Jesus had not been in this space.
It makes me ask myself how many “Samaritan territories” I avoid through my unwillingness to identify with them or through fear. How many potentially transformative interactions did not occur as a result? To what extent am I simply living in passive acceptance of social customs and taboos? These things gain power when we accord them authority. Then they begin to define how we perceive reality. The encounter at the well shows us how resolutely Jesus refused to give these strictures any power to shape the way he chose to relate. He intentionally turns a situation that should have been full of entrenched mutual antipathy into one of mutual receptivity, affirmation and generosity.
It is as though Jesus is saying to this woman, “You may know a lot about the social restrictions that humans devise, but you are blind to the gift of God’s making”. At the heart of the gift of the gospel is restoration of relationship and the breaking down of walls of division. That relates, first, to the barrier between sinful humankind and God, and, secondly the social, racial, cultural, economic and adversarial barriers we erect between individuals and groups. Right here in this Jewish man and this Samaritan woman, there are the conventional taboos, or there is the possibility of authentic relationship.
In Jesus’ interaction with the Samaritan woman it is clear that he is inviting her to know him and to recognise him as the Giver of life. He intrigues her into asking the crucial question that we all need to ask, “Who are you?” “Are you greater than our father, Jacob?” Simply asking questions regarding Jesus’ identity sets her on the right path. Her questions come in response to Jesus’ invitation to her to know him, “If you knew who it is that is asking water from you, you would be asking him for living water.” It is almost as though Jesus is “propositioning” her, not with a view to use her, but to liberate her. Whereas other men, in their selfishness, have invited her into brokenness, Jesus, in his selflessness, invites her into healing.
Over the course of their interaction there is an unfolding of “knowing”. She comes to realize that he knows “everything she has ever done”, but she, in turn, comes to a growing insight regarding Jesus, “Could this be the Messiah?” What we see as this conversation unfolds is that all the special “privileges” of relationship with God that were so tightly held by the Jews are made available to this woman by Jesus, and, through her, to the whole community of Sychar. Jesus’ intent is to give away blessing, rather than to cling to it.
Both Jews and Samaritans had an expectation of the coming of the Messiah, though the nature of their expectations differed according to the differences in their theology. Whereas Jesus kept his identity under wraps when he was amongst the Jews, precisely because they added to the promise of Messiah’s coming all sorts of nationalistic and racial expectations and ambitions, here he is plain and direct in his claim to be the Messiah. She was able to hear it in ways that Jesus’ fellow Jews were not.
It is telling that at precisely this point the disciples return and they respond in a conventionally Jewish fashion and are outraged that Jesus should be in conversation with a Samaritan woman. They may have kept their feelings to themselves, but their whole demeanour probably showed what they were thinking – the familiar “vibe” of racist disapproval! At its base, it is a determination not to know, or to deal with, the “other”.
Whether the woman now senses that the environment of the well is no longer a safe place of grace, or whether she is simply excited by the discovery of the Messiah, she hurries into her village, no longer trying to hide from people’s attention, but making the remarkable invitation, “Come and see a man who completely knows me! I think he may be the Messiah!” Jesus has given her the huge gift of being totally known and totally accepted and, in doing so, has lifted her shame from her. In the process she is beginning to grow into a knowledge of him. She has entered into something so evidently authentic that all her fellow townsfolk pay attention to her words and follow her back to the well.
It is not as though all the history of Jewish/Samaritan tension has suddenly disappeared, but it has had to take second place to deeper and greater truths. It has had to give way to grace-filled human interaction and, most wonderfully, the gift of new life that brings freedom and wholeness. These are always the deeper realities of human relationship and they are able to give us perspective and bring their redeeming power to all our conflict-ridden human divisions.
The important thing that Jesus is saying is that everyone who drinks the water he gives will never thirst, but will receive the inner wellspring of eternal life. It is not an offer confined to the Jews. Implied in the invitation Jesus extends to this Samaritan woman is the universal offer of the gospel and the removal of limitations on its reach and spread. This is not the preserve of any elite group, it is freely offered to all.
Rob Taylor, 27/08/2020
JESUS AND THE WOMAN AT THE WELL
- PART 1.
We create barriers between ourselves and others on the basis of various criteria, among the most common being race, class and social position, age and gender. In the interaction described in John 4, there is Jesus – a man, a Jew and a rabbi – engaging with a Samaritan woman who was probably poor and marginalized within her community. In combination, these factor THE PARABLE OF THE GOOD SAMARITAN (PART 1.) told whys should have prevented him having any dealings with her, or even looking at her.
Jesus and his disciples had set out, probably one or two days before to journey from Jerusalem to Galilee. Jacobs well is about 67 kms from Jerusalem – at least two day’s walk. This encounter happened in the midday heat, after, no doubt, a full morning’s hike that would have taken Jesus and his companions from Jewish territory into Samaria, with all the disquiet that would have prompted in this little group of Jews. We are told that Jesus felt compelled to go through Samaria, but we are not told why.
We know that Jesus’ group of disciples often had unguarded conversations among themselves as they walked along behind their rabbi, and it is not hard to imagine that their Jewish prejudicial attitudes might have formed a part of their conversation as they walked through Samaritan territory. Their level of tension would have risen even higher at the prospect of entering a Samaritan town to bargain with the locals for food. Probably that is why they entered Sychar as a whole group. Jesus, for reasons unexplained, chose to rest at the Jacob’s well, which was a kilometre or so from the town and, probably close to the road from Jerusalem.
We know from John’s account that Jesus was hungry and thirsty and hot and tired. He had every reason to wearily keep himself to himself. A Samaritan woman arrives at the well at this midday hour. We may well speculate why she came at this unusual hour. It is not unreasonable to guess that she wanted to avoid contact with the other women of her town. I imagine her approaching quietly and as unobtrusively as possible. She would probably have been extremely discomforted to find a Jewish man at the well. I imagine that she approached the well with some apprehension.
So we have these two figures at the well. They were on the opposite sides of deeply engrained racial, cultural and gender divisions. The simple way of coping with this would have been a tacit acceptance of the need to mutually ignore one another. For all these compelling reasons the woman should have been effectively invisible to this Jewish rabbi. She, from her side, would have welcomed being invisible.
Once again, we are presented with the issue of who we choose to see and how we choose to see them. Time and again the gospel stories show Jesus truly seeing people that others were ignoring and whom he could easily choose to ignore. The first principle of living life with the heart of Jesus is to “see” people and, as far as we can, to do so as Jesus did, without the customary cultural filters of prejudice.
What did Jesus see that moved him to break the cluster of taboos that should have stood as a barrier between him and this woman? He takes the initiative of conversation and he does so at the basic level of his physical need for a drink. He is not commanding, he is asking and thereby investing her with the dignity of being in the position of provider. He also gives her the dignity of choice. She can accede to his request or not. She can choose to answer him and enter into this conversation or not. It is a simple request, but it is personal: “Will you give me a drink?” It calls forth interpersonal kindness and humanity.
Jesus’ request might be simple and direct, but there is no getting away from all the freight of any form of conversation. Hence the woman’s reply, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” So much history between two races is alluded to in those two little sentences! Her assumption is that she would occupy a position of inferiority in his eyes. Effectively, she is asking, “What on earth would cause you to notice me, to speak to me, to ask me to help you and to be willing to drink from my bucket?” Was her tone of voice one of suspicion, or of wonder?
How will Jesus answer these questions? Well, simply, he doesn’t. Notably, he simply brushes these cultural and racial barriers aside. They are filled with all sorts of complexities and highly charged emotional content, but Jesus steadfastly keeps this conversation focussed on the issue of thirst and common kindness and generosity. We wants it to be about what she may choose to give to him and what he is willing to give to her. It is about mutual generosity, not mutual suspicion of submission to the control of social expectations. In our world, with its deep divisions and complex issues between people and groups, there is something to be learned from the simplicity of mutual need and mutual generosity.
Rob Taylor, 14/08/2020
THE PARABLE OF THE GOOD SAMARITAN
- PART 2.
Leviticus 19:18 reads, “
Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbour as yourself. I am the Lord.”
It is easy to see why the expert in the law wanted to debate this text. At the very least it seems to imply an obligation only to fellow Israelites, and even there, they may be further points of limitation to be argued.
In response Jesus tells a parable which, from the outset was radical, in the figures of the priest and the Levite he presents his hearers with the very religious professionals from whom neighbour love would be expected. He places them in the setting of the dangerous road through the harsh environment between Jericho and Jerusalem. This is a context of personal peril from bands of robbers who hid in the Judean hills. Jesus thus creates a situation where the interpretation of neighbour love is in question – is simply doing nothing and minding one’s own business a failure to love? There may have been all sorts of questions in the mind of the expert in the law with his desire to fine-tune obligation to the law. The obvious inference is that the priest and Levite had ritual duties that required them to be ritually clean. Did not their choice to pass by reflect a higher obligation towards God? Then there is the question of what manner of man the victim was. What could, strictly, be said to be the obligation of an observant follower of the law in this sort of situation? There is plenty of room for self-justifying debate.
Then, to be really incendiary, Jesus introduces a Samaritan into the situation! The natural thing would have been to make the victim a Samaritan to clarify how far the obligation of neighbour love extended. This is precisely where the exclusiveness, purity and superiority of Judaism would have been asserted and defended. But Jesus doesn’t cast the Samaritan in this obvious role, but rather as the one who takes action on this issue of neighbour love. He is not constrained by rabbinic case law, he simply follows the dictates of compassion, even at considerable risk and cost to himself.
By this switching of the obvious roles, Jesus changes the narrative from “who should I consider as my neighbour?” to “who behaves like a neighbour?” This leaves no wriggle-room for legalistic self-justification. Then Jesus, as a consummate rabbi, casts the question back to the expert in the law, “Which do you think was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” In the face of this illustration of simple compassion, he is left with no escape route. He has to say, even though it was no doubt through gritted teeth, “The one who had mercy on him”. As the final hit, Jesus says, “Go and do likewise.” It is a parable which, two millennia later, has lost none of its discomforting power!
By making a Samaritan the hero of the story, Jesus pricked the bubble of Jewish prejudice and their sense of superiority. Sure, Samaritans had many off-beam beliefs, and their lineage was a mixture of Jewish and Assyrian, but that is not the point in this instance. Compassion has no racial or doctrinal limits. Jesus asserts a radical ethic that the obligation to neighbourly behaviour extends to everyone and goes beyond just choosing not to do harm, but to active service and compassion.
I am sure a lot of those who heard this story left angry with Jesus. The way Jesus asked them to identify with the heart attitude and actions of a Samaritan would have stuck in their throats and rubbed them up the wrong way. That is precisely the point! Jesus wanted to discomfort them and to challenge them to extend their sense of compassionate obligation beyond their own race and nation, and to do so, not just in theory, but in practical and costly action.
Did the expert in the law leave resentful and entrenched in his prejudice and his self-righteousness, or was he humble enough to learn? The fact that this parable has been preserved means that at least some of Jesus’ followers were open to taking its lessons on board. More to the point, are you and I humble enough to truly hear it and to recognise where we fail to be a neighbour and where we choose to ignore individuals and leave them to their plight?
The man lying in the road is a victim and powerless. He is unable to be instrumental in his own rehabilitation. Victims can easily be ignored precisely because they are unable to press their claim. Also the fact that choosing to truly see them generally involves time, effort and cost, makes it easier for us to look the other way and to find justifications for our inaction. Jesus challenges us to get beyond our comfortable ways of limiting obligation and to recognise the heart and intention of God. He wants us to be asking not, “How little can I do?” but “How much can I do?”
Rob Taylor, 12/08/2020
Rob Taylor, 26/05/2020
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