July 10, 2022
Parables are not children’s stories nor are they nothing. They are very much something. They are well designed, strategic strikes on our senses. They are meant to inspire thought and prod us into awareness. To provoke and indict.
The issue, according to Dr. Amy-Jill Levine, “is that we’re not hearing them with first century ears.” Dr. Levine is Jewish and studies the Christian scriptures through Jewish eyes. She is amazing, provocative, and worth checking out. Her insights here into the parable of the Good Samaritan are invaluable.
A lawyer asks Jesus a question. I used to think of it as a snarky question, but it’s not. It’s a technical question. Who is my neighbor? A neighbor is one who has the same rights and responsibilities as we do. We’re here in the states, so while we neighbor Canada, they don’t have the same rights as we do. They can’t vote in our elections nor we in theirs. Our neighbors, legally, are those under the same law.
So Jesus could parse nuance and give an equally technical response about the law and identity and responsibility, but Jesus does what Jesus does. He hurls a parable at him. The lawyer and the listener are about to be provoked and indicted.
A man is beaten up by bandits and left in a ditch at the side of the road. A priest and a Levite walk past. No excuse is given as to why, nor would any excuse have mattered. There is no law about not helping, but they should have helped and they didn’t. It is the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr who uses his theological imagination on this parable. The difference between the two who walked past and the one who didn’t are the questions they asked themselves. The priest and the Levite asked themselves, “If I stopped to help this man, what would happen to me?” whereas the Samaritan asked, “If I do not stop to help this man, what would happen to him?” and that makes all the difference.
It’s hard to know who the Samaritans are for us here where there are hospitals and laws and insurance companies named after The Good Samaritan. It’s a good thing in our culture. But not so in the first century Jewish context.
Dr. Levine points out that there was a triplet in the first century. Priest, Levite, should be followed by the word: Israelite. It’s a triplet. The rule of three. If you knew two words, you should know the third. Dr. Levine proves this by doing an audience participation game that we’ll replicate. I’ll give you two names, you should get the third.
Larry, Moe… (Curly)
Father, Son… (Holy Spirit/Holy Ghost)
Dr. Levine states that going from Priest, Levite to Samaritan would be like going from Larry, Moe, to Hitler. Or Father, Son, to Satan. It was unthinkable.
We are not the Samaritan. We are the one in the ditch. And we’re looking at someone we have been told all our lives is a danger to us and might even kill us walk up to us and save us. Jesus gives a parable where our arch-enemy bears the image of God.
That’s what parables do. They provoke and indict. So I wonder who the enemy is for us. I wonder who the enemy is for me. For me, it might be a Westboro Baptist or street preacher pulling me out of a ditch. Those Christians who make God sound really petty and small and nasty and make my job harder. Or it might be a Russian soldier. Who would it be for you?
Parables provoke and indict. We’ll try a few stories out today.
The first comes from the book Orthodox Heretic by Peter Rollins, a favorite of mine that will be in the church library by the downstairs entrance soon. Peter Rollins begins the first of his parables by asking us to imagine that “in a world where following Christ is decreed to be a subversive and illegal activity you have been accused of being a believer, arrested, and dragged before a court”. The judge hears evidence that you attend church regularly and go to a weekly Bible study. He reads your Christian blog and looks at the well-worn pages of your Bible and declares you not guilty.
You’re sort of relieved and you find yourself indignantly shouting, “Wait?! None of that counts?! What’s the deal?!”
“The court is indifferent towards your Bible reading and church attendance,” the judge says. “It has no concern for worship with words and a pen. Continue to develop your theology and use it to paint pictures of love. We have no interest in such armchair artists who spend their time creating images of a better world. We exist only for those who would lay down that brush, and their life, in a Christlike endeavor to create a better world. So, until you live as Christ and his followers did, until you challenge this system and become a thorn in our side, until you die to yourself and offer your body to the flames, until then, my friend, you are no enemy of ours”.
How did that hit you? How did that make you feel?
Like the parable of the good Samaritan, it challenges us to reject “armchair religion” that relishes comfortable truths but passes by on the other side. Instead, we’re invited to stop, be as Christ to the world, and to throw ourselves headfirst into serving God with all that we are and all that we have. There’s another parable about the difference, also told by Peter Rollins.
Once there was a woman who wants to produce an illuminated manuscript of the Bible. She wants to produce the sacred text for her community and restore pride and meaning, so she sells all her goods. She collects money from friends and family and strangers. Just as she has the full amount saved, a huge fire sweeps through her community and burns down many homes. She spends her Bible funds instead on rebuilding homes and providing furniture and provisions.
She starts saving up again. And after years and years, she finally has enough, just as a famine sweeps through her community. She spends all her saved-up Bible money on feeding her community so children can grow up healthy and strong, working folks can continue to work, and the elderly are cared and provided for.
Finally, near the end of her life, she finally has enough money to make the illuminated Bible. She pays for it. And just as the book is completed, she dies.
At her memorial, the church was packed. You couldn’t get into the church. You couldn’t find a hotel room. People were staying at relatives and long-lost relatives and complete strangers’ homes. And the community said that the woman translated the Bible beautifully three times, and the first two times were the most beautiful.
Go and do likewise. Amen.
Dr. Amy-Jill Levine: “Life After Death: Jesus, Judaism, and Justice” https://youtu.be/AFy_jjP2WzU1 11/13/17
The Bible for Normal People, episode 92: AJ Levine- Jesus, Judaism, & Christianity, https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/episode-92-aj-levine-jesus-judaism-christianity-reissue/id1215420422?i=1000443297008
Peter Rollins, The Orthodox Heretic and other impossible tales. Paraclete Press, 2016.
The Robcast Episode 183: Parables with Pete Rollins: https://youtu.be/QtqLDI3v4_Y