Sunday, July 11, 2010

Luke 10
29 But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbour?’ 30Jesus 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. 31Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33But a Samaritan while travelling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. 34He 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. 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.” 36Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ 37He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’

A Dutchman was going down from Pretoria to Johannesburg when he lost his vuvuzela in the crush of the crowd. An Englishman passed by with two vuvuzelas, one in each hand, and the Dutchman said “Alstublieft, my friend, may I have one of your vuvuzelas? For you see, I have lost mine in the crush of the crowd.”

“No bloody way,” he said, quote rudely.

Just then a Frenchman was passing by, this time with a whole armful of vuvuzelas, red, white, blue, and even an orange one. “Alstublieft, s.v.p., my friend, may I have one of your vuvuzelas? You see, I've lost mine in the crowd and my beloved Oranje plays this afternoon in the final.”

“O mon dieu!” said the Frenchman. “I would love to help you, my friend, but you see, these will be collectors items some day, and I can't part with them. Maybe try eBay.”

The next person to come by was a Spaniard, all dressed in red, looking very excited, and carrying a very long, very red vuvuzela. The Dutchman looked at the Spaniard and then looked away. “Hola, amigo,” said the Spaniard, “why do you look so sad? The game hasn't even started yet.”

“Hola,” the Dutchman said, in somewhat shaky Spanish. “I may have jinxed my beloved Oranje already, for you see, I have lost my vuvuzela.”

“That's it?” said the Spaniard, “a lost vuvuzela? You should take mine. I'm sorry it's not orange, but maybe no one in the crowd will notice. In fact, you can sit with me in my reserved box, and that way no one will see you blowing the red vuvuzela. Come, the game is getting started.”

Work continues on the rest of the World Cup Version of the Bible, but I'll leave it there for today.

The reason for alternate readings of this passage, the reason for what is commonly described as “dynamic translation” is the lost power to surprise. Jesus was a part-time provocateur, with a gift for the surprise ending, the unique twist, the sudden shift in understanding. The Parable of the Good Samaritan is one of his most provocative, until cliché and modern convention got a hold of it.

You see, the phrase “good Samaritan” entered the popular mind many centuries ago, and has remained a concept that is not always given it's due as a biblical story. It has a life of it's own. Just like “doubting Thomas,” people have repeated and repeated this turn of phrase until “doubting Thomas” means a “doubting Thomas” rather than one of the disciples who demanded proof.

In fact, the language is filled with allusions that have developed meaning quite apart from their original context. All of these are unknown:

The whole nine yards
Rule of thumb
Bob's your uncle
Open the Kimono
Turn a blind eye (most likely Lord Nelson)

So there are two layers here. There are those who use the phrase “good Samaritan” without understanding the biblical source. That's the first layer. The second is understanding the source without understanding the specific reference, in this case the choice of Samaritan in the telling of the story.

It works like this: Jesus needed code for degrees of helpfulness. He developed a parable with a character likely to help (priest), a character even more likely to help (Levite) and a character unlikely he help at all (Samaritan). The Judeans and Samaritans were bitter rivals, and each claimed to be more authentically Jewish. Think the Iran-Iraq War, or Coke vs. Pepsi.

One of most unique looks at the parable came in 1973, when psychologists Darley and Batson decided to recreate the parable with theology students. It was John Darley that identified the “bystander effect” in the aftermath of a famous New York City murder, when several people heard screams by didn't do anything to help.

The Good Samaritan study began with a two-part assignment given to a number of theology students, with a trip across campus in the middle of the experiment. One group were assigned the task of talking about seminary jobs and the other group to prepare a talk on the parable of the Good Samaritan. Some of each group were told to hurry, and some were told not to rush.

As individual theology students made their way across campus, they came upon a man on the ground, groaning and obviously in some sort of distress. The experimenters were nearby to chart student reactions, everything from failing to notice altogether to stopping to help the man and staying with him until help arrived.

I would like to report that they all stopped to help, since the entire group were students of theology. I would like to report that the theology students who had just prepared a talk on the parable of the Good Samaritan were the most likely to stop, but they were not. In fact, the variable that determined whether they stopped to help or not was time: those told to hurry were the subjects that by-in-large did not stop. One student was in such a hurry he literally stepped over the “victim.” The theology students in less of a rush were more likely to help.

Looking for something positive to say, they certainly proved the parable. Jesus said that the religious “professionals” were the least likely to help the injured man and the research backed it up. Theology students, keen ministers-in-training would be the first to help, or so it would seem. The reality is quite different, proving that seminarians and ministers are human after all, just in case you were unsure.

It certainly takes the wind out of the sails of those who preach this parable as an illustration of Jewish failure. For centuries, preachers have said that a Jewish priest and a high priest did not stop, and this reflected on the quality of their religion. The Samaritan become a sort of stand-in for the early Christian church, illustrating a proper religious response where the Jews failed.

It took a couple of psychologists to disprove that one, and point out that being religious does not automatically translate into being good. Goodness seems to have some other source, although Darley and Batson seem to settle on the luxury of time as one of the key ingredients to being willing to help.

Now let's pause for a moment and consider the purpose of parables: to reveal the hidden nature of God's Kingdom. Parables create a world for us to enter, the world sours somehow, and them a new world emerges for us to enter. That world is the world of the Kingdom. So the man is injured and the people most likely to help refuse to do so. Then a Samaritan helps, an we are left to inhabit some new world.

What if the new world we are to inhabit is the world of overturned convention? Maybe Kingdom living involves stepping outside of conventional thinking and reconsidering all our assumptions. Maybe Kingdom living means taking what we think we know about people in need and seminarians and Samaritans and setting it aside and remaining open to some other possibility, some other outcome.

When I was seventeen my brother took me on my first trip to New York City. I have no idea what my parents were thinking. Nevertheless, Saturday night in Greenwich Village become Sunday morning and at 4.30 am we were walking through Washington Square and pondering a trip up to Times Square and our hotel.

Now, I should tell you that I'm from Mount Albert, and was maybe a little naive and certainly unfamiliar with life in the big city. Add to that the fact that the early 80's were still a rough period in New York, and you begin to get a sense of the gravity of the situation.

Out of nowhere, or so it seemed, a man appeared and said with some urgency, “What are you guys doing out here at this hour? You're gonna get yourselves killed!” He walked us to the subway, paid his fare, and escorted us back to Times Square. Sometimes we meet angels unawares.

What if the new world we are to inhabit is the world of overturned convention? Maybe Kingdom living involves stepping outside of conventional thinking and reconsidering all our assumptions. Maybe there are human ways of hearing a story and heavenly ways of hearing stories and they can be quite different. God has given us the gift of discernment, a mind given to logic and patterns but also a mind open to newness and fresh ways of seeing. Thanks be to God. Amen.