Sunday, July 14, 2019

Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

Luke 10
30 In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. 32 So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. 34 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. 35 The next day he took out two denarii[e] 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.’

If you have a question related to human behaviour, there is a good chance someone has done a study.

Case in point are Ekman and Friesen (1986), who discovered that happy people smile everywhere in the world. And sad people frown, angry people look angry, and so on. Maybe it seems self-evident, but good to know in case you worry that you might encounter some happy-looking mad person in some far-off land.

Or how about Festinger and Carlsmith (1959), who discovered that the more you pay someone to do a menial task, the less happy they become. They were able to prove that poorly-paid participants were better able to trick themselves into thinking that the work wasn’t so bad, where the better paid person was less able to this. Good luck explaining this to the kid who wants $20 to cut your lawn (“Honestly, you’ll be happier if I give you five”).

Or the study by Nisbett and Wilson (1977) that demonstrated that people can describe how they feel without fully understanding why. One group watched a movie with distracting noise outside, and reported that they disliked the film, while the group without the noises found the movie quite enjoyable. When the first group were asked why they disliked the film, not a single person mentioned the annoying noise.*

So how does this relate the Parable of the Good Samaritan, one of the most familiar stories in scripture? Well, since it seems there is very little that has escaped the attention of psychologists, I can tell you that the parable is the subject of a study too.

This one 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 an infamous New York City murder, when several people heard screams but 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 was assigned the task of talking about seminary jobs and the other group prepared to talk about 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 should 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 wondering.

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 became a sort of stand-in for the early Christian church, illustrating a proper religious response where the Jews had failed.

It took a couple of psychologists to disprove that one too, 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.

I want to come back to this point in a minute, but first I want to look at a bit of context, specifically how the parable comes about. The first answer is in response to the question “who is my neighbour,” which itself appears because we hear the Great Commandment. But there is more to it than that, because Luke has a different approach to the Great Commandment —something worth noting.

In Matthew and Mark, it’s a question of asked and answered: someone wants to understand the heart of the law and Jesus tells them: love the Lord your God with all you heart, and all your soul, and all your mind; and love your neighbour as yourself. In Luke it’s inverted: Jesus is asking the question, and someone clever shares to Great Commandment to great praise. And in the midst of this praise, the clever person says “but wait, who is my neighbour?” What follows is the parable.

I share this because Luke wants to remind us that we already know the Great Commandment, we just need to learn how to apply it. Like the subjects of some elaborate psychological test, we already know that the very best we can do is to love God and love our neighbours, we just have to learn how. And maybe we think we know, but the story of seminarians running across campus tells us that knowing and doing are two different things.

So taking the commandments in reverse, how we love our neighbour? Well, in this case, Jesus prompts the answer to this question too, and the clever person says “by showing mercy.” In other words, we can’t simply insist we love our neighbour and then do nothing about it. It’s not an abstract emotional response God is looking for, it’s mercy. And mercy can take many forms, everything from nursing the victim in our parable to just being more understanding. It includes demanding that the vulnerable be treated fairly, and reminding others that your ‘neighbour’ ranges from next door, to the next country, and even the earth itself.

Next up, how do you love God? On the surface, it seems rather simple—even obvious—until you consider some of the baggage we carry. It was Jack Miles in his book “Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God” who pointed out that our default approach to God is often far from loving. Life is short, trouble comes, people suffer, and the mortality rate among humans is consistently running at 100 percent—and for all these reasons it’s hard not to be angry. Even the most saintly among us will think about blaming God for the seeming raw deal we get in life: so much to treasure and celebrate in life—a life that is always finite.

Jack Miles then applies this to the Christian story: people harbour anger toward God, then suddenly God appears in their midst. People should be grateful for the opportunity to dwell in God’s presence but they do the opposite: they conspire to kill God on a cross. Yet even as God is dying, even as these frail humans seek their revenge, God is busy loving them and forgiving them and dying to save them (and us, from ourselves).

Amazing how parables work. The first time we hear it, we naturally imagine that we’re the Samaritan, loving our neighbour, showing mercy, enjoying all that praise. But if you listen to Jack Miles, we seem to become the robber instead, acting out in anger even if can never fully understand ourselves. The great irony in the passage is that the robber is quickly forgotten in the story, even if there is a slight chance the robber is us. But wait, maybe it’s double irony, because the watchword is mercy—and some time later we meet another robber (or the same robber?) who is on the cross beside Jesus, promised that day to see paradise.

May we show mercy as we have been shown mercy, and may we make mercy the grateful response that defines us. Now and always, Amen.



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