Subversive Wisdom — The World Stood on Its Head

Subversive Wisdom, the World Stood on Its Head

“What must I do to inherit eternal life,” was the hottest question of First Century Israel.  The lawyer in our scripture asked the question.  Nicodemus in the Gospel of John asked the question.  The rich young ruler asked the question in Mark and Luke.  We should note that Jesus never answered exactly the same way twice.  To Nicodemus he said, “you have to be born anew.”  To the rich young ruler Jesus said, “You know the commandments.  Do them.”

And when the rich man said, “I’ve done them all since my youth.”

Jesus looked upon him lovingly and said, “you lack one thing.  Go sell what you have, and give to the poor and come follow me.”

Jesus seemed to understand that each person was seeking a unique answer, they had to figure out for themselves.  In our scripture today, when Jesus was asked the question, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

He answered with a question.  “What is written in the law, how do you read it?”

So the lawyer responded by giving the summary of the law the great Rabbi Hillel had formulated, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”

Agreeing with Rabbi Hillel, Jesus said, “You have answered right; do this, and you will live.”

But the lawyer didn’t want to leave it alone.  He perceived the answer wasn’t that easy, and he saw that the crux of the matter lay in the definition of “neighbor.”  “Who is my neighbor?”

And this was where Jesus got really radical.  He told a story.  He started out talking about a guy traveling by himself from Jerusalem down to Jericho, and a band of robbers jumps him, beats him almost to death.  Strips him naked and leaves him for dead right there in the road.

Boy is Jesus’ audience identifying with this story.  Everybody knew how dangerous that road was.  You should never travel that road alone.  It served him right for being such a fool traveling alone down the Jericho road.  Jesus has his audience with him.

So, the first person to come along and sees the man beside the road is a Priest.  The Priests weren’t real popular especially with the crowd following Jesus.  The Priests were implicated in foreclosing on farmer’s debts, and pushing peasants off the land.  They didn’t care about anybody but the money changers anyway.  No when the Priest passed by on the other side of the road, the crowd probably booed and made rude gestures.   Jesus’ listeners are really with him.

Next in the story comes along a Levite.  Levites were employees of the temple.  They collected the Temple Tax, supervised the money changers, and took care of the business end of the Temple, and they weren’t very popular either.  Everyone saw the Levites as having cushy jobs living off of the revenues from the Temple.  And of course they weren’t surprised when the Levite passed by on the other side of the road.  Someone probably yelled out, “Levite scum wouldn’t lift a finger to help any of us.”  And as everybody laughed and shook their heads Jesus knew he had this crowd in the palm of his hand.

And then the third person to come along the road, who stopped and helped the poor man, of all things was a Samaritan.  The mouths of everyone in the crowd dropped wide open.  They couldn’t believe their ears.  The hero of the story was a Samaritan of all people – a dirty stinkin Samaritan.

In order to communicate how shocked Jesus’ audience might have been, let me try to put this in our modern context.  A conservative legislator Bubba is traveling from Birmingham to Montgomery.  He forgot his cell phone.  He has a flat tire.  He gets out to change the tire, and some gang members come along, jump out of their car, beat up the legislator, steal all of his money, his wallet with all of his identification, even take his expensive leather shoes, and leave him along the side of the road unconscious.

The first person who comes driving along is Deacon Jones, a wealthy car dealer, who sees the man lying beside a car with a flat tire, and says to himself, “he should have had onstar,” as he drives on by.

The second person who comes driving down the highway is Rev. Smith.  And Rev. Smith is a busy, busy man.  As usual he is running late to a meeting, and so when he sees the man lying beside the road, he consoles himself, that surely someone else who isn’t so busy will stop to help the man.

The third person who comes driving down the highway is an illegal alien – an undocumented Mexican chicken processor.  Pedro sees the Bubba lying beside the car with the flat tire, and though he is scared he might get found out, he stops.  Pedro can see the man is really hurt, and since Pedro has no cell phone, he puts Bubba in his car, and drives him to the nearest hospital.

When he carries the legislator into the emergency room, the receptionist asks Pedro, “he got insurance?”

“I don’t know Senora.  I found him on the road, and he doesn’t have a wallet or identification.”

“Well, who’s gonna pay for it?”

And poor Pedro, who has just been paid, pulls out five-hundred dollars and says, “I don’t have much, Senora, but please take care of him.”

Who proved neighbor to the legislator who was robbed?

Jesus was absolutely radical.  If we were retelling this story in Israel today, the victim would be a Jew, the hero would be a Palestinian.  If we were retelling this story, in Northern Ireland, the victim would be a Protestant and the hero would be a Catholic.  Given all the animosity expressed about poor people lately, the victim could be a nice white upper-class society matron, and the hero could be a welfare mother on food stamps.  For that matter given all the animosity generated toward the wealthy, if Jesus were retelling the story at an Occupy Whatever Rally, the victim might be a poor person and the hero might be a wealthy person who shows compassion. Jesus is radical.  The principle focus of the Good Samaritan is not about helping people, although that is a nice subplot, no the radical subversive Jesus wants to challenge all of our stereotypes.  Who is my neighbor?  Whoever we don’t happen to like.  Jesus makes it tough.  Just when we think we can follow him, he throws us some of his subversive wisdom and stands our ordinary common sense values on their head.  “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy,’ but I say to you love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you.”  And just for good measure our neighbor is one of those dirty rotten Samaritans we don’t like, or a Palestinian, or Catholic, or a liberal, or a conservative, or even an illegal alien.

Following Jesus is hard.  Even leave out the cross business, it’s hard.  Jesus is constantly asking us to stretch and grow and move out of our comfort zones.  And part of the impact Jesus needs to make on our lives is to slow down and care.

For a final exam in an ethics course, a college professor gave all of his students a sealed envelope and told them not to reveal to any other student what was in their envelope.  Inside the envelope were three different sets of instructions.

The first set of instructions given to about one third of the students told them that the time was now 1 p.m. and they were to proceed to the Communication Arts Building (about a 25 minute walk across campus) and report to room 205 by 2 p.m., to pick up their final grade for the course.  The second set of instructions given to another one third of the students told them that the time was now 1 p.m. and they were to proceed to the Communication Arts Building and report to room 205 by 1:45 p.m. and their successful completion of these instructions would account for 20% of their final grade.  The third set of instructions given to the last third of the students told them that the time was now 1 p.m. and they were to proceed to the Communication Arts Building and report to room 205 by 1:30 p.m. and their successful completion of these instructions would account for 40% of their final grade.

Unbeknownst to the students the professor had hired students from the drama department to play the part of students in distress, and he had them stationed at various places along the path between the exam room and the Communication Arts Building.  He even had a student in a wheel chair turned on its side at the steps of the Communication Arts Building.

Two thirds of the students in the first group, the group who had a whole hour to get to Room 205 just to pick up their grade, stopped to help one of the people in distress along their way.  One third of the students in the second group, the group who had 45 minutes to get to the Room 205 for 20% of their grade stopped to help any of the people in distress along their way.

And the students in the third group — the ones who only had 30 minutes to make it to room 205 for 40% of their grade?  None of them could report even having seen anyone in distress on their way to room 205.

In addition to our difficulty in reaching across the chasms of prejudice in our lives, we may also need to look at what our pressured time conscious culture does to us spiritually.  Who proved neighbor to the people in distress?  The ones who helped them?  Go and do likewise.

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