Sunday, August 02, 2009

Loving Your Neighbour is Impossible… Without This



The sweat ran down my forehead as I pounded out another ten reps and slammed the bar back on the rack. The "fitness" room was little more than an odd assortment of weights on top of the stage, but it was enough for me to workout, especially after the last class. Studying at Seminary had been something of an eye-opener for me. It shocked me how locked in my fellow students were and how adamant they seemed about their beliefs. Not with the 'big' ideas so much, it was a Protestant Seminary after all, but the smaller ones, the applications. Especially shocking was the disconnect between the two. Loving your neighbor had very different connotations for people, and too often it meant exclusion. I wiped my forehead with my towel and adjusted the weight. The fan above the stage blew noisily, but did little to dispel the heat. I'd been involved in a somewhat rancorous argument in my History of Christianity lecture with one of the younger guys in my class, who insisted that he got his rules from the Bible. Where did I get mine from? We'd been talking about homosexuality, an always divisive topic, in regards to government. My classmate insisted that the government should enforce "biblical" standards when it came to gay marriage and the gay "agenda". I'd done my best to reign in my own passions, but I'd left class with the empty feeling I often had when I'd been involved in an argument. Still, it was disappointing. Again and again I ran into people at school who, when confronted by something that challenged their beliefs, simply dug their heels in and refused to budge. Sometimes it was a rational argument, other times not. The difficulty for me was that there seemed to be no consistency between people in what caused some to believe one thing and another person to believe something else.


I headed across the stage and through the doors for a drink from the fountain. It was after ten o'clock, and the halls were quiet. When I'd first come to Tyndale, I'd naively expected Grad school to be different. I figured that since we were talking about higher education, our debates would be based on the material. Looking back I can see how ludicrous that was, how I missed my own blind spots, how easy it was to assume that I was being different, or to use a word that shouldn't exist without quantifying, that I was being "objective." Unable to come up with any answers, I decided to head home.


****


I've always thought of Jesus' command to love our neighbor as something worth striving for, as an ideal worth living. Even now, just whispering it in the shadows of my home, I can sense the tiny thrill of hope coursing through me, of a world changed by the power of those words, a world of hurt and tragedy and fear sent scattering to the winds by the breath of the ultimate ideal. As a Christian (like Jews and Muslims), this concept is more than just an ideal however, it is the basis on which we strive to live and stems directly from our belief in a benevolent and loving Creator. Unfortunately, no matter how much we claim Jesus lives inside us, or that we are the products of grace, its application is random and often misapplied or not applied at all. In fact, there are times when it seems our faith actually inhibits our ability to love our neighbor. The truth is that loving our neighbor has become a catch phrase, an abstract notion drifting upon the winds of our beliefs structures like a balloon. And while the idea still fills me with hope, there have been many days when I have thought it best not to even think of it, because sadness and disappointment are sure to follow.


There is, however, a reason behind its difficulty. It is the unifying theme behind both our inability to love our neighbor, and why it remains a seemingly impossible task. It's something I wish I'd known long ago, something that would have helped me during my debates at school and my arguments through the years with other well meaning people. Arguments that left me empty and angry and sad, and despite my vigorous defense, often left me feeling as if I'd missed something. As if I'd somehow skipped past the heart of what Jesus was saying.


****


Moshe lay on the side of the road, unable to catch his breath. He fingered the wound at his side, which continued to bleed heavily. The bandits had surprised him; usually the road was safe this time of year. He muttered a prayer and closed his eyes under the bright sun. (Shema)He tried to roll over, but every movement brought pain. If he did not get help, he would die, but he didn't have the strength to do it himself. He opened his eyes, squinting against the pain and the sun. A priest passed by. He stopped briefly and Moshe called, his voice low.


"Help me, please."


The priest shook his head and continued on. A few minutes later a Levite passed, but this time Moshe did not even have a chance to call out as the man crossed to the other side of the road without so much as a glance. A breeze picked up, and Moshe closed his eyes. Why wouldn't they help him? What had he done to deserve this? He whispered another prayer and accepted his fate. He thought about his family, his wife and two young children, and worried for them. Who would provide when he was gone? His brother lived in Judea, but he had five children of his own.


A strong hand pressed against his shoulder and he forced his eyes open. A younger man, his face serious, was using his robe as a makeshift bandage. The young man was obviously wealthy, from his fine robe to the way he carried himself, and it took a minute before Moshe realized who was helping him. He growled under his breath, but the young man merely raised his eyebrow. A Samaritan? Anyone but a Samaritan, Moshe thought. He tried to roll away, but the young man was insistent and Moshe was too weak to resist as the man piled him on his donkey. The pain from his side continued to throb, and he moaned weakly as the donkey began to walk.


"We must stop the bleeding." The Samaritan said. "The bandage will help. Keep pressure on it as we ride. The journey is not long."


Despite his misgivings, Moshe did as he was told. A Samaritan? Why would a Samaritan help him? Samaritans were the descendants of the Mesopotamians that had settled in the Northern Kingdom, Israel, in the late eighth century BCE. With their phony temple, fake priests and their own Torah (who could imagine such a blasphemy!), they were, in Moshe's eyes, the epitome of everything that could be wrong with a people. Perhaps it was better not to be saved. Thoughts of his wife and children kept him quiet however, and soon enough they were at the inn.


If the innkeeper was surprised by the pairing, he bit his tongue as the Samaritan handed him a number of coins.


"See that he is taken care of. I'll be back in a couple of days to check on him."


"Yes, sir."


The two of them helped Moshe from the donkey as the inn keeper whistled for a few men to help carry Moshe to a room. The Samaritan looked at Moshe, and for a moment it seemed as though he too, was surprised by his own actions, but he didn't say anything. Moshe wanted to look away from this blasphemer, but willed himself to make eye contact. He wanted to thank the man, but for a number of reasons, could not find the words. Finally, the Samaritan clucked the reins of his donkey and left.


****


I closed the book and let it slide from my lap. Amy- Jill Levine's, The Misunderstood Jew, had made me think about the parable of the Good Samaritan in a new way.


This parable, she'd noted, was nearly always misread by modern scholarship, and it did not retain the punch that it had in first century Judaism because we were too busy projecting our version of Jesus on the parable. The Samaritan was not the gay man or the homeless person or the poor person or the prostitute. The Priest and the Levite's refusal to help had nothing to do with Temple impurity, and Samaritans were not "less" than their Jewish counterparts. They were not a minority. They were enemies. Modern Samaria today would translate to the West Bank. A good, modern equivalent would be an Israeli leader of the Knesset being helped and looked after by a leader of the Hamas. In the Middle East today, Levine pointed out, that picture was impossible to grasp, which was the point of the parable.


Who was my neighbour? If what New Testament scholar Levine said was true, then it changed everything. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that what was missed in the parable was not only the identity of our neighbor, but what we must do if we were to love them. And that was not going to be easy to reconcile, if only because I'd always hated rules.


****


It was warm outside. The sun was out, and in the distance I could see the CN tower across the lake. A breeze rustled the trees in front of the balcony, and I sipped my coffee, still thinking about what I'd read the day before, about what it meant to love my neighbour and the rules that governed both our individual life and the ones that governed society.


I'd never liked the idea that there was only one way to do anything. One way to drive. One way to do church. One way to express our faith. One way to cut tomatoes. It had always seemed absurd to me, because everyone was different, and difference in methodology, at the end of the day, meant very little. As a 'non-conformist', it was easy for me to think that I was beyond the human need for self-rules. The truth, however, was that I had just as many 'rules' as the next person. I believed in equality for everyone. I did not accept pre-determined gender roles. I didn't like cell phones in public places and thought we should open presents on Christmas morning, not Christmas Eve. I believed Jesus to be the Son of God. And I believed in eternal life, but not in eternal torment. When I examined myself, I actually found that I had many, many rules about what it meant to be a man, what it meant to be a Christian, and what it meant to be human. My closest friends were those who saw the world much as I did.


I shifted in my chair, enjoying the way the sun warmed my legs. Everyone had rules. Some people had rules I didn't like or understand. Yet who was I to judge? It seemed to me that the toughest part about loving your neighbour was not only understanding that different people had different rules, but that if I wasn't willing to accept that truth, I could never love them. It didn't mean I had to agree with people, I didn't have to subscribe to misogyny or classicism or what I perceived to be bad manners, but if I wasn't willing to accept their right to believe and live as they chose, I would forever be trying to change them. Part of that was human nature, we all sought to live consensus, and it was as natural as breathing for us. But the willful set to change people around me, to get them to live by my rules, seemed at odds with the parable of the Good Samaritan. I thought about the past, and how easily I'd confused the Gospel with my rules, and how they'd often become interchangeable. I could no longer do that, but it still seemed as if I was a long way from where God wanted me.


I pulled my feet from the chair in front of me and stood slowly, stretching as I did. I muttered under my breath, with a glance to the sky.


"Love your neighbour as yourself."


I felt it then, that tiny charge I'd felt since I was a kid. It was different now, and it would change again as I continued to learn, but within that small nugget of truth I could sense the grace of the Creator. I thought of all the 'neighbours' I hadn't loved, of all the times I'd been more concerned about being right than accepting that others too, had rules. It wasn't about right or wrong or even intent, it was about acceptance. About accepting my humanity so I could accept it in others. About accepting that 'the Gospel' and 'Steve's rules' were two very different things.


There would always be an urge to convert the people around me to accept my rules. To do church the way I wanted. To behave as I wanted them to behave. But so long as I was willing to look in the mirror, so long as I continued to ask God to help me love the way He did, maybe, just maybe, I would understand better what Jesus had taught, and follow more closely in his footsteps.


-Steve