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From his column a Minute with Don

minute-with-don-05-13-1Sometimes when I read the gospels (especially the parables), I find myself wishing that Jesus had stopped talking before He did. In particular, I recently found myself wondering what to do with the narrative from Luke 10 about the Good Samaritan. I do pretty well until Jesus goes into all of the detail from the middle of verse 34 through 35.

His description of the extent to which the Good Samaritan provides for the robbery victim is unsettling. He says:

33But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. 34He 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. 35The next day he took out two denarii 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.’

We hear a lot these days about “incarnational ministry.” In fact, if you want to start a passionate dialog within any diverse group of evangelicals, just bring up the topic. Before long, the air will be filled with righteously indignant quotes and misquotes and impassioned denunciations of all things heretical.

But reading this gospel narrative seems to flesh it out a bit for me (yes, that was a pun). It is first in my opinion a subtle statement about the One speaking. He reminds the listeners that humankind has been left beaten and robbed of dignity by sin. And what the Law and the Prophets can’t do, one who goes all the way down into the ditch, one who “moves into the neighborhood,” can do. And, it is first and always a response to the question, “And who is my neighbor?” All else aside, it’s the last part of verse 34 and all of verse 35, given in response to that question, that provide more than enough for me to handle.

I do pretty well with the part about having pity. If the self-centeredness, materialism and violence of our culture haven’t totally inoculated a person’s empathy, most folks can muster some pity in unfortunate situations. And if Jesus had stopped talking there, we could breathe a collective sigh of relief, pat ourselves on the back, and declare victory. But He keeps going.

First, He says the Samaritan “went to him and bandaged his wounds.” In our vernacular that means, he pulled over, backed up on the shoulder of the highway, stopped the car, got out of the car, waded into the ditch, and made contact with the victim. It doesn’t mean he made note of the mile marker, grabbed his cell phone, called the highway patrol, and reported a problem. That’s what simple pity does. That’s what reasonable people do. To be honest, that’s what I’d prefer to do. Now you understand why I’d prefer Jesus end the story with verse 33.

Depending on your perspective, it either gets worse or better from this point on. As a victim, I’m glad Jesus kept going. As a sinner saved by grace, I’m glad He got into the ditch where I was.

But as a traveler with a bumper sticker that says, “Join Me at General Assembly in Indianapolis,” or “Better Together,” I’m uncomfortable. I’m called to stop and be responsive when I’d rather keep traveling. Sending a check and a nice note of concern seem so much more dignified. And if dignity isn’t one of our formal creeds, it certainly is an informal one.

And just about the time I embrace the notion of an active response, Jesus leads me to the next level of discomfort. Apparently, it isn’t enough to provide first aid and be on my way. If this story means anything, the cost and inconvenience of being a neighbor—fulfilling the great commandment—doesn’t stop with just bandaging the wound. The Samaritan puts the victim on his donkey, takes him to a place of safety, tends his needs through the night, pays the innkeeper to look after him, and provides his personal financial guarantee for the victim’s care to full recovery.

Now, if I really wanted to be controversial here (and I don’t), I’d bring up healthcare laws and immigration. And to be really provocative, I’d go so far as to suggest that maybe we should let these and other words of Jesus instruct us in some of those discussions. But I don’t like controversy, so I’ll just let that idea go. Just mentioning the topic has some so distraught you’re already preparing to write an impassioned letter. Please don’t, because I’m not yet sure what the solution to healthcare or immigration looks like. If you have one, invest your passion in a letter to your congressman or senator.

I think it is more important to first absorb lessons into my own life before trying to reshape the lives of others. And while I have ideas and opinions about a lot of political and social issues, I’m more concerned about my own attitudes and the words of Jesus. I still believe that when we get to Heaven we won’t be quizzed about our positions on any particular legislation, theological idea, or article of faith. That doesn’t mean these items aren’t important, but before I paint the house, I should make sure the foundation is secure.

The world has ample illustrations of folks who proclaim one thing and live another. For that matter, one doesn’t necessarily need to look outside the church to see this phenomenon. Most of us aren’t the priest or the Levite or, for that matter, the Samaritan. Unfortunately, on most days, I’m more like the lawyer asking the questions which prompted the parable.

It is a beautiful, probing, story. And when He is done with it, Jesus asks a question of the lawyer who wanted to justify himself: “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” And the lawyer correctly notes it was the one who showed mercy. And Jesus says, “Go and do likewise.”

I believe once we engage ourselves in pursuit of that goal, we won’t have time for impassioned discussions about “incarnational ministry,” healthcare laws, immigration, or similar issues. We find there is more than enough challenge in pursuing the call to “do likewise.” And pursuing that goal likely will significantly impact all of those other issues, as well.

Don Walter is director of Pensions and Benefits USA for the Church of the Nazarene.

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