How the parable of the Good Samaritan helps us imagine the church’s future
I’ve been in a lot of conversations lately with friends and colleagues about the future of the church.
Part of that is because I’m among a growing group of clergy people who are trying something new and different when it comes to creating communities of faith.
But the fact that those conversations are happening more and more often is also a reflection of our time, specifically with regard to the Covid-19 pandemic.
With churches (at least the ones who believe doctors and scientists about the seriousness of the disease) largely unable to do things the way they’ve always done, forward-thinking leaders are finally starting to awaken to the reality that it’s time for some new paradigms to emerge.
Forward-thinking leaders are finally starting to awaken to the reality that it’s time for some new paradigms to emerge.Tweet
One of the things holding us back, though, is the difficulty in seeing past our habit of dualistic thinking…assuming that there are limited options for how things should be done.
Which always surprises me, because if we take the gospel accounts of Jesus seriously, that’s one of the tendencies he’s constantly trying to break people of.
Jesus consistently refuses to get caught in the “this way or that way” trap…or even the “compromise between two positions” trap.
He always points to the way that lies outside of the existing structures. The way that challenges the limits of our preconceived frameworks.
Enter the Good Samaritan
Earlier this week I listened to a guided meditation based on the story of what we call the Good Samaritan from Luke 10.
In the parable, a Jewish legal scholar challenges Jesus on who exactly is (and by extension, who is not) one’s neighbor.
Jesus responds by telling a story of a person who is robbed, beaten, and left for dead alongside a road. A priest and a Levite—two supposedly religious people—passed by the man without lending assistance. A third person, one from Samaria, a country seen as Israel’s enemy, assists the man.
Jesus ends the parable by asking the legal scholar which of the three was the wounded man’s neighbor. The scholar replies, “The one who showed him mercy.”
To which Jesus answers, “Go and do likewise.”
Riding in on our white horses
Typically, we read this parable as a critique against legalistic religion and as a demonstration of Jesus’ expanded ethic which includes non-Jewish people within the family of God.
In short, we see it as a way of challenging us to love our enemies.
The guided meditation invited the listener to think about which of the characters in the story one identifies with the most…the priest, the Levite, or the Samaritan.
For the most part, I’d guess that the majority of us would say that we identify with the Samaritan. We want to be seen as the “good guy,” as the hero of the story, the one who steps in and lends a hand when the so-called religious leaders refuse to do so.
We are very good at what racial justice and diversity specialist Erna Kim Hackett calls “Disney Princess Theology.”
Having said that, I suppose that in moments of humility and self-reflection, we might go so far as to recognize our tendencies to be more like the priest or the Levite, passing by the person in need rather than lending assistance.
We’re always willing to lay a religious guilt trip on ourselves.
But there’s another character in this story, and it’s one I think we overlook far too often.
Our tendency to see ourselves in the heroic Samaritan or in the faithful-yet-fallen religious characters speaks to our 21st Century white American habit of normalizing privilege.
We read the Bible and interpret scripture through the lens of cultural advantage.
Which means we read it as oppressors, not as the oppressed.
But the parable of the Good Samaritan invites us to consider the plight of the persecuted.
Luke’s original audience—in fact the original hearers and readers of all of the New Testament—would have primarily been folks we would consider outcasts. The marginalized people of their communities.
The ones who Jesus clearly favors in the gospel texts.
The victims of corrupt systems and structures who need someone to intervene on their behalf.
And from the viewpoint of the victim, the story is not at all about defining or redefining who is or is not one’s “neighbor.”
It’s about how the marginalized and oppressed are treated.
Asking the wrong questions
In Dr. Amy Jill Levine’s Jewish Annotated New Testament, this notation from a commentary by Michael Fagenblat caught my attention:
In the end, the parable does not answer the lawyer’s question “Who is the neighbor?” but illustrates how to love. It shows the Jewish questioner what a neighbor does; it does not redefine who a neighbor is. [Emphasis original]
In other words, Jesus is not answering the legal expert’s challenge with a direct answer to his question.
He’s demonstrating that it’s not the right question to be asking.
In fact, for Jesus to respond, “Go and do likewise” would seem to indicate that classifying who is and is not the neighbor is not the point.
It’s how we treat the victims.
Form over function
It seems to me one of the big problems in the institutional church today is that we’ve stopped asking the right questions.
It seems to me one of the big problems in the institutional church today is that we’ve stopped asking the right questions.Tweet
And I think we do that because of our tendency to privilege ourselves at the center of the story.
While we’re trying to think of new ways of “doing” church, precious few are thinking of new ways of “being” church.
We’re more concerned with form than function.
But instead of hand-wringing over all of the logistics of our return to weekly in-person gatherings and the rapidly dwindling number of participants both in our sanctuaries and our livestreams, maybe there’s another way.
Maybe we should be focusing our efforts not on how to lead, but on how to love.
Box? What box?
Of course, there are structural and institutional implications to that question.
But if we continue to be trapped by artificial dualities, we are going to continue our slow decline into irrelevance.
In fact, we’ll probably accelerate it.
Meanwhile, the victims of systemic injustice, the folks who desperately need communities for love and support, and the people who don’t fit in our preconceived notions of what “church” should be and who should be included will continue to suffer from oppression and marginalization.
The church desperately needs people who are not only willing to think outside the box, but to question the box’s very existence.
The church desperately needs people who are not only willing to think outside the box, but to question the box’s very existence.Tweet
Yes, there will always be people who are not ready to come along on that journey. Jesus certainly encountered his share of those folks. They will need continued care and we have plenty of leaders who are well-equipped to do that work.
But I sense there is a rapidly growing number of people who are really hungry for a church that starts not from how the structure can deliver love, but how love can create whole new structures.
It’s the third way of thinking.
The Jesus way.
We should go and do likewise.