Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Parable of the Good Samaritan and Thanksgiving

The reality of American politics is that we live in 24-7 discourse. Because access and distribution of news has flattened (more contributors and consumers), the commentary and analysis does not end. I am thankful for this evolution in methods for understanding the world we live in. But I wonder what these changes have done to our political discourse. What function does that discourse serve? Does our understanding of truth become clearer? Do our political discussions give us a clearer understanding of how we live our lives?

One discussion that inevitably arises in American political discourse involves immigration and the place of immigrants in American society. What concerns me about political discussion related to immigration (and other topics, for that matter) is that the tenor of the discussion is antagonistic, with consequences of demonizing politicians (they're easy targets these days) or generalizing entire races or cultures.

I've been reading the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) as inspiration and education for my first months of ministry in a new context. Because this will be one of the first times in ministry I will live in the community I serve (I served in interim ministry for 10 years). I am looking at the context with different questions and a different attitude. I also think about this parable because of the traditional American Thanksgiving celebration. Like many traditions, the roots of our traditions are not as clear as we think. A few common aspects of Thanksgiving: a link to immigration, a gathering of different cultures, a recognition that being thankful is a good thing, and a recognition that food continues to be produced by the earth, which is an awe-inspiring feat of nature and labor. Christians see this activity as God-breathed.

I appreciate the questions that are posed in this exchange with Jesus and a "lawyer (one well-versed in Torah)."
  • What must I do to inherit eternal life?
  • What is written in the law?
  • Who is my neighbor?
  • Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?
First, because I ask myself the question often, "who is my neighbor?" I want to learn about the city, its people, and the land on which the city resides. In the city where I serve, two groups of neighbors are, we have different kinds of nomads: one group is here because they serve in the military, another group is multiple generations of Korean immigrants. Second, because Jesus instructs the lawyer as a teacher to be a good neighbor (go and do likewise). Marilyn Salmon persuasively articulates that we shouldn't assume that the exchange between Jesus and the lawyer is antagonistic, in fact there are clues to indicate that this is a respectful dialogue, especially in the lawyer's address to Jesus (teacher).

Part of the danger of antagonistic American political discourse is that we often graft an antagonistic discourse into other situations. Sometimes the Parable of the Good Samaritan has been seen as an antagonistic exchange between Jesus and a lawyer; I am persuaded to see that this is a conversation that seeks truth. The truth being sought involves the meaning of loving neighbor as self--showing mercy. I suppose we can digress and debate public policy theories regarding what constitutes mercy, but this is not what is going on in Luke. When I show mercy to my neighbors, I recognize the mercy that I have received from God in Christ. Sometimes that mercy comes from a place where it is least expected, as the character of the reviled Samaritan models mercy for the rest of us. For Jesus and the lawyer, mercy is not an abstract policy discussion, but an example about what it means to love God with all of our heart, and our neighbor as ourselves. Thanksgiving seems to be one of the best times to remember our nomadic histories, and mercy from unlikely and undeserved places.

Happy Thanksgiving--giving thanks for this day, and every day.


  1. The level of antagonism in all discourse has risen significantly. Note in particular the over-reaction of police in so many of the protest situations. In many of these cases, the police acted within their stated policies. This militarism of our "public protectors" is but a microcosm of this antagonistic shift.

  2. I shake my head when the church adds to the noise, but the church can also be a microcosm of society.