Have you ever had one of those experiences where something you were very familiar with and thought you understood turned out to be something quite different – even the opposite of what you thought?
We sometimes call such events “Copernican Moments” because they are about turning our world view upside down.
You remember Copernicus, don’t you?
He was an amazingly well educated man from the 16th Century – a truly Renaissance Man who was learned in philosophy and the arts, law and theology, mathematics and the natural sciences.
He was fascinated by mathematics and his observations of the night sky, and by his observation of the movement of both stars and planets and the application of his understandings of geometry he came to the view that the sun was the centre of the universe, rather than the earth.
Ten years after his death in 1543, an Italian was born, Galileo Galilei, who, with the help of telescopes that had just been invented, went on to refine the theoretical work of Copernicus and sought to demonstrate without a doubt that the Earth revoled around the Sun as did the other planets.
He began advocating these deveoplments on Copernican ideas in about 1616 but by 1634, just 100 years after Pope Clement VII had supported the ideas of Copernicus, Pope Urban VIII denounced Galileo as a suspect heretic who was teaching things contrary to the bible and whom he would excommunicate if he did not recant or renounce his views.
There are times, aren’t there, when the church really resists new ideas with an extraordinary amount of effort.
I think that Jesus was a bit of a trouble-maker in his day, like Galileo, but with the passage of time, we sometimes seem to forget that.
Almost everything he did and everything he taught was intended to be a direct challenge to the religious, social and political conventions of his day – no wonder he got it in the neck; well the head and the hands and the feet and the side, I should say, when they crucified him.
But I suspect some of you at least are thinking, “Jesus doesn’t seem to be that radical!”
The story of the Good Samaritan might help us all understand something very important about what it means to be a follower in the way of Jesus.
He’s Not Tame, He’s Wild
Are you familiar with the CS Lewis stories about the imaginary world of Narnia. Most people are familiar with “The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe” but there are six other adventures involving various of the key charaters from the first story.
Lewis did a wonderful thing in characterising the “Christ” figure in these stories as a lion. Aslan was the ultimate ruler of Narnia.
In one of the stories, the younger girl, Lucy, is talking to someone about Aslan. Lucy was describing Aslan in the most effusive and loving terms because she had met him, had trusted her life to him and loved him dearly.
Realising that Lucy was talking about a lion, she somewhat naturally asked “Is he a tame lion?” to which Lucy replied, “No, he’s not tame, he’s wild. But he is wonderful.”
There is an element of this kind of wildness in Jesus that I want to think about today.
Two Great Ideas in Israel
There were two great concepts that the religious system of Jesus’ day was built around – Covenant and Law – and the religious leaders of Jesus’ day had so tamed these concepts that they believed they knew exactly what to do to remain in God’s good books.
Covenant is essentially about being bound into relationship with another, and the Biblical narratives of covenant show God binding himself into relationship with his creationand with us his creatures.
But the Scribes took the idea of Covenant and tamed it into a mechanism by which you could get what you wanted out of God – someone once described it as a system of Requirements and Rewards by which if I did such and such, God would do such and such.
The ultimate example of this is “If I am a good person, God will let me go to heaven when I die.” But there are many more down to earth examples such as – “If I do all the things God wants me to do he will make me rich and bless all my family.” Or “If I pray hard enough, God will heal somebody I love.”
This creates a pretty tame approach to God, doesn’t it?
The Pharisees, on the other hand, took the idea of Law and turned it into something of a purity code. Purity is all about holiness for the Pharisees and it is important because they remembered a saying of Moses in Leviticus 19 that because God was holy, they should also be holy – and for them the pathway to holiness was purity.
Much in the Law was meant for the good of the community and to protect them but it was easily turned into a burden for most. The Pharisees, however, had set out to live their lives in such a way that they could say they they kept all these little laws (all 720 of them and the Midrashic interpretations of the) and so were a cut above the general hoipoloi. Jesus rightly described them as self-righteous.
So, in this context, Jesus tells a story.
The Good Samaritan
We have tamed this into a story about being a helpful neighbour – and that certainly is one layer of meaning in the story – but it is primarily a critique of the way of life that is ordered around purity.
Just look at the purity issues that are elemsnts of the story:
•The priest and Levite had purity obligations because of their role and status;
•Contact with the dead would defile that purity and the man is described as “half dead”; and
•The Samaritans were ritually impure because they repudiated the Temple monopoly on sacrifice and other rituals.
It is hard for us to imagine how outraged Jesus’ first listeners might have felt when he told this story. The only way to understand how Jesus is able to make the Samaritan the hero in this story is to realise that God values Compassion much more highly than purity.
A bit earlier in Luke’s Gospel he reports Jesus saying something very important. In the middle of a section of teaching by Jesus that is Luke’s equivalent of the Sermon on the Mount, just after he has exhorted his followers to love their enemies, and just before he wanrs of the perils of judgementalism he says something that is a restatement of that verse from Leviticus I mentioned earlier.
Instead of saying to his disciples that they needed to “Be holy because God was holy,” Jesus said “Be compassionate, just as your Father is compassionate.”
If you look as a whole at the stories Jesus told and the things he did, you will find that again and again he is challenging the purity-based system with a compassionate grace-based system. He touched lepers, the hemorrhaging woman, and the mad man in the cemetery. He challenged the sacrificial system when he came into Jerusalem and chased out the money changers and their animals.
No wonder people got mad with him.
Jesus was wanting to say that our relationship with God is not one of requirements and rewards, nor is it contingent on us complying with all the requirements of the purity code the Pharisees had established over the years.
Because of his compassion towards us, God calls us all into an intimate and personal relationship with him that is founded fundamentally on grace and compassion.
This is why Jesus so often reached out to the poor and oppressed in society – these were the people whom society said were “cut off” from God’s mercy and Jesus said the opposite.
In the face of this, I feel really sad when I recognise how easily and how often the Church has fallen into the same pit as the Scribes and Pharisees.
I think that too often the church replaced physical purity with doctrinal purity and then had no qualms about executing thousands through an Inquisition or two, or excommunicating faithful people who had differing views.
And how often have you seen Christians following the idea that if they do certain things God will do certain other things – generally for their benefit?
A New Way
There is something very powerful in this call of Jesus to imitate God by being compassionate. Whereas purity divides and excludes, compassion unites and includes. For Jesus, compassion had a radical socio-political meaning. In his teaching and table-fellowship with all the wrong people, the purity system was subverted and replaced by a politics of compassion.
ROBERT INCHAUSTI: SUBVERSIVE ORTHODOXY
3 years ago