“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”

The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.” 

Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”  Luke 10:36-37  

For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again. So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!  2 Corinthians 5:14-17

Point by Point

  1. Introducing my favorite blog, the Sarcastic Lutheran of Nadia Bolz-Weber:    http://sarcasticlutheran.typepad.com
  2. Nadia preached on Luke 10:25-37, the “Good” Samaritan and posted her message on her blog on July 12, 2010
  3. She found the “good news” of the parable in the help which was given to a helpless man by someone he hated
  4. She missed the point, as do those in a long tradition who fail to see the ways Torah leads to gospel-hope
  5. The point of Luke 10:25-37 is a “law” point, that the law is much, much harder to keep than the smartest law expert ever thought
  6. Jesus loved to rub Jewish noses in understanding Torah in a way which is impossible for those on their own (in their flesh)
  7. Luther said that one of several purposes of the law is to drive people into the loving arms of God
  8. Only when we lose our old selves in God’s gospel-hope, can we become, not better people, but new people
  9. Only as new-hearted citizens of a new creation, can we hope to be a part of God’s new-creation kingdom

Details, Details!

About my personal favorite blog (Jim Fisher turned me onto it) is the Sarcastic Lutheran of Nadia Bolz-Weber http://sarcasticlutheran.typepad.com. Nadia is pastor of House for all Sinners and Saints, an ELCA Lutheran Church in Denver Colorado. Nadia is the best. Nadia knows the gospel. Nadia also understands the gospel in quite Lutheran ways. Nadia, discussing the Parable of the “Good” Samaritan (her July 12 posted sermon) does not see a call to salvation in the parable; she sees the beaten man at the side of the road as the one who is being saved, against his will, perhaps, by the helper of last resort, a Samaritan. As I read her, the problem Nadia has with the parable is that as we usually read it, we get stuck at the end with the moralism, “it is good to be helpful.”  What else is there? ‘It’s good to not discriminate?’ So, either we feel pride because we are already inclusive and generous and helpful or sorrow because we are not generous and helpful and inclusive all of the time or at least, “enough.” Nadia says the problem is we read the parable as law and not as gospel. Law or gospel: now that is a very Lutheran way of looking at pretty much everything!

I love the way Nadia understands gospel. It is how she deals with law that has me flummoxed. As I understand it, in the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) Jesus confronts a lawyer (who is also probably a Pharisee) on his view of who is his neighbor. They have been discussing Torah and what laws are the most important ones. When the lawyer tries to put a nice, sharp, narrow boundary on a daily working definition of “neighbor,” Jesus whips out this story in which the very least likely helper, the last one the lawyer could have ever imagined as helping, is the savior of a Jewish man in desperate need. Jesus intentionally shocks the lawyer into considering that the ethnic group, in all the world, who are most despised by him and his nation are his neighbors from God’s Torah point of view.

Let’s think a minute about the man with whom Jesus has been talking. We must understand, to be a doctor of the law in that time was to be one of the really almost unquestionable experts on Torah and its interpretation, right at the top of the “knowing the Bible” profession. When one of these guys showed up at a synagogue for worship, he got ushered right up to the best seat in the house. No-matter who else was there that day; he sat in what was called, “the seat of Moses!”  But Jesus used a little story to stun this law expert with law as he had never, ever imagined it. So in its original context, this parable is first of all an exposition of the law. It is a teaching tale (unique to Luke) pointing to how completely the very smartest smart people in Israel had utterly missed the point of Torah: the blessing of the (not-Jewish) nations.

So, when Nadia goes looking for good news in the parable, she runs into problems. Natch! So would I if I tried that. In fact, though, there is a long tradition of people who have been uncomfortable with the bad news of this parable. And in their discomfort with the bad news, the make-the-law-harder message, frequently these folks to try to find good news in a way that, arguably, Jesus would not have recognized. Most famous of all these well-meaning misdirections is Augustine’s allegorical reading of the parable which assigns an imaginative meaning to every detail of the story. In so doing, Augustine completely misses the hard edge, the point, the Word of God. And like Augustine, searching for gospel, Nadia settles on the man at the side of the road as the locus of the gospel message.

  1. He could not help himself
  2. He did nothing to deserve the help he got
  3. If he had been awake he would have discovered his savior was “someone he absolutely despised”

This is all true enough, but not the point of Jesus’ story. The point is Jesus’ revision and expansion on the law for the sake of his coming kingdom-community. Jesus seeks to form a people whom he hopes and prays (John 17) will never become squished down into Israel’s narrow little, self-satisfied set of worldly definitions. (Of course, we kingdom people have done just that, over and over again; the gospel has been the captive of its culture in every age, in every place. The Spirit is constantly groaning for liberation and the Spirit witnesses to our hearts through, among other good things, the testimony of Jesus concerning how not limited the kingdom is in its definition of “neighbor.” Jesus’ parable stands as a bright lighthouse over many culturally captive Christian wrecks and a not so silent witness to the truly universal nature of the worldwide, kingdom-community.)

So is there any gospel in this story? Part of the problem for a great preacher like Nadia (and, O’ brother! Nadia is a great preacher!) is her Lutheran, law/gospel dichotomy. When you theoretically separate Torah from the “glad tidings,” then it is hard to see how Jesus is using Torah to bring good news to the party. Jesus was confronting a self-satisfied know-it-all with his utter failure to read Law in a Gospel way. (Jesus does the same thing to a group of horrified and disgusted Pharisees with the Parable of the Prodigal Son: he creates the images of a boy who has become so compromised, so filthy in every way Jews measured filth, and a father so lacking in decorum, dignity and self-respect as to make only the angry position of the older brother the least bit acceptable to his incensed Jewish audience.)  Several times Jesus shoves terrible pictures of the way God really is into the faces of those who were furthest from the good news of the coming kingdom because he wanted to move them, one way or the other!

One might say that Jesus sometimes used an ancient verbal version of Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine, where you so disorient people during a crisis that you can turn their whole lives around before they even know what has happened. Jesus wanted to shock this lawyer into realizing how totally he was missing the kingdom. As my former pastor, Deena Candler used to say, “You have to hear the bad news before you can hear the good news.” Only in that way can anyone come to the good news message in this parable.

All of Israel had to hear bad news:

  1. Their leaders had taken them down a road of drastic separation from the people they had been called into existence to bless
  2. Their leaders had entered into a shameful compromise with the empire of their day, the very empire from which Israel was charged to deliver the nations as surely as they themselves had once been delivered by God from the Egyptian empire

Jesus was proclaiming that if Israel did not figure out how wrong were the turns they had taken, if Israel did not turn to him very fast, Israel would be destroyed by their own choices. Here, I think, is where Nadia and other Law/Gospel readers can actually go back to Luther and find what I am saying. In his work on the use of the law, Luther states that a purpose for law is to drive people up against the impossibility of keeping Torah in their own power, a realization of which may drive people into the waiting and loving arms of Jesus.

Jesus, finally, is not telling the lawyer he has to do better or be better or love more people; the lawyer is being shown a vision of how impossible it is to do and be all God requires. He is being shown that if he would be saved, he must love people he quite naturally hates, something he, with all his hard, rigorous disciplines, simply cannot do.

Hence, the true good news. The kingdom is not for people who are perpetually trying to be better. It is for those who know at their most profound level, they cannot make it, not one little bit. On this Nadia and I agree 100% (I told you she was good!) Or as she put it in the same sermon:

Perhaps life abundant comes not from our ability to be “good” but in our having received mercy. Because, honestly, God isn’t interested in making you a better person.  God is interested in making you a new person.  Because if this whole thing was only a matter of self-improvement then trying harder should do the trick in which case we basically we don’t need Jesus anymore.

Being better people – being good er Samaritans is something we can do on our own.  But to become new people we need God. To become new people we need a God who daily drowns our old dying selves in the watery grave  of baptism and raises us to new life.  To be new people we need a God who has conquered death by death. A God who offers us a way where there is no way.  Becoming new people is what this whole Jesus-following thing is about and it doesn’t happen through trying harder to be good.

Amen and amen, Nadia! When I have written in past posts about realizing, for instance, what it would mean to live the powerful, positive side of the law, I do not mean that as improving, better people we should somehow try harder to live up to an even more difficult version of Torah! I mean that as new people in Christ, people who have been given new hearts when we signed on with Jesus, persons who are citizens of the new creation which has come and is coming, we need to grow our vision of what it means to live in love, to participate in the coming new creation of which we are a part.

In recent classes I have spoken of “copy of a copy Christianity.” The copies of a copy Christianity which pass today for either liberal or conservative faith are such pale, sad echoes of the vision which shines forth from the story of God. Yet even many new creation-Christians imagine God is small and private and that an active, thanksgiving response for all God has done is a spare-time activity. Only those who are new creatures in Christ, who have finally been chased down by the Hound of heaven, who have won by losing, who live by dying, can possibly hope to live out of the spirit rather than the flesh, and even then, imperfectly. The kingdom will come, as I love to say, with or without our individual efforts, but what new creatures in Christ want to be left out of the joy of bringing in a bit of the kingdom!?

Prayer

Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer God, we fly to you for renewing life. Left to our own devises we are helpless and feckless. Even when we have become new persons, when the old patterns of the world overtake us, we lose hope and you shrink before our eyes and we build our faith in ways which are handle-able by our old selves.

  1. We tithe.
  2. We have a quiet time.
  3. We pray at least twice a day and at meals.
  4. We support worthy causes.
  5. We stay out of trouble.
  6. We affect sincerity, always being nice, at least in public.
  7. We smile because other Christians might be watching.

Forgive us our manageable faith, Lord. Forgive us for failing to risk it all on you. We started well enough. How did we get back to small, flesh-powered gruel so easily? Our fire is not out, Jesus, for your Spirit has never stopped groaning and breathing warm life into our withered, visionless selves. Stoke up the furnace, again, Lord, we pray. Spit out of us what is tepid, lukewarm in us and build a fire under us again. We are destitute and hopeless apart from your love. Make us an army, Lord, of sold-out citizens, of gospel-breathing saints who don’t embarrass you but make you smile. For yours is still the power and the glory and the present/coming kingdom, forever and ever. Amen.

Trace James

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