Saturday, July 9, 2016

What Is the Right Question? Reflections on Luke 10.25-37 (10 July 2016)

What Is the Right Question?
Reflections on Luke 10.25-37

RCL Proper 15C
10 July 2016

Saint Faith’s Anglican Church

            Some years ago General Theological Seminary in New York invited Vancouver School of Theology to send a faculty member and a student to participate in a conference on the future of the Anglican Communion.  One of our Anglican students was chosen and I went as the School’s faculty representative.

            The conference itself was very good.  But there was one session that was unpleasant because of the attitude of a faculty member from a theological college I won’t name.  During a panel discussion where he and the other panellists were receiving questions from students, he consistently responded to each student question with the following comment, ‘Well, that’s really not the right question, is it?’  The problem was that the other panellists and every other faculty member in the room knew that every student had actually asked the right question.  Our colleague was simply dodging those questions that challenged some of the positions he had taken in the discussion.

            Asking the right question, however, is an important part of being a thoughtful human being.  For example, it is common in contemporary society for some people to assume that there is a conflict between science and religion regarding creation.  Scientific and religious fundamentalists love to draw their swords and debate the first two chapters of Genesis.  They both think that Genesis is trying answer the question of how did the universe come into being.  But this is the wrong question.  Genesis is answering the question of why the universe came into being.

            When scientists and theologians ask the right question, then they quickly discover that their differences shrink in comparison with their shared convictions.  Each learns that the other values the integrity of creation, honours the dignity of human beings and respects the vital importance of studying the mysteries of the universe we inhabit.  Quantum physics poses no threat to my religious faith nor does my belief that the universe exists because of God’s love threaten research into how the universe works.

            Today’s gospel is a familiar story to all of us.  Yet it is a story that begins with the wrong question.  But before I say more about this, let me be very clear about a couple of things.  First, this story has been used over the centuries as a weapon to condemn Judaism.  It is very easy to see the lawyer, the priest and the Levite in a negative light and then to generalize about Jews and Judaism.  But such an approach fails to understand the story.

  • The lawyer is asking an honest question, one that we all ask from time to time.  He wants to know what Jesus thinks God expects of a faithful person.
  • Feigning injury or death was a frequent ploy used by bandits to lure well-meaning people into a trap.  So, it is any wonder that the priest and the Levite might avoid a possible trap.  How many of us have avoided ‘getting involved’ when we see someone in trouble?

            Second, Jesus is being provocative.  When he uses a Samaritan as the hero of the story, he knows that he will get a response.  The history between the Samaritans and what I will call the Judeans is complicated, about as complicated as the history between Jews, Christians and Muslims.  Just replace ‘man’ with ‘Jewish settler’, ‘priest’ with ‘rabbi’, ‘Levite’ with ‘Christian’ and ‘Samaritan’ with ‘Palestinian’ and you’ll get the drift of how Jesus gets the attention of his listeners.

            Let’s go back to the wrong question.  The law of Moses has a substantial amount to say about how one is to conduct oneself regarding one’s neighbour.  After all, in the Gospel according to Mark Jesus quotes a traditional Jewish summary of the requirements of the Law:  "12.28 One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that [Jesus] answered them well, he asked him, 'Which commandment is the first of all?' 29 Jesus answered, 'The first is, "Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 30 you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength." 31 The second is this, "You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’" There is no other commandment greater than these.'"

So the lawyer in Luke’s gospel wants to make sure that he can be faithful to God’s expectations.  But, as the parable unfolds, we learn that he has asked the wrong question.

            For Jesus the right question is ‘How does a neighbour act?’ not ‘Who is my neighbour?’.  Note how carefully Jesus poses a question to the lawyer:  “’10.36 Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’  37 [The lawyer] said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’  Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’”  To be a follower of Jesus is to be a neighbour by doing justice, loving mercy and living humbly before God.  For the followers of Jesus every human being is to be embraced by our neighbourliness.

            As we look around the world today, we see so many people who are asking the wrong question.  Fear is driving people to seek to define the limits of generosity, of respect and of compassion.  Violence is fuelled when we no longer see another human being as flesh of our flesh and bone of our bone.  Indifference is powered by the belief that we have no responsibility toward those who are in need.  Intolerance is generated by a self-centred blindness that can see no other point of view other than our own.

            While many of our fears are unjustifiable, some are justifiable and cannot be ignored.  However, for the followers of Jesus our question lies in how we respond to our fears justly, compassionately and soberly.  Sometimes it means confronting those who demonize others and trade on fear.  Other times it means daring to speak in favour of generosity when all around us are counselling restraint.  From time to time it means crossing the invisible boundaries that exist between ourselves and those we might call ‘the others’.

            I believe that the core purpose of an Anglican parish is to take care of its neighbourhood.  This means that there will always be more parishioners, the people who live within the parish boundaries, than congregants, the people who gather for worship and who give of their resources for the support of the parish’s ministries.  It’s not always easy to live our our vocation, but perhaps another word for ‘Christian’ is simply ‘neighbour’.

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