As I reflect on our call to encounter Christ in another’s story, I realize this practice can be a hard one to wrap our minds around, especially when we think in terms of Jesus’ repeated challenge to not just see Christ’s presence in those like us, but especially in those different than us.
This theme seems to be a part of the message of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10. Samaritans in Jesus’ days are looked at as wrong and awful by mainstream Jewish communities. The Samaritans are descendants of the natives of Israel, the land which seceded from Judea after the death of King Solomon. The Israelites carved out their own unique religion, separate from the faith of the Bible but also loosely related. When their nation fell to the Assyrians and most of them were wiped out, those few who remained intermarried with people of other nations. Their religion became shaped by ideas and concepts which the Jewish mainstream found bizarre and objectionable. To an observant Jew, Samaritans were looked at as mixed breeds, impure through their mixing of their Jewish racial identity with the identity of other nations. They were looked at as alternately unbelievers or heretics, watering down the faith revealed through Moses and the prophets with wrong-headed human traditions. So Samaritans were viewed as impure, an abomination, or despised.
A modern equivalent of the Samaritan might be how, after 9/11, so many people treat Muslims. Though they worship the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and honor Jesus as a prophet, often we Americans who confess worship in the same God, treat them as unbelievers or worse yet fear them as dangerous. I remember once hearing a preacher, a little after 9/11, loudly proclaiming that Allah was not the God of Moses and of Jesus Christ but the Devil himself. Sadly, because of the actions of a minority of Muslim people, many of us paint all Muslims with the broad brush of violent extremists, forgetting our own tradition of people who confess the name of Christ as a way of justifying crusades, inquisitions, lynch mobs, involvement in Neo-Nazi groups, and all manner of evil.
In such a climate, telling a story of someone who is a Muslim who does good for a neighbor could be viewed as shocking.
Similarly, in far too many church communities here in the south-land, being queer whether by being attracted to the same sex or being transgender is viewed at as abomination. In fact in my own state of North Carolina, we are actively discriminating against queer people in our laws about bathroom use in ways that deny their shared humanity. I have heard far too stories of queer people being cast out from not just their churches but their own families, rejected as one to be feared and out cast.
When folks begin to meet and get to know the many good-hearted spiritual folks like I have known over the years in the queer community, seeing first hand the good deeds many of them do, it can be shocking in much the same way Jesus’ example of the Good Samaritan is shocking. It, like Jesus’ parable of the good Samaritan did for his first hearers, can really shake up people’s world views.
“How can these people who I have been told are an abomination before God so easily embody the love and compassion I read Jesus calling us toward?” How indeed!
In this parable, a person from such a despised and feared group is pictured as the example of neighborliness. We often think neighborliness as just being polite, like Mr. Rogers “Won’t You Be My Neighbor”. For Jesus such neighborliness goes beyond this. In this story loving your neighbor is instead the summation of God’s call on our lives. Abandoning traditional definitions of holiness as living lives separate from those who do not follow some purity code that makes our special group (be that Jewish, Mormon, Methodist, Baptist, vegetarian environmentalist) stand out as different, Jesus lifts up the ancient call Moses gives in Deuteronomy to love God and to love your neighbor as yourself as the heart and core of what it means to live a holy and faithful life. This makes the Good Samaritan an exemplar of holiness itself, almost an avatar of Christlikeness for us to follow.
This not only paints us a powerful picture of what it means to love the neighbor in terms of doing as this Samaritan does and doing practical deeds of hospitality and service to those hurting around us. It also shows us that loving God, ourselves, and others as God calls us to do involves necessarily seeing that of Christ in those around us who are different than us, including those our society around us calls us to see as frightening.
There can be no one whom we say is too different, their culture too strange, their religion too wrong, or their background too abominable to be a person bearing the image and likeness of Christ.
Similarly in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7 Jesus calls us to the difficult work of embracing even those who annoy us, threaten us, and harm us as people to love. This means working to see within them the same precious pearl of great price of value he calls us to see in the Good Samaritan here, or the poor and outcast in Matthew 25. Anyone, even those with whom we disagree or whom we experience as adversaries, carry within themselves and their lives the presence of the Cosmic Christ, bearing that image. The most basic level of loving another is acknowledging and recognizing the image of Christ carried within them, their lives, and story. It is laying aside your judgments of them, whether borne of prejudice or or real painful experience of them, to become attentive for that of Christ present in them and their life story.
In future posts I hope to share some thoughts about how we can learn to look for this image in others and listen for the presence of the living Christ in their stories.
In my own life this has been key to doing my work as a chaplain, but I am finding it is also key to living with a heart of compassion, open to peacemaking, in the midst of conflict with others in my life and community. Yet I often find what is key to my work as a minister becomes hard and messy in the complicated place of personal relationships, of friends and family who have hurt me. This is to say nothing of those whose actions and values deeply hurt me or marginalize others!
In the meantime, I would love to hear your stories of those whom you have had difficulty seeing the image of Christ within and ways Christ broke through your defenses to help you see that light in those others.
Your progressive redneck preacher,