Read: Luke 10:25-37
“Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise” (Luke 10:36-37, NRSV).
One of my favorite Emily Dickinson poems begins: Tell all the truth but tell it slant—Success in Circuit lies.
Jesus would have loved Emily Dickinson. I can’t prove this, of course, but Jesus did have a penchant for parables, and parables are all about “telling it slant.”
Take the parable of the Good Samaritan, for instance. Jesus pulled that parable out of his pocket as a teaching tool. His “student” that day was the smartest kid in the class—a lawyer, who had asked, “Teacher…what must I do to inherit eternal life?” When Jesus turned the question around and asked, “What is written in the law?” the student gave an A+ answer: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”
Great, says the Teacher. Give that man a gold star. Go to the head of the class.
It’s easy to imagine the student feeling pretty good about himself at this point. But then the Teacher adds, “Do this, and you will live.”
One has to wonder whether our prize student had any doubts about his ability to love God with all his heart, soul, strength, and mind. (Most of us would!) But he definitely starts looking for a loophole with regard to loving his neighbor. “Who is my neighbor?” he asks. It’s as if he can imagine living up to this part, but only if the right kind of people are on the list.
This is the point at which Jesus decides to “tell it slant.” It’s a technique that recognizes how difficult it is for us to see what’s right in front of us. And it’s perfect for getting around our defenses. Our guard comes down, after all, as soon as we start losing ourselves in the story. Success in circuit lies.
You probably know the story. The “good Samaritan” goes out of his way to help an injured man on the side of the road. All the usual suspects, on the other hand, scurry by on the other side. It’s a story that defies all the stereotypes. The hated Samaritan is clearly the good neighbor, while the respectable priest and Levite can’t be bothered. By the time Jesus gets to the end of the story, our star student realizes there is only one right answer to Jesus’ question about which of the three is “a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers.” In that moment, he realizes that he has just lost his loophole. His list of “neighbors” just got a lot longer.
If we have the courage to translate this parable for today, our list of neighbors will get a lot longer, too.
That’s exactly what Bishop Michael Curry suggested in a recent interview with Krista Tippett in her radio program, On Being. What if we were to reimagine this parable as the “Good Republican” with the Democrat lying hurt on the side of the road? Or the “Good Democrat” with the Republican lying hurt? For that matter, what would the parable feel like if we imagined it with the Black Lives Matter person and a police officer in both roles? Then he says:
That’s what love of neighbor looks like. And I wonder if Jesus was saying: life is meant to be lived…as a Good Samaritan. And if that begins to happen, imagine what a different society we’d have. Imagine what our political debates would be like. Imagine: we’d have some civil discourse. We’d disagree, but we’d pick each other up…and pour oil on our wounds, and care for each other, and figure out, “How we gonna do this together?” We gotta to live together!
Did you notice what just happened? The Bishop told all the truth, but he told it slant. He snuck up on us with his updated version of the parable. All at once, we star students aren’t so smug anymore. All at once, we’ve lost our loophole. All at once, our list of neighbors just got a lot longer.
Mercy isn’t much in evidence these days. But maybe now that we’ve been caught off guard by the parable of the Good Republican/Democrat, we’ll find some we can spare.
Ponder: Reimagine the parable of the Good Samaritan for your own situation. How does it “sneak up on you” now? Who is your neighbor?
Pray: Merciful God, help us to be better neighbors—even to those with whom we disagree. Tell us the truth in whatever ways will get through to us.