As a society, we seem to have over-learned Jesus’s lesson about leaving the ninety-nine to find one who is lost. Or maybe it sounds more familiar than it really is. The stories that attract the heaviest tears and the loudest applause in our society are not stories of steadfast virtue. They are stories of ruin and redemption, of being lost and found. Think about it: would anyone have watched VH1’s series ‘Behind the Music’ if it featured a musician who stayed true to his wife, drank iced tea, and read books while he was on the road? Probably not.
So something really strange started happening to me after the birth of our daughter. I would be out with her somewhere, usually with one or both of the boys, and I would become obsessed with the thought that I had left her in the parking lot before we went home. And it was crazy, because I had just buckled her in. But your mind plays tricks on you.
Of all the Ten Commandments, this is probably the one I’m worst at. I’m going to go home tonight and work on my book manuscript. And Jewish interpreters insist that studying the Scriptures does not count as working, so maybe I could get off on a technicality. But I know better. I’m working. Working to feel useful, working to make money, working so that I know I am making the best use of my time. Working because I think of time as my tool, not as God’s free gift to me.
I think I had almost as much fun playing these games last Monday as I ever did as a kid. One of the joys of parenthood is letting yourself regress to childhood now and then without feeling too self-conscious about it.
But it feels different, as an adult, too. Zooming Ms. Pac Man around the maze, staying one step ahead of the ghosts, eating all the pellets you can get while you delay the inevitable “game over”—that’s a little too real life. That’s a little too close to home.
I’m going to pause here and admit that I preached the heck out of this story back when I was an intern making $500 a month on the Southside of Chicago. I could really hear Jesus then. Now, I have a real job, and I have two kids, and I get pension contributions from the church. And this text hits me harder. Because I am torn, as many of us are, between wanting to faithful to what Jesus says here and throughout the Gospels, and wanting to make some provision for my own and my family’s future.
So would you conclude from this fact, if it’s a fact, that all of our ideas about altruism are just a bunch of unrealistic religious mumbo-jumbo that we’d be better off without? Altruism is really hard, after all. We’re not very good at it. So maybe it’s best to forget the whole thing and live the way evolution made us to be.
But either way, Jesus tells his disciples, rejoice that your names are written in heaven. Rejoice that you were sealed in baptism. Rejoice that when your name was called, you answered; you came up, you used the weakness of the moment to seize God’s promises for you. That’s the miracle. That’s the defeat of Satan and his empty promises and his power.
In the story Jesus tells, the Samaritan doesn’t say any of that. He is moved with pity. He sees the wounded man and doesn’t see a moral puzzle to solve. He isn’t out looking for ways to do good or make himself into a better person. He simply sees a fellow human who is suffering, who will die if he goes without water for four days, who will bleed to death in minutes or hours if his wounds are not bound up, who will wither away from infection if he is not cleaned. Who sweats and breathes and passes gas and loved his mother and misses his children and is less than perfectly honest and could do better and be better but who most importantly is there. Before the Samaritan’s eyes.
But what if these three assumptions are not always true? What if people don’t feel the need to build their Sunday—much less their life—around God? What if people have reason to believe they will not be greeted warmly at a church, whether because of their sexual orientation or their ethnicity or anything else? What if people really have felt unwelcome and unwanted, even among good church goers?
It’s as if he were to say, “Go, seek God, have spiritual experiences, work for social justice, redeem the academic project, build a growing and spirit-filled worshiping community if that’s what you want to do, but please, please don’t follow me. It will only bring you sorrow and bitterness.”