How Do You Read It?

In the Gospel of Luke in chapter 10, a lawyer asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life.   Jesus responds by asking the lawyer a question: “What is written in the law?  What do you read there?”  At least that’s how it’s translated in the NRSV.  A better translation, though, would be “What is written in the law? How do you read it?”

How do you read it?  How do you interpret it?  How do you understand it?  The lawyer replies to Jesus by quoting from Deuteronomy and Leviticus: “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.”  Then Jesus says him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”

But this is when the lawyer really begins to answer the second part of the question “How do you read it?” because this is where he starts to look for wiggle room.  Wanting to justify himself, Luke tells us, he asks, “But who is my neighbor?”  And that’s what prompts Jesus to tell the parable of the Assaulted Traveler. You know it by another name.  But I’ll come back to that.

A man was travelling from Jerusalem down to Jericho, said Jesus, when he was set upon by bandits who stripped him and beat him and went away, leaving him half dead.  A little while later a priest comes along, sees the unfortunate man, but passes by and does nothing for him.  Not long after that a Levite comes by, a man dedicated to serving God.  He also sees the assaulted traveler bleeding, bruised and naked at the side of the road, but he, too, passes by and does nothing to help.  Fortunately,  right after that a Samaritan happens along.  He takes pity on the man.  Gives him first aid, takes him to a nearby inn, gives the innkeeper two days wages to care for the man, and promises to pay for any additional expenses on his way back.  

After telling this story, Jesus asks the lawyer, “Which of these three was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the bandits?”  “The one who showed mercy,” said the lawyer.  “You go and do likewise,” said Jesus.  

You know this story well.  You have a familiar name for it.  But I gave you a different name for it.  I did that because the name we usually call it, “The Good Samaritan” carries a boatload of interpretive baggage.

Some context.  

When Jesus tells this story he is on his way to Jerusalem.  He is still in the countryside.  To the people in the countryside, bandits were not necessarily bad guys.  Because of economically oppressive systems inflicted by Rome and the heavy tithe system from the religious structure represented by priests and pharisees, and limited labor opportunities, many men turned to highway robbery.  Those listening to Jesus tell this story probably assumed that the man who was assaulted and left for dead was a rich merchant—bandits wouldn’t rob poor people, no money in it—and rich merchants were not trusted.  The common people in Jesus’ time had a world view of limited good; if someone was well off it was almost certainly at someone else’s expense.  Bandits tended to even the scales.

So bandits robbing a merchant—not shocking.  But a priest and Levite walking by and doing nothing?  That’s shocking.  These are men who have an obligation to help according to Torah.  Actually, according to Torah, anyone who can should help.  Most shocking of all, though, is that the person who does stop to help is a Samaritan.

I wonder if we can really understand how much Judeans hated Samaritans.  I suppose I could give some examples, but I would surely offend someone.  And that’s the point.  The people listening to Jesus, including the lawyer, would have been greatly offended that the Samaritan was the hero of the story.  The mutual hatred between Jews and Samaritans had deep historical roots.  When Jesus asks, “who was the neighbor?” the lawyer can’t bring himself to say the word Samaritan.  He simply says, “The one who showed mercy.”

This is an anit-racist story, pure and simple. When the lawyer asks Jesus, “But who is my neighbor?” he’s really asking “who is it okay for me to hate?”  So Jesus tells him a story where the hero is a person he is going to be automatically inclined to disregard and disrespect.  In the end, it turns out that the long answer to his original question of how can one inherit eternal life turns out to be, “Love God, love your neighbor as you love yourself, and that means you can’t be a racist.”

We call this episode “The Parable of the Good Samaritan.”  Earlier I called it “The Parable of the Assaulted Traveler.”  What if I called it “The Encounter With A Racist Lawyer”?  Changing the title can change the way you read it or hear it.  It can shift the focus.  In the same way, learning more of the background information can change the way you understand the story.  We’ve always heard it as a story about helping those in need—and it certainly contains that element—but it’s really a story about racism.

How do you read it?  This is such an important question for us to ask ourselves about the scriptures, about the news we’re reading and watching, and about life.  

Time to Wake Up

Romans 13:8-14, Matthew 18:15-20

At the end of August in 2018 in the small town of Actlán, Mexico, a message began pinging from phone to phone on WhatsApp:  “Please everyone be alert because a plague of child kidnappers has entered the country. It appears that these criminals are involved in organ trafficking. In the past few days, children aged four, eight and 14 have disappeared and some of these kids have been found dead with signs that their organs were removed. Their abdomens had been cut open and were empty.”  

No one knew exactly where this grisly story came from or if it was even true.  

On the 29th of August, as this horrid rumor about child abduction was sweeping through the area, Ricardo Flores and his uncle, Alberto, came in to town to buy supplies for the cinderblock water well they were building on Alberto’s ranch in the countryside.  Since Ricardo and Alberto did not live in town, the local rumor monger did not recognize them and began spreading the word that they were the feared child abductors.  Francisco Martinez began livestreaming into his phone saying, “People of Actlán de Osorio, Puebla, please come give your support, give your support. Believe me, the kidnappers are now here.”

Ricardo and Alberto quickly found themselves surrounded by a mob. The police arrested them for disturbing the peace, but since they had no real reason to hold the two men, they let them go.  Sadly, the moment Alberto and Roberto walked out of the police station they were seized by the angry mob who beat them, doused them with gasoline and burned them to death.

It turned out, when it was all over, that the rumor about child abduction was fake news.[1]  

Terry Pratchett wrote, “A lie can run around the world before the truth has got its boots on.”[2]

Rumors can be fiercely destructive.  Even deadly.  Rumors can even be weaponized.

Because rumors and misinformation can be so destructive, in 1942, as World War II was utterly transforming life in the US, psychologists Gordon Allport and Robert Knapp set up the first Rumor Clinic at Harvard University.  Their goal was to stop pernicious rumors that could undermine the war effort or upset public morale, and, in the process to try to understand why rumors are so attractive to us.

Knapp noted that rumors arise to express the public’s feelings in a time of crisis or instability.  Rumors supply the illusion of information when real information is unavailable or unsatisfying.  They can give a sense of having some measure of control when things seem out of control.  

Knapp identified three kinds of rumors and the psychological functions they serve.  The wedge driver rumor expresses hostility in a time of frustration and allows us to find a scapegoat.  The current rumor about the Corona virus originating in a Chinese lab is an example.  Pipe dream rumors express our hopes and wishes.  The debunked rumor about hydroxychloroquine as a cure for Covid is an example.  Bogie rumors express our fears.  For instance the rumor back in April that hospitals were not going to treat anyone over 60 was a bogie rumor.

When we’re living in highly uncertain circumstances where even day-to-day decisions can have unforeseen outcomes, rumors will be rampant.  They provide an outlet for our collective emotional life.  But they can have dire consequences.

One of the most common negative consequences of rumors is that they can damage relationships.  Let’s say Gomer tells Wanda that he heard that eating bleu cheese can keep you from getting the flu.  Two weeks later Wanda is in bed with the flu, feeling miserable, despite eating bleu cheese every day since she first heard about it from Gomer.  Now she’s going to be skeptical about anything Gomer tells her.

Or let’s say Wanda doesn’t buy the idea of the bleu cheese cure for a minute.  Now she’s going to wonder if Gomer’s elevator goes all the way to the top floor since he passed along this crazy idea.

The easy way to avoid the mistrust and skepticism that inevitably arises from this kind of thing is simple: don’t pass along anything unless you are absolutely certain that it’s true.

There’s a simple rule that has been attributed to Socrates or sometimes to the Buddha: “Before you speak, let your words pass through three gates.  Is it true?  Is it kind?  Is it necessary?”  For those of us who are followers of Jesus, who are trying to live in and maintain the beloved community, I would add one more gate:  Is it loving?

We’re living in a very conflicted time.  Information and misinformation is flying around us at lightspeed—information and misinformation about the pandemic, about science, about political candidates, about political parties, about nations, about issues, about factions.  A lot of that information and misinformation is sent out with an agenda.  And some of those agendas are destructive.  

If ever there was a time when we needed to double and triple check the truth, the agenda, and the sources of the information that comes to us, this is it.

I think we know that not everything we hear is true.  But we’re not always diligent about taking time to verify sources and facts before we pass things along.

As St. Paul says in today’s epistle reading from Romans, “You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep.”  There’s a lot at stake—in our country, in our communities, in our church, in our personal lives, in our relationships.  We need to be wide awake and thoughtful about what we hear and what we share.

But as St. Paul also says in that same passage, the one thing we owe each other above everything else is to love each other.  All the commandments “are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”

Loving each other with agape love means that we tell each other the truth.  No rumors.  No fake news.  No gossip.  It means we check our sources.  If necessary, it means we check our sources’ sources.  

As Paul wrote to the Ephesians:

We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming.  But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ,  from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love. (Ephesians 4:14-16)

But what do you do if something does happen to damage your relationship with someone else in the community, if some rumor or misinformation or half-truth or something worse insinuates itself between you?

Fortunately, in Matthew 18 we have a formula in the words of Jesus, himself, for dealing with exactly that situation.

The first step in Jesus’ formula for reconciliation is to go to the person who you feel has wronged you one-on-one, alone, and talk about it.  Speak your truth in love.  If that person listens to you, all well and good.  Your relationship can begin healing.  I should note here that the Greek word translated as “listens,” ἀκούω (akouō) implies not just listening but understanding.  So the hope is that you will come to an understanding.

Unfortunately, instead doing that, our typical way of dealing with such things often is to triangulate, to find someone else to hear our grievance.  As Brian Stoffregen describes it, 

“When we have been wronged, we often don’t confront the person. Instead, we create triangles. We go and tell two or three or more of our friends, ‘Do you know what so-and-so did to me?’ Jesus did not say: ‘Go tell everybody what that stupid jerk did to you.’ Jesus told us: ‘Go and talk to that stupid jerk about the hurtful actions s/he has done,’ although Jesus didn’t quite use those words. We are to go and talk to the person, not to go around telling everybody else. We are to be so concerned about the breach in the relationship, that we are willing to do whatever is possible to restore it.”[3]

So that’s the first step.  Go talk to the person.  If that doesn’t work, try step two.  Bring two or three others into the conversation.  Listen to what they have to say about it.  And here’s a caveat:  Be prepared to be told that you’re in the wrong.  And if that happens, be prepared to be gracious about it.

Remember, this is the ideal way of dealing with disagreement or injury within the beloved community as Jesus described it.  This part with two or three witnesses is also completely consistent with dispute resolution as it described in Deuteronomy.

If you’ve tried steps one and two, the additional witnesses think you’re in the right, and the other person still won’t listen or try to understand, then Jesus says to take it to the whole congregation.

This may seem a little radical to us, but it really is wise in two very important ways.  First, it brings everything out in the open and puts a dead stop to any scuttlebutt that might be circulating.  It stops the rumor mill dead in its tracks.  Most importantly, though, it acknowledges that relationships are important in the beloved community, that, in fact, the community exists because of relationships.  One fractured relationship can collapse the community as surely as one fractured beam can bring down the roof. 

So you’ve tried to resolve your differences by talking one on one.  You’ve tried with one or two others sitting in.  You’ve tried with the whole church.  But you can’t seem to reach that other person.  Now what?  

“If the offender refuses to listen even to the church,” says Jesus, “let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”  

That sounds so harsh.  But is it?  On the one hand, it seems clear that at this point the offender is separated from the rest of the church.  An outsider.  On the other hand, it’s important to note that Gentiles and tax collectors were a special focus for outreach in Matthew’s gospel.  

So yes, that person is now on the outs for a while.  But you—and the you here is 2nd person singular—you have a new special focus for outreach.  You have a mission to find a way to bring that person back into the fold.  You don’t get to wipe your hands and say good riddance.

In a world and a time where so much is falling apart, now more than ever the beloved community needs to do everything we can to hold it together.

We need to remember that we owe each other love.  Love that is patient and kind.  Love that is not arrogant or boastful or rude.  Love that is not irritable or resentful or self-seeking.  Love that rejoices in truth.  And speaks truth.

We need to remember that, as much as we might like to have everything spelled out, as far as God is concerned, the entire law is spelled out in “love your neighbor as yourself.”  

We need to remember to speak the truth in love.  To pass our words through the three gates—is it true, is it kind, is it necessary—before we run them out of our mouths our through our typing fingers.  

Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers;  the night is far gone, the day is near.  In Jesus’ name.


[1] BBC News, 12 Nov 2018, Marco Martinez

[2] The Truth, Terry Pratchett

[3] Brian Stoffregen, Exegetical Notes, Matthew 18:15-20