In general, humans don’t like change. It can be painful and trying. In fact, we hate it. But sometimes, no matter how painful, we need change. Even if we can’t fully understand the reasons why at this moment.
And now I present a really strained metaphor that I will insist on using throughout this piece:
Imagine you are content using your customary route to drive work. It’s relatively quick compared to the rest of the congested motorways, but it requires a lot a curves and stops to avoid parks and other major intersections. Suddenly, the city government swoops in and starts ripping it to shreds and begin to blast underground, and your your once completely acceptable route to work has been reduced to abject chaos. You complain to the city saying, “Why are you doing this? What was wrong with the old street plan?”
The city answers, “This is still the original street plan. We’ve been planning to build a freeway here since the beginning. This will allow the route to move traffic without curves or stops, and all of the other major intersections will be removed in favor of ramps, too. The freeway should reduce city-wide commutes dramatically and should help more people get to work on time.”
They give the public maps and endless charts and data supporting their point, but the city’s drivers are incensed. The discontent continues until the day the new freeway opens and suddenly the genius of the master plan is clear. The end result is an effective solution to the city’s systemic congestion issues, but the process was exceedingly painful and difficult and the big picture of what this project would accomplish was only clear to the planners.
This is exactly the scenario encountered by the people of Israel during the ministry of Jesus, but instead of traffic congestion they were dealing with “congestion of the law”. Just like our hypothetical city’s network of streets, the people of Israel from the time of Moses through Malachi had additional layers of understanding of God’s law applied unto their society. Over time it became very difficult to navigate the law. Some parts of the law had become so burdensome and complex that many authorities avoided those parts entirely. And just like a city with poorly planned traffic corridors, the people of Israel became divided by access to the law, variations in understanding, and location (proximity to the temple).
Then Jesus showed up on the scene, and boy did he make people upset! No one likes to be told their obvious mistakes and looming problems. But he assured everyone:
17. ”Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.
We now dive back into our strained city metaphor: Imagine before the freeway construction ever began, before the city was in chaos, some upstart baby-faced engineer waltzed into a city planning commission and spouted off about “strategies to solve conspicuous planning shortfalls”. This upstart engineer would not have gone over well with a majority (if not all) of the city planners. But then this upstart engineer brandished from his attache case a yellowed and ancient looking document. Closer inspection revealed, to the shock of many, this document was one of the original planning documents from the founding of the city. The most amazing feature of what the young engineer revealed was the ancient plan echoed his exact solution for the city’s planning issues: a freeway cutting straight through all the city’s winding and congested corridors.
A “law freeway” is, in spirit, exactly what Jesus taught to the people of Israel who were floundering in the massive confusion, congestion and related “road rage” of the law:
The Ultimate Commandments According to Jesus
36. ”Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”
37. He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’
38. This is the greatest and first commandment.
39. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’
40. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
Take a moment to really contemplate what Jesus is saying here. It’s really quite astounding and I meditate prayerfully on this passage more than any other. Its scope and impact are really difficult to see in their entirety. “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets”, which can also be understood as everything that has been written and spoken until now should be understood through (and can be justified by) these two simple and profound statements. ‘Thou shalt not…” becomes , “How could you do this if you truly love?” The details, the minutiae of law become obsolete in the far-reaching implications of loving god and neighbor with all our heart.
Then to illustrate the radical essence of what essentially amounts nothing less than a paradigm shift in how humanity should relate to each other and conduct their lives, Jesus offers the following in answer when a lawyer asks for clarification of the paramount theological question of Jesus’s time… and today:
25. Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
26. He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?”
27. He answered, “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.”
28. And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”
29. But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
30. Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead.
31. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.
32. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.
33. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity.
34. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him.
35. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’
36. Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”
37. He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”
The parable of the Good Samaritan. One of the most tragically cliched and misunderstood parables of the bible. We gloss over it constantly. It’s assumption-shattering impact is almost completely lost on 21st century Christianity.
The main cause of this “glossing-over” is the appropriation by popular culture of the term “Good Samaritan”. We generally take “Good Samaritan” to mean a good person, or a person that instictively does good deeds. You see “Samaritan Insurance”, and and “Samaritan Health” and other commercial interests trying to denote they are in fact “good people”, and it works. Unfortunately, this also means that when the average person hears this parable they inevitably think, “Well, of course the Samaritan stopped. That’s what Good Samaritans do!” And the point is lost.
For the Jewish listeners to whom Jesus told this parable, “Samaritan” did not denote “good person”. To the Jews during the time of Jesus, the Samaritans were basically blood enemies. Samaritans believed that they were the true followers of the Torah. They differed so vastly they even claimed the Jews got the location of Abraham’s attempted sacrifice of Issac wrong. They believed the Jews built their temple on the wrong mountain, Mt. Moriah, and the the real location was their own Mt. Gerizim! To the Samaritans, the Temple on The Mount was a blasphemy… and vice-versa.
In light of historical context, we see that Jesus was playing on the prejudices of his Jewish audience. Today, it would be the equivalent of answering, “The Fundamentalist Muslim” to a typical American Christian’s question of, “Who should we love as our neighbor?” This is where the paradigm shift of Jesus’ statement comes into full realization. We are called to love even those whom we are biased against, whom we have deeply prejudicial fears of, as our neighbors and as ourselves.
12. “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.
The priest passed the beaten man by. The Levite (historically, a member of the “holy tribe” of Israel from which all the religious authorities came) passed the beaten man by. Because they both were “righteous observers of the law”, they could justify their deadly inaction because of concerns for cleanliness and purity. This is a prime example of the law’s “congestion”, and human life could be objectified over purity!
But the “hated enemy”, the “blasphemer”, the “heathen”, the “Good Samaritan” stopped and helped the beaten man out of no other law but the love of his neighbor and fellow human. The prejudicial equivalent of today’s “Fundamentalist Muslim” is Jesus’ answer to who will “inherit eternal life”!
4. as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way (Gk = ὁδὸν : road, highway) of the Lord, make his paths straight.
5. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth;
6. and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”
Sounds a lot like a freeway, huh? Maybe that metaphor wasn’t so strained after all…