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Christian Cliché: "In the world but not of it"

September 16, 2018

We’re all guilty of getting it wrong. We’ve all jumped to conclusions in regard to things or people in our lives. We’ve all made snap judgements and decisions about things before having all the information, whether that be due to a particular bias or a stereotype or whatever.

I’ve done this before. I’m not proud of it. One time, in grad school, I avoided interacting with a guy in my class all semester because I didn’t like the fact that he wore a shirt and tie every day. Now, in my defense, I was a senior, and he was a first-year student. I was tired. Seminary had beat me down. I’d seen too much. Forget him. I didn’t need that kind of negativity in my life. 

Sometimes this stuff is silly. But this is also the stuff underlying things like racism, sexism, elitism. All those things which divide us from one another based on ideas which are, ultimately, hateful and unloving. Our story this morning is about one of these ideas, which is hateful and unloving, that Jesus turns on its head and uses it to make a point. 

So, the story starts out with a lawyer asking Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. Now, this is a lawyer in the sense that he is an expert in Mosaic law. He’s basically an expert in the laws laid out in the first 5 books of the bible, the Torah. So, if anybody should know this answer, it’s him. He’s clearly trying to set Jesus up so he can peg him as a heretic or something. But Jesus turns it around and puts the ball back in the lawyer’s court by asking him what hebelieves the answer is. And the lawyer basically gives a summary of Deuteronomy 6, “love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind, and lover your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus affirms this answer and tries to send the guy on his way. But instead of being satisfied with this answer, he pushes Jesus further. “And whois my neighbor?”

And that’s when Jesus tells this famous story of the good Samaritan. Now, almost every preacher will tell you that these are the hardest stories to preach on. The stories that everyone knows, that you memorized in Sunday school, these are hard to make fresh and communicate anew because, more often than not, we’ve heard them so much that we’ve already made up our mind about what they mean. It’s easy to preach on an obscure passage buried in Leviticus or something that no one’s heard before because, no matter what we say, it will probably be a fresh, new perspective for you. But stories like the good Samaritan – not so much. So, all that being said, keep an open mind and allow yourself to be surprised by the text. We’ll come back to this morning’s cliché in a few minutes. 

So, Jesus starts off by saying that a man – presumably a Jewish man – was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho. In this time, this was a particularly dangerous journey, well-known to be a place where thieves and robbers would hide out and attack people. And that’s exactly what happens. This man was stripped, beat, robbed, and left to die, naked and alone, on the side of the road. And then a priest and a Levite come by, passing by on the other side of the road, ignoring the cries of the dying man. Alright, this is where our cliché comes in. 

“In the world but not of it.” Like all of our clichés, it’s said with the best of intentions. This particular one is, usually, meant to convey the “already / not-yet” paradox of the Christian faith. We’re in this world, we’re in this broken place but we’re consciously trying to not to live as broken people. We’re trying to be products of God and not products of the world. I get that, and I’m sympathetic. Here’s the problem, though: more often than not, when we make this claim, that we’re trying to be in the world but not of it, what we’re really doing is making a judgement about someone else. If we’re the ones who are notof the world, then who are the ones who areof the world? This is a question for us to ponder, and it’s a question that the lawyer in our story had to ponder. Because the truth of the matter is that, in the mind of the lawyer, in the minds of the early Jewish communities, and probably in the minds of these characters themselves, the priest and Levite who passed by the dying man were the ones considered “in the world but not of it.” 

These were the religious elite. They were the ones trained to lead God’s people. They were expected to be above reproach and without error. But the truth, and it’s a truth that many pastors and congregations have learned the hard way, is that intellectual capacity cannot take the place of social holiness in the religious life. Let me say that again: intellectual capacity cannot take the place of social holiness in the religious life. If you don’t believe me, I would encourage you to go hang out with some of my former seminary professors for a while. You’ll learn very quickly that intellectual capacity does not inherently lead to a life of holiness and virtue. The same goes for me. I’ve got a wall in my office covered in diplomas saying I’m an expert in this field, and I’m qualified to be standing in this pulpit, but that doesn’t mean anything. It may speak to my proficiencies and capabilities, but it says absolutely nothing about who I am as a person of faith, or a follower of Jesus, and I encourage you to never be foolish enough to buy into the idea that it does. Because the second you do is the second you elevate me, or whoever your pastor is, to the same place of the priest and the Levite, while also completely closing the door on others. 

This brings us to the Samaritan. Now, the conflict between the Jews and the Samaritans is a deep and convoluted one which is due to different theological ideas about worship and the temple and all kinds of stuff. Long story short, there’s a rift between these two people-groups that goes back for generations and it’s caused hostility for a long time. The Samaritans were, in the minds of the Jews, untouchables. They were people unworthy of being people. A lot of Jews would probably rather have died on the side of that road than have been helped by a Samaritan and lived. Now, before we talk about the actions of the Samaritan, there’s a question which needs to be addressed. It’s easy to read or hear this and think it to be extreme. But I think you’d probably be lying if you said that there weren’t divisions like this in your own life. We live in an extremely polarized time in history. There’s a Samaritan in your life. The question to ask is who? 

Is it someone who resides on the other side of the political aisle? Is it someone of a different nationality? Of a different sexual orientation? Of a different belief system or religious tradition? Is it someone you have a personal beef with? Whoever it is, consider putting yourself in the position of the man on the side of the road, and imagine that person being the one who stops over to help you. How would you react? Would you accept their help as a gift of God, or would you reject them? Because I guarantee that, if you were to use our cliché this morning, in the world but not of it, whoever that Samaritan is in your life is the person you think is the one of the world. And the same probably goes for the folks in our passage. A Samaritan would NEVER be expected to be the one who stops over to help. The shock value would be huge in the context this story was being told in. 

But the beautiful thing is that that’s the point! That’s why these are called “parables.” It comes from the Greek words “para” and “ballo”, which basically translates to the action of “breaking apart.” Parables break apart our anticipations. They blow open our secure reality in favor of insecurity; they strip us of our expectations in favor of the unexpected because, after all, that’s really how God works. God does not come to keep us right where we are. God comes to us in an event which is inherently unsettling and decentering. And we have to believe that God is able to work through those whom we believe to be “of the world” just like in our story. After all, those people in our lives who basically take the place of the Samaritan, they belong to God too.

The thing about the Samaritan in our story this morning, though, is that, as we know, he’s the only one to stop. He’s the only one who partakes in the “pure religion” we talked about last week. He’s the only one to bandage the man’s wounds and take him to a place where he can be cared for. Now, we usually want to put ourselves in the place of the Samaritan, but we don’t want any of the baggage that comes along with it. We don’t want to identify ourselves with the priest or the Levite, but we also don’t want to be the Samaritan – we just want the recognition for his good works. But let me say this, friends: the whole things we’re talking about this morning, this cliché of being “in the world but not of it,” is utterly meaningless. We can’t have it both ways. Being inthe world necessitates a certain relationship with the world. Let me say it this way: all of us, including our Samaritan, has an identity which is paradoxical. We’re neither inthe world, nor ofthe world. We’re both at the same time.

We’re not really that different from one another. Human’s love to talk about individuality and how every one of us is unique. And, in a way, that’s true. But in another way, it’s not so much. Back the camera up a little bit and you’re nothing but a human being, a cosmic speck of dust, who’s not really that different from all the other specks of dust in the universe. Jesus was one of these specks of dust. But our encounter with him in the Christian faith proves that his life and death was the apocalyptic event which tears down all our walls and boundaries. Making claims and judgements about others necessitates the fact that we should make them about ourselves, too. And if we don’t, then we become no better than the priest and Levite. 

So, do what Jesus says. Go and do likewise. Go, being sure of your place in-and-of the world, and give mercy and grace and love to your brothers and sisters who need it most. 

 

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