I have often touted the Unbelievable Podcast on Christian Premiere Radio in the UK, and I do it again here. I recommended the episode on Philip Yancey live Q&A on faith, doubt and the future of the US church: Saturday 19 March 2022. Much was discussed in the episode that I could write about, but one thing stands out above the rest to me this morning. Philip Yancey said,
“It’s easy to find a church, to gravitate toward a church, where people look like you, and smell like you, and vote like you.”
Most of us go to churches like that. It’s a human tendency to gravitate toward people with whom we have the most connections, to settle in with people with whom we have the most in common, to spend time with people most like us, but Yancey says,
“That’s not the way to exercise grace. Grace is exercised among people who are not like you, who challenge you, who are uncomfortable to be around, people who are immoral. That’s where to exercise grace.”
Such a radical statement challenges most of us, I think. I am guilty of settling into churches where I feel most comfortable, but what if God wants me to engage in a church, or in groups, or with people with whom I feel uncomfortable? Would I be open to that possibility?
Jesus often urged people to love their neighbors. When I think of my neighbors, I think of the people in my neighborhood who I know and spend time with. If you are like me, you probably think immediately of your neighbors you know, but what about your neighbors you don’t know?
Jesus knew that people tend to favor those who are like them when he told the parable of the Good Samaritan. (Luke 25:30-35) In the parable, an unidentified man is attacked by robbers, stripped of his clothes, beaten and left for dead. (Luke 25:30) Three people come along and see him lying there: a priest, a Levite, and a Samaritan.
The priest and the Levite were the people most like the man who asked the question that prompted the parable. He was an expert in the Law of Moses, a Jewish leader.
He actually began with a more esoteric question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus turned the question on him, asking “What is written in the Law?” (Luke 25:25-26)
When the man responded, “‘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, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself,'”, Jesus answered anti-climatically, “You have answered correctly…. Do this and you will live.”
That might have been the end of the conversation, but the expert in the law “wanted to justify himself”. Perhaps, he wanted affirmation that he was reading the law correctly. Perhaps, Jesus to acknowledge his deep moral thinking. Perhaps, he wanted to prove his expertise in the Law. Whatever he was thinking, he asked, “[W]ho is my neighbor?” (Luke 25:29)
I feel like the man wanted Jesus to engage him in a deep a theological discussion, but Jesus deflected the attempt with the parable. The expert in the Law wanted to make it difficult and complicated, but Jesus kept it simple.
Maybe the expert in the Law was more interested in affirmation that he was a good person who deserved to inherit eternal life. Maybe his question was motivated by his own recognition that some people are harder to love than others. Perhaps, he knew that his own stake in eternal life depended on the answer to the question, “Who is my neighbor?” Maybe he didn’t really want an answer; he just wanted to debate.
He is specifically identified as an “expert in the Law”, and the initial question, and the follow up question, read to me like he was wanting a deeper, philosophical conversation with Jesus. He didn’t really want a simple, straightforward answer. He wanted to debate, but Jesus wouldn’t go there with him.
I am also relatively certain that the answer Jesus gave him was not at all what he expected. It certainly what he was looking for. It likely cut him to the quick. Both he and and the wider audience who was listening in.Continue reading “Who is My Neighbor? And Who is a Neighbor to Me? The Discomfort of Grace.”