Subversive Samaritans (Luke 10:25-37)

Jan_Wijnants_-_Parable_of_the_Good_Samaritan“Hate crime against disabled people rises.”

“Twitter abuse: Why cyberbullies are targeting women.”

“Thousands of hate crimes reported in Greater Manchester.”

“Gay bashing attacks on rise in NYC.”

It’s easy to read the Parable of the Good Samaritan and see it simply as a simple, sweet story – yes, we need to be nice to people, even people who are different, lovely. But if we leave it at that, we miss something important.

After all, it’s easy to say we should treat everyone as Christ would treat them, but it’s a bit harder to confront our own prejudice and accept that those who are different are also our neighbours – that’s the experience of the Teacher of the Law who was originally on the receiving end of this parable, to the extent that he couldn’t even bring himself to name the hero of the story. But sometimes it goes beyond even that. Sometimes Samaritans have to be subversive.

It’s no secret that the world can be a hateful place – the headlines quoted above testify to that. Ditto for 1st century Samaria and Judea, where Jews and Samaritans loathed each other, so ask yourself this: what happened to the Samaritan after he did his good deed?

Was he the subject of gossip, of abuse? (“What d’you think you’re doing, wasting your money on that piece of trash?! Traitor!”)

Did he keep quiet, maybe explaining what had happened only when necessary, and even then leaving out some key details?

Did he aggressively defend his actions, telling his family and friends that yes, he helped an injured Jewish guy and yes, he’d do it again if he had to?

There are no answers to these questions: the Samaritan was a literary construct used by Jewish to challenge the prejudice and narrow-mindedness of his audience. But it’s not one man’s racism that Jesus confronts, it’s a whole social context where some people are considered ‘in’ and some people are very, very ‘out’. And this isn’t unique to Galilee two thousand years ago; the fact is, sometimes taking a stand for what’s right comes at a cost; sometimes loving our neighbour is the most subversive thing we can do.

And yet there’s a power there. Slow and painful as it may be, Jesus’s call to love and compassion is more likely to heal our broken communities that building more walls and spewing more hate. This Kingdom will be built on helping those who need it, not leaving them bleeding in a gutter, not joining in with the beatings. There are times when that’s easy. There are other times, when we’re faced with offering support and hope to those society has deemed to be the enemy, when being a Good Samaritan requires courage and sacrifice.

The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy,” said Martin Luther King. In a world where there is political and online capital to be made through hurling abuse and accusations, it’s a statement with which it’s worth guarding our hearts. Especially when, too often, the church props up the systems and attitudes that Christ may call us to confront; especially when God builds his Kingdom through the compassion and courage of the world’s subversive Samaritans.

Jesus and the Two Swords (Luke 22:35-38)

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Sometimes you read things in the Bible that makee you pause uncomfortably. Not just the big things, but the odd verse that seems to have awkward implications. Here’s one that’s bugged me for a while.

Why does Jesus let the disciples take two swords to Gethsemane?

It’s a moment of high tension. The group has just eaten the Last Supper, Judas has disappeared to commit the most famous act of betrayal in history, and Jesus has just prophesied that Peter’s going to deny knowing him. It’s probably fair to say that spirits were low.

And then Jesus tells the disciples that, while previously they’d lacked nothing, now they need to be prepared for hard times – get a new bag and wallet and…

And a new sword.

Wait, what?

The disciples respond to this by showing Jesus the two swords they do have (which raises other questions), and Jesus says that it’s enough. Which is crazy, because there are a minimum of twelve people here, on their way to an inevitable confrontation with authority. If anyone in the group thinks that two swords is enough to mount a violent response to what’s coming, they’re delusional.

Or maybe not. After all, they’ve been raised on stories like that of Gideon, where God ensures victory for those facing ridiculous odds. Maybe they figure this is the case here; it’s not like Jesus hasn’t already shown his power over nature and spiritual forces. No, it’s the implication of them carrying swords that makes me uncomfortable, especially as Jesus seems to authorise it. It seems contradictory, especially in the light of “Love your enemy” and “Turn the other cheek”. Heck, it comes just seconds after he quotes Isaiah 53, which is all about the Messiah triumphing without violence.

So it seems that something else is going on here. After all, in the garden, the swords actually get used and Jesus is scathing. condemning their use and healing their damage. “If you live by the sword, you’ll die by the sword,” he says, which would seem to be a good reason not to buy one, right?

Maybe this is the point. Maybe there’s something prophetic about this whole scenario, a way of displaying God’s message to the powers and authorities standing in that garden. Yes, Jesus could call down angels or storms or fire and brimstone to obliterate his enemies. Yes, there are images of a warrior God throughout scripture and these are valid. But this isn’t how humanity will be redeemed, the Kingdom won’t be established through swords and spears and drones and guns. The Kingdom will be established with a cross, and through this the wounds and scars of friend and enemy alike can be healed, a Kingdom more interested in ploughshares than swords.

A victory won through swords can’t lead to resurrection. A victory won through the cross does.

“Am I leading a rebellion, that you have come with swords and clubs?” Jesus directs this to those who’ve come to arrest him, but maybe the disciples need to hear it as well. After all, they’re the ones fighting for the Kingdom, not against it.

(BTW, always be wary of a church that rejoices in any wounds other than those of Jesus.)

And so maybe this all gets summed up in the story of Malchus (the luckiest person in this story, because let’s face it, although he temporarily loses an ear, that probably wasn’t what Peter was aiming for). In any other scenario, he ends up maimed for life; in this one he’s healed by his ‘enemy’. This should clue us in to the nature of the Kingdom – it creates a space for healing and restoration, not violence and anger, and while it may be uncompromising and challenging at times, that should be rooted in the Holy Spirit, not in the arrogance and rage of some dude who thinks he’s doing everyone a favour by waving a sword around.

I wonder what happened to Malchus, whether he went back to his life and carried on as normal, or whether he ended up as one of the ‘bad guys’, like the centurion or the thief on the cross, who ended up recognising who and what Jesus was at a time when all his followers had disappeared.

And I wonder what happened to all those other people wounded in the name of God.I wonder where will they see Jesus the Healer, rather than Peter the Swordbearer?

Epiphany 2014: The Long and Winding Road (Matthew 2:1-12)

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We’re so used to seeing them, the Magi, that we forget that the scenes of them bowing at the manger are simply artistic licence. They weren’t there as Jesus took his first human breaths, they didn’t rub shoulders with shepherds. No, the Wise Men came later.

So much of what surrounds them is extrapolation and myth-making. There weren’t necessarily three of them, and there’s no indication that they were kings. The names assigned to them in the west appeared 500 years after the fact; their country of origin seems to depend on who you ask. They’re shrouded in mystery, but there they are in every nativity scene.

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Well, maybe not all of them. A few tweets this morning alerted me to a tradition of leaving the wise men off nativity scenes until Epiphany comes around, sometimes with the figures making their way to the stable from other rooms in the house. I like this idea; there’s something evocative about it, a focus on the journey of the Magi which emphasises the importance of their arrival.

Of course, we don’t know how long their journey took, where they started from or when the star first appeared. We can guess that Jesus was a toddler based on the age of Herod’s victims, and so it’s possible the road was long and hard, but maybe the wise men faced a more metaphorical journey.

After all, we know their understanding of the situation was incomplete – yes, they were looking for the King of the Jews, but they went to Jerusalem rather than Bethlehem and started the dominoes falling that lead to the Slaughter of the Innocents. We tend to think of them as clued in, but it feels as though they’re on something of a learning curve, even in their wisdom.

Their journey seems to start with God meeting them where they are; the shepherds get angels, the wise men get a star. This seems to be something they understand – the Magi know they have to get to Israel because of this astronomical phenomenon, and this raises some (uncomfortable) questions about how exactly they knew the star would lead them to the Messiah. But wait, let’s put those questions aside: this is God encountering them in a way they understand, among their everyday routines. In some imperfect way they’re on the lookout for him, and so they’re rewarded with a star and a pilgrimage.

They don’t altogether trust the star though; at one point they go their own way, follow their own presuppositions, and this has lethal consequences. The lesson here is obvious – keep following, don’t assume God works in the way you’re expecting. Because Herod isn’t the king you’re looking for, and it’s always a mistake to equate the kingship of Jesus with crowns and palaces.

The star continues on its way though, and finally leads the wise men to Jesus. They present him with gifts – gold, frankincense, myrrh. Apparently these were fairly standard offerings for a monarch of the time, but once again the journey of the wise men becomes prophetically subversive. After all, gold is an ironic gift for a king who’ll spend more time in poverty than luxury. Frankincense has overtones of religious devotion, but did they realise that they were handing it over to God incarnate? And myrrh points to death and burial, but I bet no-one was thinking of crucifixion as they watched Jesus toddle across the room.

(That’s a contrast right there – they’re in a house, presumably, certainly not a palace. Mary and Joseph would have been getting on with life, changing nappies, enduring sleepless nights, juggling work and domesticity with childcare. It’s a very ordinary scene into which the wise men stumble, and maybe that spoke to them – they never expected to find the King of the Jews in a house, looked after by a teenage girl and a carpenter, and yet there he is. It’s hard to believe their assumptions and stereotypes survived this particular journey. The Kingdom of God emerges in the everyday, and we risk missing something if we forget that.)

And then comes the dream: take another route home because to go back the way you came would be disastrous. If ever there was a metaphor for encountering Jesus, there it is, but there’s something in this moment that’s left hanging. We don’t know what happened to the Magi after they left, we don’t know if the experience changed them, or if they just considered it the fulfilment of their diplomatic duty. Their journey ends as mysteriously as it started.

And maybe that’s okay, because Matthew doesn’t just tell their story in the interests of reportage, he’s also using them to represent us – the Gentiles, the outsiders, the ones who were once far from God who nevertheless find themselves kneeling before the Messiah. Their journey is our journey, following as best we can as God manifests and challenge and welcomes. He draws us to him, and despite the bumps in the road, he invites us to respond – with our gifts, with our worship, but most of all with ourselves.

Epiphany celebrates a time in which God reveals himself to those who were once far away, and so next year my wooden wise men may take a longer route to the stable. And we travel with them, towards the baby, towards the king, towards God, only to find that he was seeking us out all along.

Blue Is The Colour: Memory and Fashion Choices (Numbers 15:37-41)

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I’m not good with colours.

It’s not really my fault. I’ve got that weird form of colour blindness that makes it difficult to distinguish various shades. To me, some shades of blue look purple, which makes me a bit of a liability when being asked if paint or clothes go together.

So when I read that a scientist has potentially identified the source of a blue dye used in making priestly garments in ancient Israel, I was intrigued and found myself down a bit of a rabbit warren.

Now, to me one shade of blue is as good as another, so I’ve never really thought much about the command that the ancient Hebrews should see blue tassels onto their clothes. Turns out it’s a bigger deal than I thought.

(Lesson #1 of this blog: Never ignore the ‘trivial’ details, because there’s a good chance they’re not trivial at all.)

See, the writer of Numbers is referring to a particular shade of blue, tekhelet. So specific, in fact, that after Jerusalem fell to the Romans and the subsequent exile of the Jews from Israel, the use of the blue tassels fell out of favour because no-one was sure how to make the dye, and there was therefore a reluctance to break the Law by using the wrong shade of blue. That’s how seriously this was taken, that getting the colour right was so important that it’s now become a reminder through its very absence.

Because this isn’t about aesthetics, it’s about remembrance. The tassels were used as a reminder that God brought the Jews out of Israel and, in doing so, established his covenant with them. Having blue thread on your prayer shawl wasn’t a fashion choice, it was a signifier if your very identity. And that identity is bound up in daily life – this isn’t a photo album of memories that gets brought out of a cupboard every so often, it’s something you wear. Every time you put your clothes on, there’s a reminder that you’re a follower of God, and that has implications and importance for how you live from day to day.

It’s easy to forget the Story. God saves and redeems us and establishes us as his kingdom here on Earth, but immense as that is, it’s sometimes less tangible than jobs and traffic jams and getting the kids to school. Maybe that’s why there’s such an emphasis on physical acts of remembrance in the Hebrew Scriptures – the knowledge that no matter how intrinsic and vital God’s Great Story is, we’re a forgetful species. We miss even the most important things if they’re not stuck under our nose.

At the dawn of 2014, maybe we need to create physical reminders of what God’s done in our lives, to find our own shade of blue and bring our memories of his love and greatness into the everyday.

(There’s a recent episode of the podcast Stuff You Missed In History Class that covers the history of colours and dyes and their impact on society. Worth checking out!)