Samaritan 2.0

There is no one who can remain unaffected by recent world events.  Mass murder, on an industrial scale; special interest groups fighting among themselves – each cause desperate for front-page status; law-enforcement overstepping bounds, and lawless individuals fighting back.  Not to mention the atrocities in Iraq and Saudi Arabia – more bombing and terror in a region that has seen too much terror – and all at the close of Ramadan.  We don’t hear or see much of those stories – we are too absorbed in our own fear and misery.

It is all too much to take.

We inhabit a world in chaos – and it is chaos of our own making.  Our collective greed and inclinations to leap to conclusions have helped us divide the world into “us” and “them”over and over and over again.  Colour, sexual orientation, religious expression, nationality – you name it, we’ll fight about it… to the death.

It is a world whose physical laws suggest that things like motion and gravity and all that (remember Sir Isaac Newton?) are predictable and precise – yet the actions and reactions of people these days can neither be predicted nor controlled.  It is horrifying and frustrating – it suggests that we have been reckoning, for far too long, without an important part of the equation.

In Physics, (the basic kind that I studied, at least) it has long been understood  – if you know enough you can soon know it all: speed, angle, force, mass – put enough information together and you can predict (or at least, understand) how a physical system works.

We’ve tried the same approach with social systems – cultures, nations, economies and so on – but we don’t have a clue.  Because we make our calculations without considering the part played by God.

What must I do to “inherit eternal life?”  a question that we want to believe is about safety in heaven…but is it?  For the lawyer, perhaps that’s all it is, until Jesus turns it into a question about living in the here and now.  The story Jesus tells – about a victim of violence and the response to his victimhood – does not end with a happy, heavenly welcome.  It ends with an urgent request to live in an attitude of mercy (compassion).

Our quest for “eternal life” is too often an escape mechanism – our hope against hope that we might leave misery, violence and all earthly uncertainty behind as a reward for good behaviour.  Jesus ignores that plea for an escape clause, and suggests that the ‘here and now’ can (and should) have an eternal character.  Jesus message throughout the gospels is consistent in this.  What we often imagine heaven will be like (a joyous place of reunion), can be found and experienced long before we draw our final breath.  After a week of news such as we have had – tensions driven by fear and power leading to the deaths of too many people – it may be hard to accept that statement; but that is what Jesus’ parable offers.

“Go and do likewise” he tells the man who wanted the easy way out – the fast-track to heaven.  Go and be among those whose condition frightens you; be with those whom you do not understand; offer mercy to those who may not (in your opinion) deserve mercy.  Reach out to the one in the ditch – to the stranger, the enemy – as though there was no difference between you.  Let mercy (compassion) guide your actions and reactions, and then watch what the universe does.

It seems a simple solution – and it has been one of our choices since the beginning of time.  “Do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with God” – Micah urged the people of God toward the path of compassion (mercy).  And not just in some far distant paradise, either;  “It is not in heaven [that promised prosperity awaits]…No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth, and in your heart to observe.” (Deuteronomy 30: 12-14).

Our actions towards one another can have a domino effect, to be sure, but lately we have seen behaviour that we do not want affecting us.  And no one can point to the moment in recent history that saw compassion pushed out by fear; but that is what has happened.  In a world that has seen some horrible deeds done ‘in the name of God’, we have tried to act apart from divine influence, without any notion of the grace of God – the compassion of God – and Fear has become our guiding principle.  And just like my intro to Physics class, when you use incomplete (or incorrect) information in the equation, you get the wrong answer.

The lawyer – the guy who wants to do the end run around misery and confusion – he has performed his calculations using all the ‘heavenly’ components.  He quotes the law (and keeps it) while trying to avoid the messy reality of human interaction.  We, who seem fully engaged in a world of messy human interactions, are often guilty of trying to find our way through without letting God into our calculations.

In Jesus, God has demonstrated that the Holy, ‘heavenly’ realm that we desire is very much concerned with the everyday interactions between and among such ordinary folks as us.  Eternal life is not a promise that we will never again be troubled by those who are different than us – it is a promise that those differences will cease to matter, because we have been connected by something in the character of God – something pure and positive and universal.  The mercy we offer – the compassion we have – is what connects us to the work of God that began with creation and has never stopped; work that is driven by a desire for good, for peace, for unity.  Collectively, we can frustrate that work by acting in fear, or ignorance, or selfishness.  But if we acknowledge that love and compassion are available to us, then we will begin to see that ‘eternal life’ is for the living too.

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