Sunday, May 6, 2012

Good Samaritan

Last Sunday, I sat in an adult study session at a church and listened to the Parable of the Good Samaritan. The story is short and can be understood by youngsters. It also carries an important and timeless lesson for adults, which is who Jesus told the story to. The parable raises the question of who our neighbor is. It is an important question because of the instruction Jesus gives on how we are to regard and treat our neighbors.

The leader this Sunday was expressing the view that Christians not only have an obligation to tend to people who are needy and injured, but they should also be working to correct the conditions that lead to people becoming needy and getting injured. She quoted Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who said, “On the one hand we are called to play the good Samaritan on life's roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life's highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”

One man in the study session seemed to disagree with the entire premise that Christians should help other people, either by charity or by working to change oppressive and inequitable conditions. It was not clear whether he had a very narrow concept of who we should think of as our neighbors, or whether his rejected the imperative to help. He went through a convoluted discourse on his view of capitalist economics and suggested that the one percent who own most of the wealth of this country should not stop to help their fellow men, because that would lead to the recipients of aid becoming dependent upon entitlements, and it would reduce employment, shrink the economic pie, and lead to worsening conditions for everyone.

It seemed that the man was saying that Jesus was wrong, and that Christians should not do as the Good Samaritan had done. There are undoubtedly many lessons to be learned from different interpretations of the parable, but it seems to me that it would be considered outside of mainstream Christian thought to say that Jesus was just plain wrong on this point, or that Jesus was even capable of being wrong. And yet, that was the thrust of the man's argument.

Religions have from time to time had difficulty maintaining coherence of their doctrine. In modern times, most Christian denominations have been very reluctant to impose orthodoxy by labeling people who fall outside of the mainstream thought as heretics. Excommunication and shunning are not commonly used.

But this past Sunday as I listened to one man in a Christian church proclaim that his faith in a libertarian/Republican/laissez-faire economic doctrine had supplanted the religious teachings of the church where he came to worship, I wondered just how far our society's devotion to money has gone, and more disturbing, how much further it may go. I also wondered about how religious leaders should respond when the fundamentals of their faith are misunderstood or rejected by people who purport to subscribe to that faith.

Jesus had a lot to say about the relationship between a religion and its leadership. He did not hesitate to counsel rejection of corrupt practice. Neither was he ambivalent about directing his followers to follow the path that he prescribed. I wonder what he would have had to say to the man I encountered in church. Or perhaps the question should more correctly be asked, what should all of the rest of the people in the room have said to their neighbor?

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