In my own wrestling with the recent documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor, one of the best and most powerful films I have seen in 2018 so far, I’ve been spending a lot of time with the Good Samaritan parable found in Luke 10. A while back I came across a teaching on this passage that really transformed the way I think of faith and God and salvation in general, and much of this came flooding back as I watched Mr. Rogers story unfold on screen.
The Good Samaritan: Discovering the most important question
My tendency (and I don’t think I am alone) was and is to read this passage solely from the perspective of what I thought was the most important question, “what does it mean to be a “good” Samaritan”. With the emphasis on the word good, the parable would then boil down to the following two takeaways- being a good Samaritan means helping others, and so go and be a good neighbor to others.
What I missed in the passage through so many years of reading it from this singular perspective was the motivating question of the passage that the parable is actually responding to, along with the way this motivating question actually directs (and redirects) the trajectory of the narrative in a slightly different way than I had been reading it to that point.
What Must I Do To Be Saved
Consider that the concern of the initial question posed by the central character, in all respects appearing to be a good, God fearing Jewish man is, “what must I do to be saved”. What fuels this parable then from the get-go is a question of salvation. At which point consideration for the ancient Jewish context becomes vitally important here for understanding the nature of this man’s question and for ensuring we don’t simply submit his question to modern day constructs of what salvation is. To start, the question this seemingly devout, Jewish man poses would have been one of participation, not conversion. Participation, that is, in the hopeful “Jewish” expectation of ushering in God’s Kingdom “on earth as it is in Heaven”, an important piece of the ongoing Jewish story of exile and expectation. At this place and time they had indeed returned from a long period of exile only to find things were not not as they were supposed to be, or at least not as they expected things should be. What is important here to note though is that what was most definitely not foremost on their minds when it came to this question of salvation was notions or concerns of going to Heaven or Hell after they die. This was about Kingdom building and Kingdom participation.
It is also easy for our modern day constructs to quickly turn a discussion of salvation into a very Protestant tinged faith-works or law-grace dichotomy or argument. The Jewish man in question certainly would have been thinking along the lines of the law, and his question immediately points us in this direction, but what is central to understanding the nature of Jesus’ parable, or the answer He gives to this man’s question, is not positioning this question of law against notions of a Christian faith or Jesus grace. Christian theology was not a thing at this point in time. Rather it would have been about recognizing how the Gospel, recognized in the person and ministry of Jesus, was breathing life and meaning into this man’s idea of full participation in the Kingdom of God. In other words, Jesus was informing the true nature of the law and the man’s deeply devout Jewish expectation, not upending or demonizing it.
So to return to the question at hand, “what must I do” implies that if I do this I will be saved. A more accurate rendering is more apt to read this as an assertion of community, or Jewish community, what must “we” do in what was (and was becoming) an incredibly fractured and assimilated state at the time.
On the flip side of this same question is the fear that I am, or we are not doing enough to be saved. That the promise of God that formed the Jewish expectation of God’s Kingdom come was not going to arrive as promised. New Testament scholar and theologian N.T. Wright has written extensively about how this plays into the forming of an early and distinct Christian theology, primarily through the apostolic ministry of Paul, and in his latest effort, Paul: A Biography, he talks a lot about how the person and ministry of Jesus, certainly from Paul’s own experience and understanding, really becomes an embodiment of this Jewish exile tension, going so far as to posit Paul’s own ministry in line with the Jewish prophetic tradition and legacy. They have returned from exile as the Prophets promised, but they found themselves still waiting for God’s Kingdom to arrive. For Paul, Jesus minds the material gap of this tension as an already-not yet spiritual and earthly reality where heaven and earth are in the process of coming together. Jesus is the promised fulfillment, but the pattern of exile continues to mark the “Christian” life as we, both Jew and Gentile, patiently wait for the restoration of His Kingdom to be completed.
It is under this backdrop that Jesus’ immediate response to this Jewish man sets his parable directly into this same already-not yet paradigm. What must you do to be saved? Do this- Love God and love your neighbor as yourself and you will live.
In other words, if you want to see God’s Kingdom ushered in in its fullness, here are the practical steps you can take to ensure this happens.
What becomes clear at this point though is that Jesus considers the lawyer’s basic motivating question to be problematic from the get-go. There is no step by step process that can accomplish what this man desires. He is worried about the idea of salvation and is looking to “justify” himself as a God fearing, Jewish man in the eyes of the law, which is the mark of belonging to the Jewish faith and thus as part of God’s Kingdom. In his expectation of what God is doing, or should be doing, the nature of his motivating question requires him to continue down the line of this same problematic reasoning. And so this is precisely what he does. He pushes it further by asking Jesus to tell him, then, exactly what he needs to do in order to be saved, or exactly what is necessary to participate in God’s saving work, the ushering in of the new Kingdom, of the restoration of the Jewish people. So tell me, who, then, is my neighbor. I need to know who exactly “is” my neighbor that the law of God binds me towards so that I can assure I am doing what needs to be done in order to see God’s Kingdom being ushered in and the Jewish promise finally fulfilled. And in case you have forgotten, exile and pagan rule is not a distant reality for this kingdom building reality we are still waiting for.
On this note, there is no reason to think this man was not well meaning, faithful, and honestly looking to the greater good. But specifics and certainty matter much in this line of reasoning, and as the parable unfolds we are going to see that this is a big part of the problem not in the integrity with which he asks the question, but in his ability to ask the right question.
To which Jesus offers him a parable about three individuals passing by a man beaten up on the side of the road. And it is at this point that the passage begins to really turn my old understanding even more completely on its head.
Learning To Ask the Right Question
Jesus takes the initial question, “who is my neighbor” and flips it around to ask the man, “who was the neighbor” in this story?
By doing this Jesus has completely dismantled not simply the lawyer’s motivating question, but his understanding of how salvation, God’s Kingdom being ushered in, must work and indeed has been working. Instead of being a matter of what we must do in order to participate in our salvation, true freedom and expression of this promise of “Kingdom come” flows out of knowing precisely how far reaching this Kingdom is and always has been in its participation. An honest Jewish construct would have understood God to be found in the order of the entire cosmos. From the moment of His first reveal to Abraham and through Moses and Elijah and the prophets, God has revealed Himself not just as the King of a people, but the King of all creation, including all nations, peoples and tongues. The Kingdom come, the expectation of this new rule is not simply a restoration of a people, but of a new “creation”. A cosmic restoration and redemption. This understanding lies at the heart of the Abrahamic promise, and it is a characteristic of God that colors the entire admittedly complicated and messy God-Human relationship that we find playing out in the specific Israelite story.
A chosen people raised up to be a a witness of a God for the world.
And yet as this parable demonstrates, we cannot arrive at the idea of a God “for the world” without beginning with our own story first. For the Jewish man he is likely thinking in a nationalistic sense of “God’s chosen people” first. This is how God has worked in their past. But by flipping the question around on the man, Jesus is forcing him to reconcile the question of what God raised up this people for. It is startling and striking to realize that in this parable the Jewish man is actually the one on the side of the road needing help. And this is not startling because it is a deviation from the Jewish narrative- it is in-fact deeply ingrained in the man’s motivating question. We are on the side of the road. Yes we need saving. This is the work of God we have been waiting for all this time. This is the work I want to take part in helping to usher in. It is striking because of the way it reveals the man’s line of reasoning is what is keeping him from connecting the work of God to God’s work in the world.
And perhaps most startling because of the ways I, and I have to think many of us, seem to miss this in the midst of our own pictures of exile.
What God did for the Israelite people, helping them to see that they are accepted and loved as children of God, He is also doing for the world. This is the Gospel. This is the light that Jesus came to bring into the world. This is what God has been up to all along. And the implication for this God fearing man is this- He is, we are, already accepted and loved as a child of God. There are no distinctions, Jew or Gentile. In the shadow of the temple or in the vast portions of pagan society that surround this temple construct, there are no distinctions. Therefore make no distinction about who your neighbor is in the context of an already-not yet world. The truth of this man’s story, of the tradition and narrative that he would have studied and been informed by and shaped within, is that we cannot see the world the way God sees it unless we first see ourselves the way God sees us in the midst of this narrative. God first found us on the side of the road and declared us to be children of God. And to participate in the ministry of Jesus, God’s breaking into our world, our story in a far reaching sense, is not to limit our view of what God is doing to restore our individual (or nationalist) sense of (Jewish born) exile, but to allow him to use our story of exile and expectation to expand our view of God’s promise being fulfilled in the story of our world.
The truth of this parable is that if we ask the question in any other way but the way Jesus does we leave ourselves open to being trapped by the same line of reasoning that forms the Jewish man’s need to create clear cut boundaries and definitions in order to participate in the work of God.
But the truth of God’s grace in the Jewish and Christian tradition is that it is persistently breaking down these barriers and boundaries. This is what the work of God does. The need to give definition to who our neighbor is is by nature a limiting process. It is an exercise in self control. It sees first and foremost our exile and our restoration, and as such it subtly and slowly exchanges God’s expectation for our own. The nature of the law was always to point us outwards, to teach us how to see the world through God’s eyes. And to truly see through God’s eyes requires us to gain and regain that perspective on the side of the road where our story began. And as the Good Samaritan passage reminds us, it is simply far too easy to bypass that and leave that picture behind in favor of the promised restoration, the saving work, especially when our own exile weighs us down. But when we move too quickly forward, when we need certainty and answers to the problem of our own exile in the here and now, it causes us to see the rest of the world through our own eyes rather than God’s. Call it a result of the human condition, but the problem when we do this is that we end up missing what it is that binds us to a shared and common human experience, which is the very thing that frees us up to participate in the Kingdom work to begin with. Thus our understanding of God’s work narrows rather than expands. We will begin to see God’s Kingdom Come juxtaposed against our own exile rather than allowing God to use our exile as a means of seeing his vision for the world.
And seeing a God for the world.
Who was the neighbor? The neighbor was the one who extended grace to me in my own position of exile regardless of who I am and where I came from. And it is this realization that frees me up to go and do likewise regardless of where I find myself in this world.
The Question of Mr. Rogers: Won’t You Be My Neighbor
What brought me back to this parable as I watched the powerful documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor, is hearing the story of a man who wrestled with this same thing as the Jewish in the midst of our own modern context. Looking around at the state of the world he was burdened by a sense of exile and the brokenness that seemed to prevail in the midst of God’s promised restoration. And for Mr. Rogers, facing this reality causes him to ask the same question as the Jewish man over the course of his ministry (which is how he saw it), have I lived the sort of accomplished life I must live in order to see the brokenness of this world healed?
In other words, have I done enough to be saved? Which is profound because what we see over the course of the documentary is the slow process of this question connecting to his own life and struggle, which is have I done enough to be loved and accepted by God myself?
The mind boggling part of hearing him ask this question is that the authenticity and impact of a man who at one point is jokingly referred to as second only to Jesus, was awe inspiring. There is something genuinely dismantling about considering that, for all that he aspired to be and all of the good he did in this world, and all of the ways he continually put others before himself, he still found himself approaching Jesus with that same prevailing question. What must I do?
Later in his life as he faced down the pressing reality of his own mortality, his central struggle and concern with whether he was accepted and loved by God comes to full fruition, a concern that for all of God’s work he participated in he could trust he is counted as a “sheep”. And this is precisely the moment where we see Mr. Rogers differing from the trajectory of the Jewish man’s line of reasoning. They started with the same motivating question, what must “we” do to be saved, to see this world healed of its brokenness, and it uncovers the same struggle and need to know that I have done enough to be a part of God’s restoration work. But for all the ways he struggled to understand the nature of God’s Kingdom building work, the difference for Mr. Rogers is that he never lost sight of where he stood on the side of that road. He kept that front and center. He never jumped to needing to see himself on the road participating in that restoration work, and in-fact never felt comfortable on the road over the course of his ministry work, and it is because of this that he was able to allow his doubts and struggles with his own faith and salvation to determine and shape and fuel the ways he lived out his relationship with God in service to world, day in and day out.
Who was the neighbor in this story? For Mr. Rogers it was all the people that continually fed into his life. And it is one of the most powerful moments in cinema that I have encountered to reach the end of this documentary and to see the challenge his life gave to those who worked with him to go and do likewise by recognizing and thinking on and celebrating those who have been neighbors to them.
And then, and only then, go and do likewise.
Who is my neighbor was not Mr. Roger’s concern. In-fact, the idea of such a question, full of all the boundary making, exclusivity and nationalistic implications that come with it, repulsed him in ways that became increasingly obvious throughout his public life and career. His question, deliberately and intentionally and honestly, was always and remained, won’t you be “my” neighbor. If you have seen the documentary or plan to, don’t miss the sheer power of this question as you consider the story of Mr. Rogers and the witness of his own life and work. This approach to the same question the Jewish man asked in Luke 10 diffuses the boundary making exercise of that limiting perspective. Mr. Rogers question defines the “my” part of the phrase by placing himself on the side of the road, a position that shapes not only the way he sees God working in his story, but the way he is able to invite others into full participation of what God is doing through his unconditional acceptance of them as “children of God” as well. And in perhaps the most powerful sense of all, his dedication to seeing things from this perspective is what frees and empowers these same children to then follow his call to participate in the work of God through the Jesus tinged Gospel by living this out in the world through their acceptance and love of others.
This is what it looks like to participate in God’s saving work. This is what it looks like for God’s Kingdom come. In the throes of a not yet world where the weight of the world’s messiness and turmoil feels far from the already of this ancient and eternal Kingdom promise, it is stories like Mr. Rogers that remind me that God is already at work in my life and in the life of the world and that we are free to participate in this work if only we learn to ask the right question.