Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Life is more than words

While driving recently, I noticed several bumper stickers that seem to follow the same pattern:  a summing up of life in three words.  "Eat. Sleep. Fish." was on the back of a pick-up truck.  Another read, "Live, Laugh, Garden."  Of course, these three-word mantras made me think of the recent best-seller:  "Eat, Pray, Love."  All of the sudden, it's become trendy to reduce life to three simple words.

Why?  Most of us wish life were that simple, tidy, clean (wink, wink).  By our word smithing, we make the complexities of every-day living sound poetic, pure, elemental (wink, wink again).  The triplet evokes a rhythm, an underlying premonition that all things must be triadic.  Indeed, the formula for the oldest jokes in the world followed a three-fold pattern:  1, 2, punchline.  By telling the story of our lives in threes, we unknowingly claim the last word(s)--a superlative description for which there is no argument.  Imagine how funny it would sound to say, "Oh yeah?  Well life is more than eat, pray, love.  There's also work and hobbies and fun and . . . ."  No one wants to be that guy.

But here's my problem:  I don't want my life to be reduced to words, especially only three.  I want a life for which there are no words.  I want mystery and wonder and confusion and hope and questions and challenge and . . . .  In fact, if life could be summed up with mere words, I don't think I would want it.  I think I would lose too much:  a sense of curiosity, an aching for more, an inclination for the divine, a restlessness that is holy.  That's why I need music.  That's why I hanker for silence.  I crave taste and touch, sight and intuition.  Sometimes I need . . .  I need . . .  I don't know what I need.  But, I do know this:  I need a life that is more than words.

But, how do I put that on a bumper-sticker?

Thursday, June 07, 2012

The Bad Samaritan

The scandalous quality of Jesus' parables are lost on us.  We've become too accustomed to the stories, domesticating the plot to the point where we no longer wrestle with the subversive intent.

Take, for example, the story of the "Good Samaritan."  Notice, no where in the parable does Jesus call the Samaritan "good."  But, we have labelled the hero "good" because of his compassionate behavior, showing mercy to an enemy.  We know a little about the ethnic hatred between the Jews and the Samaritans.  We delight in the juxtapostioning of the religious elites (they do nothing--so typical, huh?) and the outsider (what a great guy!) as they pass by the victim on the side of the road.  We like the part where the Samaritan is so generous, he not only takes the wounded man to the inn, but pays the inn-keeper for future expenses and promises to return to settle up the bill.  We are inspired to "go and do likewise" by helping stranded motorists, giving hitch-hikers a lift, or perhaps even paying for an evening's stay in a hotel for a homeless man.  The privileged helping the under-privileged.

But, that's not the whole story.

It looks perfectly normal to us--perhaps even extraordinary--when the Samaritan pays for the wounded man to stay in the inn.  We picture a comfortable place (not the Hilton, but at least a Holiday Inn Express?) between Jerusalem and Jericho.  We envision the Samaritan taking care of the man, nursing him back to health, then leaving for a while--only to return to check on his progress and pay the hotel bill.  What a guy.

But, this is exactly where we misread the story.  First, a Samartian bringing a wounded Jewish man into a Jewish town was incredibly risky (a point made by Kenneth Bailey).  Second, there was no "inn" between Jerusalem and Jericho (modern tourist site claims notwithstanding).  The "inn" was probably located on the outskirts of Jericho.  Third, what the story assumes is what we miss.  Hospitality was never purchased; it was earned by honor.  In Jewish culture, a traveler looking for accomodations would simply go to the city gate or the city well and wait for someone to recognize him as an honorable man and take him home (the Old Testament is filled with stories like this).  If you had to pay for a place to stay, it meant you were a low life.  Indeed, "inns" also doubled as houses of "ill repute" (for example, in Jewish literature, Rahab "the harlot" is called an "inn keeper"), which is why inns were often located on the edge of town.  All kinds of riff-raff showed up there.  Roman philsophers condemned these public houses as moral degradation.  "If you don't have enough honor to stay in our fair town, move on!"  This Samartian wasn't "good" by any standard.  He was a bad man.  Fourth, why did the Samaritan leave?  More than likely he feared for his life--he was in hostile territory.  And, finally, what was a Samaritan doing on the Jericho road anyway?  He was probably a merchant, a travelling man who ignored traditions to make a buck.  You know the kind--will set aside family loyalities and religious devotion at the drop of a hat if there's money to be made.

This was no "Good Samaritan."  This was a bad man, who for some unexplained reason, took pity on a complete stranger and relied upon socially unacceptable practices to save a man's life.