Easter without Hindsight: The Zealots; Sometimes ‘culture shock’ is the only way to change a mental skyline
Sometimes it’s hard to leave behind assumptions that one receives from birth. Those assumptions form a sort of mental landscape, the shape of which governs our thinking just as a physical landscape affects how and where we put roads and buildings. We don’t always notice how our mental landscapes affect how we think about and react to what we see.
One of the most famous stories (Luke 10: 25-37) Jeshua told challenged a mental landscape. A lawyer approached Jeshua and asked: “What do I do to inherit eternal life?” “Eternal life” described the Jewish vision of life after death in which one would rest with your ancestors till “the resurrection at the last day” (cf. John 11:24) when the righteous would rise into the new age of the renewed creation. Jeshua, obviously aware of the lawyers’ rule (never ask a question you don’t know the answer to) asks back: “What is written in the law?” Jeshua knows that the lawyer will answer: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart …. and your neighbour as yourself.” It was a standard rabbinic answer to a technical question about how to ‘inherit eternal life’.
“And who is my neighbour?” asked the lawyer, trying catch Jeshua out. Here is where his mental landscape was different to Jeshua’s. The lawyer had always thought, like most of his countryman, that since God was the God of Israel, his neighbour would always be Jewish. Jeshua had already taught that the love of God clearly included foreigners as well. Here the lawyer is perhaps keen to expose Jeshua’s error on that point.
Jeshua, not for the first time, agrees on the law but differs radically on the interpretation. The only way the lawyer will understand Jeshua’s position (and perhaps even come to agree with Jeshua) is to engage him with a culture shock. So Jeshua’s story contrasts three reactions to the tale of a Jew, beaten and left for dead by robbers. Two of the people who walked past him lying beside the road were both Jewish, a priest and a Levite. Every Jew listening to the story would know (from the context of the story) that these men were Temple officials who couldn’t do their jobs if they were rendered ‘impure’ by contact with a body. They “passed by on the other side of the road” to preserve their purity but at the cost (Jeshua implies) of abandoning God’s rule of love for neighbour. To shock the culture of the lawyer the third man in Jeshua’s story is a Samaritan, with whom the Jews had a bitter enmity, one reflected in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to this day. The Samaritan cares for the Jew at significant personal cost.
“Who,” Jeshua asks, “seems to you to have become a neighbour to the man who fell among thieves?” The lawyer has no choice but to reply “the one who showed him mercy.” Jesus can now answer the lawyer’s question about how to inherit eternal life: “Go and do likewise.”
Jeshua’s skill is to avoid a direct argument about neighbourliness. He, instead, poses a question which makes the lawyer realise, all by himself, that God’s love is actually much wider than his cultural conditioning has taught him.
We (in church especially) who have maybe heard this story more times than we can remember, perhaps assume that, having lost the argument the lawyer ignores the lesson. The Bible doesn’t actually tell us his story but maybe the culture shock left him a changed man.