I am weary in my spirit. I did not think it was possible for the vitriol in the United States and within the church to worsen. Yet here we are—at each other’s throats in increasing degrees. Most of us would say it shouldn’t be this way and that the hate and meanness must stop. But no one is willing to lay down their sword first. That’s right, we say. They need to stop. It is never us.
Have we abandoned all pretense of loving our neighbor? Have we thrust upon Jesus’s command so many caveats and contingencies that we have successfully exonerated ourselves from the call to do unto others as we would have them do unto us? On the occasion I have the stomach for it, I scroll through social media to find believers engaging not in a rigorous and Christlike exchange of perspectives but in verbal violence. The loudest voices administer litmus tests for faithfulness, measuring a fellow Christian by a singular issue, apart from context or dialogue. Accusations of divisiveness only thinly veil our ultimate desire for self-defined uniformity without exception.
Accusations of divisiveness only thinly veil our ultimate desire for self-defined uniformity without exception.
“Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,’ he said, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ He said to him, ‘What is written in the law? What do you read there?’ He answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.’ And he said to him, ‘You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.’ But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’” (Luke 10:25–29).
But wanting to justify himself. This phrase has been stuck in my head like an ear worm. This is perhaps one of the most honest admissions in Scripture, one that we ourselves have made many times. There are many tools in our self-justification toolbelt—behaviors we implement to rationalize our unkindness and cruelty. Dehumanize: the deprivation of positive human qualities. Demonize: to portray as wicked and threatening. Mock: tease or laugh at in a scornful manner.
In the story of the Good Samaritan, typically we contrast the Levite and priest with the Samaritan, which can be fruitful. But in this season, I find myself captivated by the contrast between the Samaritan and the wounded man, who—based on Jesus’s audience—was likely assumed to be a Jew. The shifting power differential is striking. As the scene opens, we see a Jewish man. While he is not a power player in the Roman Empire under which he lives, he possesses spiritual and cultural power, superiority over the Samaritans. He is one of the chosen, keeper of the law. He is pure, unblemished. From his position of power, he rejects Samaritans along with their inferior and inaccurate theology, their faulty worship, their pagan intermarriage. How easy to dehumanize such people. How simple to demonize and mock them for their foolishness.
However, the spiritual and cultural superiority of the Jewish man does not protect him from violence and greed. With the swing of a club, the power differential is inverted. Now, standing over the beaten man, the continually victimized Samaritan holds the power. How will he wield it? Has his heart been so hardened by the abuse he has experienced that he, like the religious leaders, walks away in apathy? Has his hurt morphed into violent rage, leading him to finish off the broken man?
No. He lays down his proverbial sword—the sword that it would’ve been understandable for him to brandish in violence against his oppressor. He breaks the chains of hostility and retributive violence with compassion and mercy. While Scripture does not give us the epilogue to the story, I have to imagine that, once the wounded Jewish man recovered, his posture toward Samaritans was forever transformed.
It is the Republican rescuing a Democrat. A progressive rescuing a conservative. A Christian rescuing a judge bent on stripping religious freedoms. A black man rescuing a denier or perpetrator of systemic racism. If these comparisons startle or offend us, we are hearing them rightly.
What does this text ask of us, particularly in this contentious season?
1. Surrender our culturally informed, preconceived notions about one another and cling tightly to the truth that our enemy is made in the image of God. Jesus could have made anyone the hero of this story, yet he chose a person from one of the most despised and scorned people groups. He gutted the false narrative that demonized Samaritans, replacing it with the vision of a man made in the image of God, capable of goodness and mercy. Is it possible that we have allowed cultural narratives built on flimsy arguments that play to our worst passions to blind us to the image of God in one another? We must allow the Spirit to expand our imaginations and reorient us to the unshakable truth that each one of us is made in the image of God.
2. Lay down our swords. Someone must lay down the sword first, and the people of God ought to lead the way as peacemakers. As demonstrated by Jesus, peacemaking is not a disembodied theological theory. It is a costly practice that requires radical obedience. Too often we are Peter, coming to the rescue with violent vigor. Jesus declares that it is better to go to the cross than to fight the way they fight. Only radical peacemaking can break the cycle of retributive violence.
3. Act justly and mercifully. Regardless of who wins political battles, our call does not change. We must pursue righteousness and practice mercy. We must advocate for the poor, the vulnerable, and the marginalized. We must reject manipulative civil religion, regardless of who sells it. No one—not our preferred presidential candidate, the government legislatures, or even the Supreme Court—can practice our faith for us. It is up to us to love our neighbor with word and deed.
The command to love our neighbor sacrificially and without qualification is timeless. Nothing excuses us from this command. We must speak the truth boldly and in love. We must advocate for righteousness and justice without dehumanizing and demonizing the other. May the same mind that was in Christ Jesus take root in us—for our own flourishing and for the sake of the world.