I turned on the radio on my way to work a few days before Christmas and heard one of my favorite Christmas songs.
And you asked me what I want this year,
And I try to make this kind and clear,
Just a chance that maybe we’ll find better days.
It’s “Better Days” by the Goo Goo Dolls and it summed up my feelings this past Christmas perfectly. I want better days.
I want better days than the ones filled with images of refugee families and children desperate for shelter and my Facebook feed filled with reasons why they shouldn’t be allowed in this country often starting with, “I’m a Christian but …”
I want better days than ones filled with victims of gun violence of all kinds. I want better days than ones filled with vitriol and fearmongering between partisans vying for more power and privilege. I want better days when people of all religions can unite around peace and love rather than blame and demonize one another.
I want better days.
A scholar of scriptures asked Jesus one day how to find better days in Luke 10:25-37. Most translations word the question something like, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” – but life after death wasn’t a big concern for Jews during Jesus’ ministry. In fact, the idea of a personal resurrection to eternal life was a very new concept. Eternal life was a phrase people used to describe a life lived fully into the blessings of God: the best life.
Jesus spent most of his ministry talking about how to live life before death, and this expert in scriptures knows the Jewish scriptures are mostly silent on the subject of life after death. The Law, or Torah, deals with how to live life to the best and fullest, so one expert in the Law is asking another, because he’s ready for a debate.
The real question the lawyer is asking is: How do I find better days? Jesus responds with a question of his own: What does the law say? – because God gave the law so that we might all find better days. This expert in the law predictably answers correctly by quoting Deuteronomy and Leviticus. He talks about how loving God and loving neighbor are the most important things you can do to find better days, or eternal life. Jesus gives him the thumbs up and we’re all on our way to better days, right?
No. The story isn’t over, because as any lawyer or scholar of any document would do, this expert wants to parse out the meaning of a particular word. In other words, we can agree that we’ll find better days by loving our neighbor, but we may disagree on who that is. So, who exactly is my neighbor?
Jesus answers with a story. It’s a story commonly called “The Parable of the Good Samaritan,” and I’m guessing you’ve heard it many times. I know I’ve heard it and preached on it numerous Sundays, but I’m just now beginning to understand how challenging and life changing this story could be.
I’ll be honest, I’ve tended to focus on the actions of the Samaritan. The Levite and priest are obviously the bad guys since they “passed by on the other side,” which is actually kind of funny because the road from Jericho to Jerusalem was just a few feet wide with a cliff. There was no other side. The two pass by on the other side, perhaps not out of callousness toward their fellow human being, but more out of a sense of utilitarian ethics. The beaten man probably would have been bloody, which means these men of God would have become unclean if they bandaged him up. They would have then been unable to carry out their duties for a given period of time until they could be cleansed. Perhaps they believed their duties to those whom they were called to serve were more important than one man on the road. How often we do make similar utilitarian decisions?
It’s the identity of the next man on the scene that changes everything: a Samaritan. Teachers of the Law were the nationalistic type, so they particularly despised Samaritans.
This is a story the law expert doesn’t want to hear because good stories don’t have heroes who are Samaritans. It would be like telling a children’s bedtime story in which the hero who saves the kingdom is a member of ISIS! A good member of ISIS? No, of course not, we think. That’s ridiculous. A good Samaritan? You’re being ridiculous, Jesus.
Jesus’s shocking story is done, but he isn’t finished. “Who was the neighbor?”
Notice the law expert can’t even bring himself to say the name – the hatred and judgment run that deep. He can only say, “The one who showed mercy.” One way we dehumanize, or show our distaste for someone, is by refusing to say his name. The one … my opponent … the other side. We use labels, but we won’t say so many of our neighbors’ names.
The point of Jesus’ story is not that our neighbor is the one who shows mercy. It’s relatively easy to think of those who help the least fortunate as our neighbor. It’s also relatively easy to agree that we should help those in immediate need—less easy to actually do it if it presents any threat to our safety or privilege—but we can all agree we should help those in need.
The point of the story is that the person, group, religion, that we dislike the most is our neighbor. That’s the key to eternal life. That is how we find better days, by acknowledging the ones we don’t even want to name are our neighbors.
The co-worker that grates on our last nerve, the Facebook friend who posts inflammatory political posts, the conservative right, the liberal left, the atheists, the Muslims, the Jews, the Russians, the North Koreans, even ISIS — they are our neighbors. They are the ones we are called to love. That’s how we find better days.
Jesus calls us to love how God loves, which means loving everyone, even those we hate or who wish to do us harm. Jesus challenges the expert in the law, and us, to extend divine love to those who are the most difficult to love. That’s the answer to the question. That’s where eternal life is. That’s our chance to find better days.
STEPHEN McKINNEY-WHITAKER is pastor and head of staff at United Presbyterian Church of Peoria, Illinois.