By James L. Foster
Given the title of this publication it seems to me appropriate for us to consider how we are doing in following the one whom many of us claim as our leader. In the records of his ministry and teaching given us by the writers of our gospels, Jesus has laid down some pretty clear markers of what it means to be en Christo, “in Christ.” I think it is safe to say that none of us have followed him perfectly. Indeed, if we look back over the last two millennia of the Christian Church, it would appear that on a number of issues we have not followed him at all.
It is no secret that the Christian Church through the centuries has been wrong on many occasions and in many ways: We were wrong morally by perverting the grace of God, as in the crusades (by which we set out under the banner of Christ to either convert the Muslims or to kill them), as in the inquisition (in which we tortured or killed those who dared to disagree with the church), and as in indulgences (by which, for a price, we offered to wipe the slate clean of the believer’s sins), as in papal infallibility (including our present Pope’s suppression of Nag Hammadi scrolls for 40 years), and as in character assassinations, Mary Magdalene, for example. We have also been wrong intellectually, believing, for example, that the earth is the center of the universe, and that the world is flat, having four corners (Revelation 7:1). We were wrong in our understanding of biology, believing and building our theology on the assumption that only the male contributed anything of substance to the character and identity of the new born child (the mother only contributed a safe haven for the fetus to develop). Therefore the birth accounts of the child Jesus, composed almost a century later, only needed to replace the human father, presumably Joseph, in order to eliminate inherited sin. In later years, we have been wrong again in supporting slavery, shunning, and segregation; wrong in our participation in wars and genocide (for example Rwanda, Burundi, and Bosnia), and wrong in our support of consumerism, and neglect of the poor – to name a few. Injustice has been our credo, and it still is. We have a sorry legacy when it comes to following the teachings and example of Jesus.
In the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37), the gospel writer has Jesus tell the story of a man journeying from Jerusalem to Jericho who fell among thieves who left him battered, bleeding and perhaps unconscious on the side of the road. The Torah, the Law of God by which the Jews pledged themselves to live, demanded that human need must take priority over every other concern. Yet, in this story, says Jesus, a Levite, a recognized leader in temple worship, who was surely aware of the Law’s command to show compassion to those in need, passes by on the other side of the road, ignoring the wounded man. Next comes a priest, a holy man of Israel, ordained after becoming proficient in the study of the Torah. He, too, sees the victim. Perhaps justifying his behavior in typical ordained practice by countering the text calling for compassion with another text prohibiting one from touching the flesh of a dead man, he refuses to stop long enough even to investigate and passes by on the other side of the road. *
Then, says Jesus, a half-breed, a Samaritan, journeys along that way. He is not schooled in the Law and so may have been ignorant of the Torah’s demands. But he sees a human being in need, and he responds without hesitating. Going up to the wounded man, he pours oil in his wounds and binds them up. He then gives the victim wine and water to drink and takes him on his own donkey to an inn, where he arranges to pay for his continued care and lodging until the healing process is complete.
Then Jesus says to the lawyer who prompted the story, “Go and do likewise.
This parable was a challenge to the defining prejudice in 1st century Judaism and it invited people to step beyond their prejudices, whatever they were, into a new definition of humanity, a humanity that emerges beyond the boundaries of our prejudices.
In this story and others, like the Prodigal Son and the Rich man and Lazarus, Jesus is shown to be a God-presence that calls those of us who would be his followers to become more fully human by opening up the dark places in our souls where our prejudices hide, the place to which we have assigned the Samaritans of our day. For some of us the Samaritans may be persons of a different skin color. For others they may be people who worship God in ways different from our way. For still others the Samaritans may be those whose sexual orientation is not like our own. To be followers of Jesus we are forced to heed his call to surrender all our killing stereotypes and to walk beyond all our fears into a new prejudice-free humanity, a humanity free of those barriers that divide us one from another.
The call of Jesus through his example and teaching to those who would be his followers is to put aside all gender and sexual distinctions. The Apostle Paul apparently understood this when he said that for those who have clothed themselves with Christ, “There is no longer Jew or Greek…slave or free, male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28) These become only categories into which humanity is divided. They are not divisions that indicate sin, as past rhetoric had suggested.
The portrait of Jesus drawn by the biblical writers shows him violating the sexual boundaries of his day, not just once but many times. John’s gospel, for example, says that Jesus engaged the woman at the well (John 4:1-42) in a lengthy theological discussion, even though Jewish males did not converse with women in a public place. No wonder his disciples were astonished when they returned to find the two of them in conversation, and though none of them said, “Why are you talking with her?” you can be sure all of them were thinking it.
Jesus also had women disciples, among whom Mary Magdalene was prominent. She was obviously a key person in the Jesus movement, despite the early church male leaders’ attempts at character assassination by turning her into a prostitute without a shred of evidence to support their accusations. Apart from one unexplained comment in Luke 8:2 where Jesus is reported to have cast out demons in Mary Magdalene, she is described in very positive terms in every other reference. She also went on to write one of the early gospels about Jesus, though it was never acknowledged by the Church Fathers. But they do not reflect either the example or the teaching of Jesus.
As for those with a different sexual orientation, Jesus never says a word in any gospel about homosexuality. Indeed, the word homosexuality does not appear in Scripture at all, nor does sexual perversion. Jesus did mention adultery and fornication, both heterosexual sins. And in the story in Genesis of Sodom and Gomorrah, though the inhabitants of Sodom were apparently homosexuals, their sin was in their attempted rape of Lot’s guests. James is quoted in Acts 15:20 as advising the Gentiles to abstain from fornication, and Paul in Galatians 5:19-21 lists fornication as one of several works of the flesh, but makes no mention of homosexuality. I know a few homosexuals and all of them with but one exception are people of integrity, struggling with the burden of rejection, placed upon them for the most part by Christians
The science is in and it is conclusive. Sexual orientation, both heterosexuality and homosexuality, are natural, genetically imposed orientations with which we are born. Just because homosexuality is not natural for those of us that have a heterosexual orientation, that does not mean that it is not natural for those born with a homosexual orientation. The only thing that really divides us is the fear we have of an experience we do not understand, and for that we misquote Scripture to justify not following the teaching of Jesus. Homosexuals are clearly the pre-eminent Samaritans of our day, and the call of Jesus is to reach across the divide with compassion and acceptance.
Another teaching of Jesus about which I suggest we should be very concerned is that reported by Matthew in the opening verses of chapter 7 of his gospel. “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged, for with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.”
You, dear Christian friends, are my brothers and sisters. But we also have other brothers and sisters who are not a part of our faith traditions and who are different from us in one way or another. As we have opportunity, we need to embrace them, too, without judgment and without fear. May there be for us no more Samaritans but only human beings who share the wonder of what it means to be a child of God.
* Much of the interpretation of this parable is roughly quoted from the book New Christianity for a New World by John Shelby Spong, pp. 134-ff.