wisdom traditionThe ways in which Jesus personally modeled his peaceable wisdom were almost always controversial, beginning with his choice of his twelve closest followers, a motley crew for sure. And it went on from there, nonstop. Jesus kept reaching out to include persons whom others had excluded. Here are some vignettes.

A crowd in Jericho complained when Jesus included a rich tax official, Zacchaeus – who really was up a tree. A Pharisee named Simon threw a dinner party for Jesus and was shocked when Jesus not only permitted a “sinful” woman to remain in their midst but let her participate in a ceremony.

In the stories of the Samaritan and the Syrophoneican women, the twelve disciples (who were all Jews) learned to open up their hearts as Jesus crossed boundaries of ethnic, religious, social, and gender otherness to express God’s love to two women who were citizens of cultures that most Jews found repulsive. In Jesus, the Samaritan woman found “a Jew who did not impose on her the Jewish stereotype of a Samaritan [or of] a woman.” And the Syrophoneican woman, a Greek (a Gentile) who lived in the region of Tyre, historically a non-Jewish enclave, found in Jesus a Jew who practiced mercy over exclusivism. In both narratives, a Jewish rabbi is willing to dialogue with these excluded others in ways that initiate them into the community of compassion. (Quoting Judith Gundry in the “Introduction” to Glenn Stassen’s Just Peacemaking: The New Paradigm for the Ethics of Peace and War, p. 28).

It may even be that the Syrophoneican woman’s clever appeal to Jesus, which seems to get him to change his mind, inspired him soon after he left that region to reach out with compassion to a huge gathering of probably chiefly Gentiles at the Sea of Galilee. There, Jesus clearly modeled for the twelve that Gentiles “are part of the community of compassion. God’s mercy had triumphed over ‘the prejudiced-based distance between nations and cultures.’” (Quoting Judith Gundry in Stassen, p. 29).

I am sure that those twelve Jewish men must have felt their faith was at great odds with itself many times seeing Jesus practice what he preached. Jesus was knocking their sectarian interests and exclusivist, social and religious ideologies to pieces.

And if you did not get it from the real-life travels of Jesus, you could get it from some of the parables. Parables are basic to the wisdom tradition and Jesus ingeniously supplied them. Some he told specifically in hopes of awakening his listeners to become agents on the gospel-shaped love of God that includes the excluded. In the parable of the dinner guests, for instance, social outcasts are brought in for fellowship with the rich. And in the often misunderstood parable of the good Samaritan, Jesus’ listeners are challenged to imagine themselves seeing a dying man who is in need of immediate mercy – and what would they do about it? Would they stop and provide for his well-being, reach out with shalom? Or would they leave him on the street corner to bleed to death because of their religious or other beliefs?

The parable, I believe, calls us to exercise impartial justice to one another even when we have religious and other basic differences. This a biblical principle of justice, through and through, from Leviticus 19:33-34 to 1 Timothy 5:21. “Wisdom is proved right by her actions,” Jesus said. The Samaritan man in the parable “proved” that wisdom by the impartial justice he exercised. He stopped what he was doing that day and reached out to save the dying man, whom two Jewish religious leaders in the parable would not help. And it cost him some coin to do it. All of this was to the dismay of another figure, the real-life Jewish religious leader, to whom Jesus directed the parable.

Decades after Jesus’ death and resurrection, this may have been on the mind of James, a Jewish Christian leader and step-brother of Jesus, who seems to have adapted the principle to a different problem. Writing in an Epistle that shows clear correspondence to a wisdom agenda, James has found a Christian synagogue guilty of showing favoritism, or partiality, to the rich, and embarrassing the poor in their synagogue in the process. They are not being impartial in their dealings with others, and James challenges them to treat rich and poor the same, lest they be found guilty of discrimination, having “become judges with evil thoughts” (James 2:1-4). Acts of favoritism, he notes, do not reflect well on “our glorious Lord Jesus Christ.”

street light crossFor us today, however, the parable is not poignant, not even outlandish. It doesn’t make us smart because we don’t live 2,000 years ago in ancient Palestine. We have not absorbed the social taboos and religious pressures that made Jesus’ parable so startling. I mean, something quite profound is going on, here, in the public imagination, when the religious figure to whom the parable was directed can’t even say “the Samaritan” in answer to Jesus’ question “Who was the injured man’s neighbor?”, but instead answers “the one.”

I think we need a parable of the good Samaritan for today. I wonder how Jesus would tell the parable today. It would certainly challenge our contemporary imaginations. I had an idea for one a few years ago, but I gave up trying to finish writing it when I read The Parable of the Good Palestinian, by Stephen Sizer, an English vicar.

Throughout the four Gospels, we see that in Jesus the peaceable way of the sages’ wisdom becomes the gospel-shaped way of loving outcast and adversary. Civic officials, religious leaders, government authorities, and ordinary people—his own followers, too—were being challenged with a wisdom-based praxis that emphasized not just shaking off dehumanizing habits of the heart as individuals. By following Jesus’ lead they would become agents of a wisdom that would rehumanize relationships amid their diversity.

The ultimate act of Jesus’ personal modeling of his peaceable wisdom was the crucifixion, when Jesus went so far as to die to be able to include even his enemies. More than any of his inclusive personal acts, however, this one became known in the early Church as “a stumbling block” to some, “foolishness” to others, and “the wisdom of God” to others still (1 Corinthians 1:23-24).

See next post for the conclusion of this series.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer.

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