A God Without Borders

Today as we hear the gospel of the Good Samaritan bound together with the problematic preaching of a border and boundary crossing prophet, I invite you to reflect on A God Without Borders

Let us pray: In the name of the One who waded in the waters of Miryam’s womb, walked the way of suffering as one of the woman-born, and woke from the grasp of death in the deep darkness of the morning. Amen

Amos 7:16  “Now hear the word of the Holy One of Sinai.

You say, ‘Do not prophesy against Israel,

and do not pour out against the house of Isaac.’ 

17 Now then, so says the Holy One:

‘Your wife, in the city she shall sell herself;

your sons and your daughters by the sword, they shall fall;

your land shall be parceled out by measure;

You, you will die in an unclean land,

and Israel shall surely go into exile away from its land.’”

These are hard words, no easier then than now. Why does Amos believe and preach that God will abandon some of God’s people saying, “I will never again pass them by” or that “Israel will surely go into exile” or that God will punish Amos’ personal enemies among the clergy by forcing their wives into prostitution and killing their children? No wonder the priest Amaziah told Amos to take his prophetic show on the road and go home to Judah and prophesy there. 

Amos comes from a world of sharp divisions among the people of God. Hundreds of years after David and his sons demonstrated the limitations of even divinely sanctioned monarchy, the peoples of Israel are divided into two groups: those who will only be ruled by a descendent of David - no matter how corrupt - and those who will only be ruled by someone they hope is like David - at least the promise of who David was, on his good days.

Amos was a migrant farm worker from the self-declared righteous nation among the two - they collected and edited the texts that have become scripture for all of us affirming them as faithful when their fellow chosen people fell away. Amos crossed the border from Judah in the south to Northern Israel, into their territory to preach a hard gospel. But is it good news? 

The first sermon of Amos bound in this scroll promises that God will destroy all of the major cities that have plagued Israel and Judah. That must have sounded like good news. Then Amos promised that neither Israel nor Judah will escape the divine wrath. That might be fair, but that’s not exactly good news. God tells the Israelites through Amos to seek God and they will live in a sermon that precedes our first lesson by some time. 

In previous chapters Amos also chastises the larger and wealthier of the two nations, Israel with nine consolidated tribes, to do justice for the poor and needy whom they are trampling underfoot, grinding into the parched dust while they recline on ivory couches, drinking fine wine, listening to music played on delicate harps. 

Amos gives voice to the rage of God, perhaps, with his own rage intermingled. Those Israelites across the border, should know better. They have turned so far away from God, ceding from the union, rejecting one king to rule them all over a few (OK not so few) sexual and financial indiscretions. They have even rejected the great innovation in worship - the centralized temple; they have gone back to the old fashioned shrines of Samuel, Elijah and Elisha. They are making allegiances with foreign nations, some of whom are in open conflict with the tiny realm of Judah. 

As Amos pours out his litany of complaints one theme emerges and is repeated, “Israel will surely go into exile, out of their land; Israel will surely go into exile, out of their land.

We remember Amos as a social justice prophet, because of his concern for those oppressed by poverty impressed on them by the appetites of the affluent. But it’s hard to find either the needy or the greedy in Amos’ rhetoric today. There is so much rage.

Anglicans and Episcopalians know something about religious rage, particularly the kind that obscures some and victimizes others in sanctimonious shouting matches among a fractured communion. Each side has their own prophets shouting, “Go back where you came from and take your theology, your prophecy with you.” Each side has prophets of doom and gloom like Amos saying the wrath of God is coming and coming on you. Each side prophesies the end of the other. Some prophesy restoration and reconciliation, but their voices are so hard to hear above the din.

Meanwhile, there are broken, bleeding bodies lying in the streets as religious partisans pass them by. The story of the Samaritan Jew who cares for a Judean Jew who does not acknowledge him as a fellow Jew is a commentary on the theological boundaries in Amos. 

The exile called for by Amos and his God came to pass. The Assyrians attacked Samaria, Israel’s capitol 200 hundred years after Judah became a sovereign state with Jerusalem as its capitol, and they carried away everyone that someone thought was important into exile. The rest of the people of Samaria, poor, unskilled, undesirable, were left behind and the Assyrians transplanted people from Babylon and other conquered cities: Cuthah, Avva, Hamath, and Sepharvaim who lived with and eventually married the unwanted remnant of the Samarian people.

The diverse inter-ethnic, multicultural, multilingual community had so many religious practices that a priest from Beth-El (one of those old sanctuaries sneered at by Amos) was sent to teach the new Samarian community how to worship the God of Israel properly. And like all immigrant, colonized and blended peoples, they developed a form of their religion that reflected their identity and experience.  Their descendants became known as the Samaritans. And their Judean neighbors never let them forget that their ancestors were not even good enough to be kidnapped; they thought of them as leftover, half-breed converts. Samaritan Judaism is still practiced today.

And according to Rabbi Yeshua ben Miryam l’Natzeret, Rabbi Jesus, Mary’s son with the questionable parentage from Nazareth, the theological divide between Judean and Samaritan Jews pales beside the artificial boundary between neighbor and stranger.

Jesus knows that in the most technical sense, one’s neighbor is one with whom you share cultural, religious and/or familial ties. The ancient Israelites were under no compunction to treat the Canaanites, Hittites, Hivites, Amorites, Jebusites or any other “-ites” as their neighbors. The Torah gave the Israelites permission to go to war with the “-ites,” to enslave the “-ites” and if they saw a woman or even a girl among the “-ites” who caught their fancy they could abduct her and break her in as a wife - without her consent - under certain circumstances.

By virtue of the significant differences between the two Judaisms, the priest and Levite were correct in their conviction that the Samaritan was not a neighbor in the sense in which they had been taught the meaning of the word as it is used in the Torah, the first five books of the bible that are so much more than “law” as the scripture scholar testing Jesus is so much more than a “lawyer.”

The Judean Jews saw Samaritan Judaism as tainted by their multicultural heritage. The Samaritan Jews saw Judean Judaism as tainted by the experience of exile - first the Assyrian exile and eventually the Babylonian deportation. As the Samaritans remained in the land, they preserved a practice independent of the proclamations of prophets like Amos. In fact, the Samaritan bible doesn’t include Amos or any of the prophets. The Torah is their only bible and Moses and Miriam are their only prophets. And there are some differences between the two Torahs. 

The Samaritan woman in John’s gospel reminds Jesus of the differences between the two Torahs over which mountain is the navel of the world, the place where God chose to be worshipped, Mt. Gerazim as called for in Deuteronomy or Jerusalem as called for by David and Solomon. Jesus offers her eternal life and she takes it and runs to preach his gospel of a God beyond borders.

The two Torahs do agree that neighbors are not the only ones to whom God’s people have ethical obligations. And this is the heart of Jesus’ parable, rightly - beautifully - perceived by the Torah-sage. The Samaritan Jew doesn’t need the prophetic tradition of Amos to do the right thing. He has the Torah which they share - albeit in different versions. The answer to the question, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” is found in the Torah and repeated in the Gospel:

“You shall love the One your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind (from Deuteronomy 6:5); and your neighbor as yourself (from Leviticus 19:18).” 

According to Mark, Jesus is the one quoting scripture here and begins with the Shema, “Hear O Israel the Holy One your God, the Holy One is One.” In Mark, Jesus also proclaims that the Torah-scholar is not far from the reign of God. In all of the accounts of this story, even when disconnected from the parable that follows, it is complete devotion to God that is the secret to life. And the only way to demonstrate that love is to love all whom God loves.

The Samaritan Jew in Jesus’ parable demonstrates complete love for God by loving those whom God loves even if they don’t love him. In so doing, he who was once a stranger has become neighbor. 

I have never liked the title “the Good Samaritan.” It sounds condescending to me. It sounds as though it is expressing surprise that a Samaritan could be good, like “the Good Thief.” How might we rename this story? Xenophobic Religion? The Problematic Priest? True Crime in the Big City? Won’t You Be My Neighbor? The Way to Eternal Life? 

In the translation of the Gospel that I prepared from Greek and Hebrew versions of the story and read earlier, Jesus asks the master of Torah studies, my fellow biblical scholar, “Which of these three, do you think, became a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” This “becoming” verb is the “genesis” verb. It is the “Let-there-be” verb in the Greek scriptures of the early Christians.

The possibility of transformation, becoming more than we are, more than we were raised to be by culture, society, religion, race, ethnicity, gender, orientation or ability is the gospel in the Gospel. If we do this we will live.

One final note, Jesus modifies the “you-shall-love,” verse from Deuteronomy by adding a category for loving God with one’s mind, understanding or intellect. This makes sense in a world in which Greek philosophy is being articulated as the highest of intellectual pursuits. In that context it would be unreasonable to proclaim a religion that does not account for the intellectual capacities of human beings. I argue that today Jesus would add “You shall love the Holy One your God with all of your deoxyribonucleic acid.”

To those still asking in the words of the Judean Biblical scholar, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” I answer as did Jesus:

You shall love the One your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, with all your mind and with all your DNA; and you shall love the stranger as your neighbor, even as you love yourself.” And I believe Jesus says to us, “Beautiful answer; do this, and you will live.”

In the Name of the Author, the Word and the Translator. Amen

11 July 2010

Church of the Redemption

Southampton PA

Luke 10:25 (After Jesus and his disciples celebrated the return of the seventy,) a Torah scholar stood up to test Jesus. “Rabbi,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 26 He said to him, “What is written in the Torah? What have you read?” 27 He answered, “You shall love the One 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.” 28 And he said to him, “Beautiful answer; do this, and you will live.” 

29 But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” 30 Taking up the question, Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him down, and went away, abandoning him, half dead. 31 By chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32 So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii - two days’ wages, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ 36 Which of these three, do you think, became a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” 37 He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”  



A God without borders? How did you come up with this title? Do you have any more articles?



Thank you Wil.  You took that story to a new depth for me.......