Monday, May 30, 2011

What must I do to inherit eternal life?

Several things have struck me recently about Luke 10:25-37 (See the Good Samaritan page if you are unfamiliar). First of all, perhaps unlike the questioner of this story whose intent is to trap Jesus in his words, I really want to know what Jesus has to say in response to the question, “What is required of me?” When Jesus responds to the question with another question, “What does the law tell you?,” he seems to be saying, “Well, let’s start with what you know. Always strive to answer questions by piecing together those things you already know to be true.” Along with this man I could have answered easily, “Love the Lord you God and Love your neighbor as yourself.” Though for different reasons, Jesus’ affirmation that I’d answered correctly would not have satisfied me either. I too would have pressed further, “No, what I mean is, how much is enough?” Jesus responded with the Parable of the Good Samaritan.
Sometimes the Good Samaritan kind of love comes naturally. The most severe exchange I’ve witnessed so far between Romanians did not occur between sworn enemies but on a weekend rock-climbing trip between a mother and her child who had just dashed out in front of a car and was almost hit. The tremulous, high pitch of the mother’s scolding was unmistakable, even though my limited Romanian preventing me from catching each word. She just loves him so much.

Love toward non-family members often does not come as easily as love for family members. Volleyball has my allegiance for this reason. More than any other sport, I would argue, volleyball is a team sport. Thanks to the centrality of “volleying” to the game (in order to deliver the most powerful attack, at least two team members must be involved in every play), one team member simply cannot win a game single-handedly. Furthermore, perhaps only in as great a degree as tennis players, good volleyball players prefer to play against challenging opponents because (due to the speed and rhythm of play) only against teams of greater or equal ability is a team able to play its best. In volleyball, it is in one’s best interest to play with teammates and opponents who play their best.

A lot of people don’t appreciate this about the sport. A couple weeks ago while playing volleyball (to my delight, I’ve been able to play several times since arriving in Lupeni!) my teammates (inexperienced players) didn’t bother to pass to one another and congratulated themselves on scoring points with cheap shots, while our opponents (older and experienced) stuck to three-hit, quality volleyball. I wonder if God ever looks down at us on Earth, laughs pityingly and shakes his head saying, “If they would only see that it’s a better game when they play together.” Volleyball opens my eyes to the reality that often the gain of my neighbor is my own gain. Other times my eyes lie to me and say just the opposite: my neighbor’s gain is my loss.

Then life holds up a mirror to reveal the absurdity of my withholding love from others. Last week I was invited to an after school care center nestled among the red tile roofs and lacy curtains of what used to be the miners’ quarter (now predominantly Roma/Gypsy) of a neighboring town to teach dance. Only when the child care workers helping me instruct stomped their feet and bellowed, “Be quiet and pay attention!” at the children who, excited but not defiant, would squirm in anticipation of the next step, could I see, as if in a mirror, the absurdity of my own tendency to lose patience with the children. My Mom has warned me before, “When children make you mad, sometimes you have to realize that even if it feels like it, they’re not doing it to you.” Somehow, maybe because of the noise inside their own minds as they tried themselves to learn the dance, the day care workers became angry and short tempered at children who weren’t doing anything to them. I had to ask myself, how many times at dance class have I, certain that I had no patience or grace or smile or gentle voice left to give, been so caught up with my own limitedness that I cannot see the children’s deserving? So focused on the amount I’ve already drawn that I forget the unending supply of Love within me?

My Mom and I have discussed it before: just how far will you take this Christianity thing? Just how literally will you interpret commands to “give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you”? Or assertions such as “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me”? It all seems so extreme, so radical. Absurd, even. And it is.

I don’t know “how far” I will take it. But I’m not sure that “how far” is even the right question. The man asked Jesus for a measurement, and Jesus replied with a story. We ask “Who is my neighbor? For exactly which ones am I responsible in this world?” Jesus replies, “The person before you who is in need.”

Development Studies, like theologians in the tradition of Martin Luther, is concerned with numbers, minimum requirements. Peter Singer famously argued that, at the very least, “morality” requires a wealthy person to give aid to a person in need, so long as in giving it the person does not sacrifice something “of comparable moral value” and does not extend herself beyond the range of “marginal utility.” A logical argument! It’s only decent for a person who has more than enough to share what she has, and since she herself deserves a dignified life and would be no use to others if she compromised her own well-being, her giving is limited.

But Christians follow a self-sacrificing God who instructs followers to “take up your cross and follow me.” Maybe it’s not about logic. Maybe our “morality” cannot squeeze the whole scope of reality into its lens. Maybe it’s about more than merely “confessing with your mouth and believing in your heart.”

The life of Mother Maria Skobtsova, a communist sympathizer and an Orthodox counterpart to Catholic Dorothy Day, suggests as much. After her daughter died of influenza Mother Maria felt she must become “a mother for all, for all who need maternal care, assistance or protection.” She opened up a home in Paris where any who needed were welcome to stay and eat, and when Nazi’s would come in search of the Jews she sheltered, she would show them an icon of the (Jewish) Virgin Mary. Practicing a new type of monasticism she strove to eliminate “even the subtlest barrier which might separate the heart from the world and its wounds” and believed that love functioned as coins drawn from a supply that is never spent. Ultimately she died in a concentration camp just days before the Allies reached it.

Could this be the kind of love Christ had in mind? A reckless, even foolish kind? A determinedly inclusive kind? A sacrificing throughout-life-and-unto-death kind? “And we will become fools in Christ, because we know not only the difficulty of this path but also the immense happiness of feeling God’s hand upon what we do.”

I can get tired just thinking about all that work, anticipating all the expenditure. Could there be any joy in it? Once I got to hear Shane Claiborne speak, and he said that when people question his decision to give up all his stuff and live among the poorest folks in Philadelphia, he has to shake his head because they forget that in giving up everything, he’s gained the “pearl of great price.”

When Jesus’ questioner correctly identifies the Samaritan as the example of a loving neighbor, Jesus doesn’t say, “That’s right. Now you’ve got the golden ticket. Now you’ve found your loophole. Now your conscience can be silent.” No. He promises something more wonderful and whole.

“Do this and you will live,” He says.

1 comment:

  1. You are brilliant. Thank you. Let's do this next year. I've been thinking of you often, and missing you.