One of the things I love most about the gospels is the way that Jesus surprises us. Just look at the story of the Good Samaritan.
An expert in the law asks Jesus how to inherit eternal life. Jesus turns the question around on him and asks him what he thinks. The expert says that we are to love God with all that we are and then love our neighbor as ourselves. Jesus affirms the man’s answer.
Then the expert asks, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus responds with a story about a man who was beaten and robbed on a dangerous street. A priest and a Levite, two of the so-called “right kind of people,” pass right by the man. It is the Samaritan, of all people, who stops to help the beaten man. The Samaritan goes above and beyond to gently treat the guy’s wounds and put him up in a place to stay until he recovers.
A word about Samaritans here — they were not the “right kind of people.” At the time of this story, Samaritans and the people of Israel didn’t exactly see eye to eye. They worshiped in different places and generally had a high level of distrust and distaste for the other. For Jesus to choose the Samaritan to be the exemplar of a good neighbor must have shocked those listening to this story.
Jesus’ subversion of the way things are supposed to be suggests that the lines we draw to say who is in and who is out may not be God’s lines.
This type of social subversion by Jesus wasn’t just isolated to this parable. In the gospel of John we again see a Samaritan, but this time it’s a woman. Women didn’t have much status in Jesus’ time. And yet, Jesus engages her in a conversation that broadens our definition, once again, of who is in and who is out. We see strange folks in the crowd around Jesus in the gospels. He hangs out with sinners! He dines with tax collectors!
Jesus even defies expectations of who he was supposed to be. People expected the Messiah to be a great and powerful man by the world’s standards: a king or great military general who would lead the people in revolt against the powers that controlled them to set up a literal kingdom on earth.
Instead, Jesus is an itinerant teacher with no place to lay his head. He preaches an eternal kingdom not of this earth, based not on wealth and power, but on love. He is eventually put to death by the state but then surprises everyone when he defies death.
Someone wise once said that every time we draw a line in the sand, we find Jesus on the other side of the line. We Christians tend to identify as righteous: doing all the “right things,” attending church and Sunday School every week, as well as Wednesday fellowship suppers.
But if we are followers of Jesus, we are going to find ourselves in some awkward situations with folks who simply aren’t like us. He bids us come to a banquet with our bitter rival. He asks us to forgive those who wrong us. Jesus even gets in the way we catch someone doing something immoral and invites us to put down our stones. Every time we try to demonize the other and claim a moral high ground, Christ is there to surprise us.
Acknowledging that the image of God is present in everyone is difficult sometimes. Sure, it’s easy to say that God was present in the work of Saint Teresa of Calcutta or Saint Vincent de Paul. But what about the person who just cut you off in traffic? Or perhaps even more difficult — the person on the other side of the political debate from your chosen candidate? Can you see the image of God in them? Can you love them like you love yourself? Can you see the connection between loving them as yourself and loving the God who made you both?
Seeing God in the other has an annoying habit of getting in the way of our hatred. As we travel this path toward God, following Christ along the way, we will have encounters with those who are different from us and our response to them should mimic Jesus’ response — love, surprising grace and incredible compassion.
When we allow ourselves to see the other as Jesus, and then treat them as we would treat Jesus himself, the world will reverberate with love that echoes out and then back onto ourselves.
The Rev. Stacey Harwell-Dye is minister of community building at Centenary United Methodist Church in Macon.