We’ve found a witch!

I sat on a couch in the front parlor, looking out the vast window to the courtyard beyond. A number of homes surrounded this particular yard, their front doors and windows all opening out in to it, but there was no activity outside. No children playing, no families outside. I was disconcerted.

“Hey, baby,” the beautiful woman between me and the window addressed me. I looked down at her, my eyes adjusting to the darker room and the backlight on her. “You’re welcome to look, but you have to pay. House rules.”

“Yes, thanks, sorry” I said, stammering a bit. “I’ll, um, just go in there.” I motioned to the room off to the side, and made my way there. Hospitality was hard to find in this particular town, and only the madam of this particular… establishment had welcomed us. The room off to the side of the front parlor, well hidden behind a single door, had a couple beds and a couple couches. There were piles of things present on the few counters in the room, and my bag and another next to the two couches. Apparently the house had a cook with a son, and he lived in the room, as well. But we hadn’t seen him. Yet.

I kicked back on the couch, my feet up on the end table, and pulled out a book. I started flipping through it, but couldn’t find my place and knew I had already read the section before me. I could read it just fine, but it all became jumbled in my head. Confused.

The boy walked in, then, no doubt alerted to our presence by his mother.

“What’s it like, outside?” I asked. He looked at me, not quite understanding. “I mean, how did you feel outside? Normal? Warm? Cold? Disturbed? Did the hairs on your neck stand up?”

“Um… well, now that you mention it, I did feel a bit sick. Nauseous, maybe?”

I nodded my head, and heard some noise. I looked out the small window and saw that there was a family walking out into the square, crossing it to another home. A second group of people was out in one corner of the square, chatting and playing. 

“What changed?” I said out loud, scanning. “Ah, yes,” I said, as I saw Jason now standing on the porch looking out on the courtyard. He was still wearing his parka, the furred hood drawn up over his head. I hopped up from the couch and went through the parlor – the woman on the couch watching me as I passed – and out the front door. I stepped up directly beside Jason, who was more learned than I.

“What am I seeing?” I asked, nodding toward the courtyard. Jason didn’t turn his head, but looked at me sideways and nodded. Then, looking forward, he drew a square in front of him. I knew, from his perspective, he had just drawn a line around the courtyard before us; a simple conjuration, to provide clarity of sight.

I watched, and as I did so a group began to materialize walking at an angle across the yard, bisecting it into two triangles. Two youngish women led what was a large group, at least eight people wide and many, many long. As they became more clear, I realized that beyond the two young women at the lead, they were all children; different ages and different heights, but all children.

The families that had been on the square rushed off, and I heard doors slamming. I don’t know that they could also see what Jason and I now saw before us, but they no doubt stopped feeling the courage Jason’s presence had provided and bolted.

I set the book that was still in my hands down on the porch, and stepped forward. The crowd of children wasn’t looking at us, just ahead as they slowly walked across the courtyard. I grinned, and snapped my fingers loudly. The children’s heads all turned toward us.

“Now you’ve done it,” Jason said beside me.

We both stepped down off the porch, and began to walk toward the group of children. I headed toward the girls at the lead, at first, but noticed that Jason hadn’t. He was moving more toward the back of the bulk of children before us, so I adjusted and moved toward the front but not the young women at the lead. Things were never as easy as they seemed, even with clearer sight, so I realized that the women were likely not the cause of this situation.

“Good morning, children!” I called out as I walked toward, and then among, them. They circled around me, crowding me. “Hello, there! Good to see you! It’s a holiday, today, you know?”

I kept calling out jovially, without making any clear declaration of what I was doing. But I was scanning the children. Finally, thinking I saw what I was looking for, I moved in that direction. I continued to cry out jovially, hoping to also catch Jason’s attention, “Well, children, there’s some one I’m looking for. She would be about this high,” I held my hand next to a child beside me, up to her hairline and about the lower part of my chest. “But, she’d be older than all of you. Yes, someone like…”

I scooped up the short, old woman before me. “You!” I cried, grasping her tightly around the waist. She wore a kerchief over her head, but her aged, wrinkled face betrayed her age. As did her right leg, which was an old, moldy branch of wood to just above her knee. She struggled, but I had surprised her and held her fast.

I heard Jason’s voice come from across the children, the sound of a smile in it as he affected an English accent. “We’ve found a witch! May we burn her?”

“Burn her?” I replied, also affecting a (bad) accent. “How do you know she’s a witch?”

“She’s made of wood!” he replied, and fell to laughing at his own wit. He snapped his fingers, and I saw off to the corner of the courtyard a wood pile that suddenly caught fire.

I would have laughed, too, but realized that the children had all turned to face me. And they weren’t laughing. Indeed, some of them had their eyes narrowed in anger. I pulled the witch close to my side, but perpendicular; it reminded me of carrying a log, or an extra long football.

The children rushed toward me. I dodged and weaved, like a quarterback breaking free of an oncoming rush of… not-quarterbacks. (Yes, I know that’s now what they would be called; but sports were never my strong point, even before I took up wizardry.) The old hag’s face looked up at me as I ran, and scowled at me, revealing sharp fangs. “Ewww,” I said, knocking an overanxious small boy to his bottom and breaking free of the crowd.

Just ahead of them, I dashed toward the fire. The hag began to let out a high-pitched cry that made the hairs on my neck stand up. Oddly, while they were still charging behind me, the children never made a sound.

I neared the now-raging bonfire, and tossed the witch into it, the momentum of my run helping hurl her into the flames. She caught on fire, instantly, flames engulfing her and then exploding out of her in a bright blue fireball.

I weaved to the side of the fire and turned to face the children I thought were still behind me. But I saw they were all standing still, and many of them were fading away. Half a dozen children, some seemingly well and some famished and emaciated, stood in the courtyard. 

There were gasps and cries all around, and doors swung open, hitting stops. We watched as women and men rushed out into the courtyard, wrapping some of the children in enormous, weepy hugs. Others kneeling down beside them, taking their hands, nodding and trying to lead them elsewhere.

Jason strolled through the happy reunions toward me, his eyes on the fire. When he neared me, he nodded. We then walked back toward the whorehouse we were calling home for the night. 

 

(both a _quick_ free-write, and a recap of the last dream I had last night)

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At Church… we Try

We went to worship this past Sunday in a small, rural church. (It was the third church we’ve visited since beginning our sabbatical, actually. The first two were in a major city and a suburb, respectively.) 

Worship Sunday was… familiar, recalling our days serving similar churches in rural Illinois. Volunteers played piano and organ together to classic hymns, adding the “A-men” at the end of each; wooden pews with long cushions lined in two rows down a narrow church; church leaders filled in for the vacationing pastor, adding “special” gospel music by a few groups and reading all four of the lectionary passages; a lay leader read his “sermon”; visitors were invited to identify themselves.*

Several times during worship, I thought to myself, “they are trying.” The church’s members and leaders were trying, but they lacked the strength and charisma I am accustomed to in other settings. They stumbled in their extemporaneous statements. The sermon both lacked the good news of the gospel and was completely disconnected from the four lectionary readings that preceded it (it was, in fact, a collection of different authors’ statements about world hunger and very little call to action in response). I did not experience a sense of wonder for two “folksy” versions of songs offered as special music, and the three classical hymns chosen for worship were played so slow they were difficult for me to sing. 

There was a moment early on when the congregation was invited to have a moment of silence, where I began to feel a sense of connection; where I began to feel immersed in the greatness of the wonder of God even as bulletins rustled around me. But it was cut short too soon for me…

The service was, though familiar, a far cry from the worship we had experienced the previous three Sundays in two other churches. Indeed, more than once during worship, I felt pulled out of my desire to connect with God and was distracted.

But, even so, in the midst distraction, I was aware over and again that the people around me were trying. And in an almost Whitman-esque moment of insight, I realized what was happening. You see, Walt Whitman has written two poems that often come to mind: “Miracles” and “When I Heard the Learned Astronomer.” 

In each of these poems, Whitman gives insight in to our predicament. We live in a world where we are surrounded by wonder –

As to me I know of nothing else but miracles,

– but when we try to synthesize or explain them –

to add, divide, and measure them

– the experience is not the same as actually stepping outside

In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look[ing] up in perfect silence at the stars.

Here’s what I realized Sunday morning:

Sometimes we catch momentary glimpses of such intense grandeur that our words, and even our best photographs, are insufficient to portray the wonder that envelops us.

Sometimes we experience such an overwhelming sense of our deep connectedness to the world around us and to others within it** that even our best generosity and hospitality fail to truly convey the gratitude we feel.

Sometimes we are privileged to know such kairos moments where the otherwise hidden divinity that imbues all the universe around us manifests in such a way that our limited senses catch but a glimmer of the light they so desire to know.

And here’s the thing: When we experience some form of the wonder of the world, we have a desire to share it with others.

Compare that while today we take pictures and videos and show them to others on our phones, previous generations filled carousels of slides to show at parties, and before that drew and painted grandiose landscapes to share with others what they had experienced firsthand.

In the same way, when we experience the wonder and grace of forgiveness, or Christian community, we want to draw others to experience the same. We try. Our efforts at welcoming others, at bringing a sense of the divine to worship, of helping lift people’s spirits are all just attempts to share something. To point in a direction and say, “hey, this happened to me. Maybe you can experience it, too! And, even if not, let me do what I can to share just a part of it with you.”

That’s something wonderful, and generous, in and of itself.


*Ugh! No! I insisted we stay anonymous…

**Such moments are often sudden and unbidden, but welcome. Those times when the world’s colors appear differently; where our vision of the world is through a sheen of awe and wonder.

Worn Boots

I have a pair of boots that I love. I bought them mid-2002, in part to use for a Vaudeville show I was in and in part to be my “grown up shoes” for daily wear (at the time, I had my Sunday shoes and several pairs of Converse All-Stars, including a black monochrome pair for special occasions). They were tan once upon a time, but after 16 years they’ve changed; after all, they are now old enough to drive themselves! As I shifted appointments in 2003 to a more rural church in central Illinois, they became my primary shoes as I made house calls, sat in combines, and drove my short-lived CJ-7.

They’re my favorite pair of shoes. Ever. They fit like nothing else before, or since. I’ve worn them through Illinois and Arizona and all parts in between; I have walked miles in DC and London in them, they’ve traversed the halls of the Smithsonian and Wesley Chapel; they’re even with me as I make my way along the Pacific Northwest and Alaska during this sabbatical time. I’ve travelled untold miles in these boots and they haven’t let me down. I pull them on with a pair of jeans and I feel taller, and indestructible.

But they have worn. Oh, my, how they’ve worn! Over the years I’ve had them re-soled multiple times, patched, re-welted, and I even had the cracked interior leather of the upper boot completely replaced. I’ve done everything I and my favorite “shoe guys” can imagine or do to lengthen their effectiveness.

But it’s becoming clear, my boots’ time is just about up. Too many new holes, cracks, and tears are appearing (oddly, mostly on the right boot!) to be patched effectively and the interior leather at the toes is disintegrating…

I don’t know why I’ve fought so hard against allowing the useful days of my boots to come to an end. Perhaps it is because despite having both three other pairs in the years since, no other pair has ever fit or worn quite as well. Perhaps it is nostalgic; because the boots are linked to special memories, travels, and experiences. Perhaps it is because I’m cheap, and tried of buying a new pair only to be disappointed. Perhaps I fear if not these boots, then never any other boots…

Maybe it’s some of all of the above. It’s hard to let go of the outer form that has held me, sustained me, and helped me travel so far. But it’s become clear, their days are numbered, and I had better give attention to what is next. I can’t patch or fix these boots any more; so in the very near future, I’ll need to set them aside to try something new.

(Oh, and by the way, I’ve worn the United Methodist Church since infancy. It has fit me well. I love its Wesleyan heritage, breadth of theology, intention of inclusivity. But it has worn. It’s been restructured and re-imagined, but there are breaches today no patching will fix…)

Two Artists

This is a story of Magpie’s, who is happy to tell tales if you are patient to listen. It is about Raven, though he is quiet and modest and doesn’t volunteer stories about himself unless you ask him directly.

Long ago our world was still young and people and animals talked freely with one another. One evening, two young men – Verdaz and Orgullo – were walking together to their village. They passed through the great forest where they came upon Old Raven, perched high in a tree.

“Greetings, Raven,” said Verdaz.

“Hail, great Raven,” said Orgullo.

“Good evening, Verdaz and Orgullo,” said great Raven. In those days, Raven not only spoke but knew the names and natures of all creatures.

“You look majestic in that tree, dear friend,” Verdaz said to Raven. “The evening light fills the skies behind you with beautiful strokes of color.”

“Thank you, Verdaz,” spoke Raven.

“Raven, if we are well met, would you give us a gift?” asked Orgullo.

“What would you have?” asked Raven.

“You have the power to create,” Orgullo replied. “I would very much like that power, too.”

Verdas added, “Yes, great Raven to create such beauty as we see tonight would be a wondrous gift.”

Raven looked at the two young men, and saw them well. Raven saw what was in their hearts as much as what was on the outside.

“I see what beauty you may create, and it makes me glad,” Raven said. He did not share that he saw other things, too. “As a gift from me to you, this ability to create will not be something I can take back from you. I will give you this gift with these words of wisdom, so heed them well: Know that despite the beauty you may see around you, you can only create from the beauty within you.”

And with that Raven flapped his mighty wings, and a wind blew across the young men as Raven lifted into the sky and flew away. Raven flew to alight on a high mountain, where he could watch what might become of them.

Verdaz and Orgullo spoke happily as they walked to their village. They both spoke of the many beautiful things they hoped to create. They imagined figures carved of stone and wood, depicting others who filled their world: raven, of course, but also wolf and bear, eagle and rabbit. They talked of shaping soapstone, jade, and abalone shell. They imagined beautiful towering totems and intricate baskets. They promised to share their works with one another.

The next day, as the sun cleared the eastern mountains and filled the valley with light, they both set about creating their first item.

Verdaz took a lump of obsidian about the size of his palm, and he carefully chipped and carved at it all day. Meanwhile, Orgullo worked more quickly. He took a large piece of driftwood and chipped away at it. Then he took soapstone and carved and chipped at it. Finally, he took an old walrus tusk that he carved.

In the evening, when the sun was low, the two young men met to compare their work.

Orgullo shared his work first. He showed Verdaz that he had crafted a man’s head out of the driftwood; a head that looked quite a bit like his own. From the soapstone he had made the figure of a man. And finally, on the walrus tusk, he had carved two men standing before the rising sun. “It is us, dear brother,” Orgullo told Verdaz, “at the start of a new day.”

Verdaz took his time looking at the beautiful work that Orgullo had created, admiring it.

Then it was Verdaz’s time to share. Unlike Orgullo, Verdaz had only created one piece. He had intricately carved the black obsidian into Old Raven. It was beautiful and well crafted.

Orgullo saw the beautiful work that Verdaz had created, but he did not feel admiration. Instead, Orgullo felt a desire to create his own raven.

The next day both young men went back to work creating new things, as they had the day before.

Verdaz spent his day working on a large cedar log. He chipped and carved at it with skill and unusual speed.

Meanwhile, Orgullo sought out a piece of obsidian larger than that of Verdaz’s. Once found, he chipped and carved at it, working to create his own raven. Halfway through the day, he set it aside to find another, larger piece of obsidian the he carved and carved until sundown.

It was just past sundown when Orgullo came and met Verdaz. Verdaz stood beside a towering, majestic totem. Raven sat at the top, his wings outstretched, with wolf and bear below him. On one side the sun rose over the eastern mountains, and on the other it set into the western sea.

Orgullo looked at the mighty totem, but not with admiration. Instead, he felt angry, and wanted to make his own.

Meanwhile, Verdaz looked at and marveled at Orgullo’s two carvings of Raven. Both were well rendered, but Verdaz was puzzled to see Raven’s face scowling. And there were deep cut marks that marred the wings of each carving. Still, he shared his admiration for what Orgullo had created.

Night came and went, and one more time the two young men went to work.

Orgullo found a cedar log mightier than that of Verdaz’s, and he set to carve his own mighty totem. He worked ferociously, with greater speed than has ever been seen since. Meanwhile, Verdaz carved the antler of an elk and forged a piece of steel, crafting a beautiful knife.

Sundown came, and Verdaz had to go look for Orgullo. He was still at work in the waning light, furiously carving his mighty totem. Verdaz viewed the totem, admiring it, but also conflicted by it.

Orgullo had indeed carved a mighty totem, taller than Verdaz’s. At the top stood Orgullo himself, the sun his crown, as he stood upon the shoulders of Verdaz! Orgullo’s face, in the totem, was carved with a smile, but did not seem happy. Indeed, Verdaz thought it looked more like the face was sneering. Verdaz’s face, meanwhile, though it looked content had clearly been scarred by the carving blade. Verdaz was standing atop Raven, whose wings were bent to the ground.

Verdaz shared the knife he had carved with Orgullo. “It is for you, brother,” he said. The knife’s metal blade was curved and sharp, with the image of a bear carved into the metal to suggest its strength. The elk antler handle was intricately carved into the head of a wolf at the end. Never has there been such a beautiful knife in all the world.

Enraged, Orgullo took the knife and threw it to the ground, where he crushed it with a boulder; shattering the handle and bending the blade. Verdaz looked at his friend with shock. Orgullo turned his anger toward Verdaz, lifting the rock high above his head to strike him down. Just then Raven, who had been watching from the mountain, flew down and landed atop the tortured face at the top of Orgullo’s totem.

“Enough,” Old Raven spoke, his voice echoing like the thunder overhead. Both men stopped. Orgullo dropped the rock he had been holding off to one side, and his shoulders slumped.

“What has happened, dear Orgullo?” Verdaz asked. Orgullo hung his head in shame.

It was Old Raven who spoke next.

“I warned you both, ‘despite the beauty you may see around you, you can only create from the beauty within you.’

“Dear Verdaz, you see such wonders and have created them fresh from your own view. You honored me and my gift to you with your first carving. Then, your totem showed the glory of the day from the rising to the setting sun. And even as you crafted the most exquisite of knives, you thought only of sharing it with Orgullo.

But alas, dear Orgullo, each time you saw the beauty that Verdaz had created, you saw only that it was not of you. And you could not bear such a thought. Such pride marred your further creations, robbing them of beauty, scarring them with pride.”

“Yes, Old Raven,” Orgullo said, sadly. “I wanted my work to be better than Verdaz’s.” He paused for a few moments, and then added, “But it wasn’t. I am sorry. I am not worthy of your gift.”

Old Raven was quiet for a time, regarding Orgullo.

“I have given you the gift to create, which I would not take back even if I could,” Raven finally said. “But now I will give you both an additional gift, one that may help.”

A wind blew across the meadow, surrounding the boys. Raven spoke again. “I give you the need for patience. You may still create, bringing beauty into the world from the beauty within you; but you must take your time. In taking your time, dear Orgullo, remember to see that all around you is good. Do not worry that others may also create wonders. See what good there is, and celebrate that.”

And Old Raven flapped his wings and flew away. The next day the two young men rose and once again began to create, each taking their time and each thinking about the many good things in the world. And as time went on, both grew as accomplished artists who taught others how to see and depict the wonders of the world.

Holy Saturday and Contemporary Politics

The contemporary #MeToo and #NeverAgain movements are part of a watershed moment in American history. But, as much as I want to see positive change in relation to how we treat one another, neither movement will succeed at lasting effect if they rely solely on persuasion; real change occurs after we recognize rational arguments are not enough. Clouded by emotion, our natural inclination is to dig in, become defensive, and resist any idea or change counter to our expectation. In an anxious emotional system, change only occurs when individuals commit to persevere in their principles and in their connection with others.

We live in an age of incredible emotional divisiveness when it comes to politics, ideology, and even community involvement. We are surrounded by ideological lines anxiously drawn in the sand over which we will not cross, regardless of whether where we stand is solid or quicksand. Many of us might cry out over the divisions that surround us, but many also decry any attempt to bridge or eliminate those lines. We’re boxed in, by our own choice; and the emotional ties that bind our hearts cannot be unwound by logic. That’s not to say that change cannot occur…

Systems theory teaches us that positive change in an anxious system can happen; but it takes the commitment of a change agent to one’s principles and to remaining connected to others. While our natural inclination might be to isolate ourselves or withdraw from those with whom we disagree (and, side note, this is something social media allows too readily!), change occurs when we remain connected to others and committed to the values and principles we believe in. When change is introduced, the natural reaction of others in the environment (e.g. family, community, even nation) is toward defensiveness of the status quo, resistance to change, and even sabotage of the change agents’ work. (No doubt you could identify examples of each in modern news reports.)

Change is a type of death. What has been will be no more. And that’s where I think today’s commemoration of holy Saturday can give hope to the change agents in our world who are striving to persevere.

After Jesus’ death, there was a time of waiting. The disciples had lost their Master and, in their view, their hope that he was the Christ. Logic aside, including Jesus’ teachings about the resurrection; holy Saturday was about the emotional response to Jesus’ death.

Saturday is the day after change first occurs – be it positive or negative; sometimes we can’t really tell. But our hope is in resurrection, that after death God can bring forth transformed life.

Culturally, right now seems as though we are stuck in a prolonged holy Saturday. We’re waiting; and waiting isn’t always a passive experience. Some are waiting to take the next step – perhaps like Mary, Joanna, and the other women were waiting to anoint Jesus. Some are waiting, bound by their anxiety, fear, and loss – perhaps like the disciples gathering in a locked upper room. Some are waiting, strengthening their resolve to resist change – perhaps like Herod, Pilate, and the Pharisees.

And waiting alongside us? The Creator of all life. In the resurrection of Christ on Easter Sunday God shows that transformation and new life can occur.

We may be waiting; and our emotional turmoil acute. I am grateful for those who wait not in passivity, but actively maintaining and pursuing their principles toward a healthier world. And I am grateful for the power of resurrection that God can work in our lives and world. Radical, transformative change has happened before; and it will happen again.

Stone Hearts

stoneheartsThe season of Lent began last week, on Ash Wednesday. Which was also Valentine’s Day. Which was also the day of the most recent – at least as I’m writing this – school shooting, in Parkland, Florida. On a day that we are liturgically called to remember our finitude before God, we were forced to face our mortality amid the potential evils of our world.

Well before that day, Lynn had ordered purple stone hearts to give out during Ash Wednesday services. She saw a providential connection between the beginning of Lent and Valentines day, and one of the liturgical readings for the day; Ezekiel 11, which includes the following line:

I will give them an undivided heart and put a new spirit in them; I will remove from them their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh.
Ezekiel 11:19, NIV

Ezekiel repeats the idea later, in chapter 36:

I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.
Ezekiel 36:25-26

So we invited church members to carry these hearts of stone during the season of Lent, with the prayerful intent that God will be at work to change our hearts. That God’s Spirit will help us identify those portions of our heart that have become calcified by the pains of life or hardened toward others, and soften them.

God’s promise in Ezekiel is to transform us from within, that God’s will and intent will be manifest within us (reminiscent of a similar promise we know from Jeremiah). As a follower of Jesus, I have a good sense that God’s will involves greater grace and love than I generally know.

I admitted recently that I am naturally vindictive. I want justice, and punishment, for those who have wronged me! I don’t want to extend grace. But that’s not who I want to be, nor who I am called to be in Christ. So carrying a heart of stone for this season will help me to remember that.

And then… Parkland happened, and the stones took on a new meaning for me. The whole reason we have such evil in our world is because our hearts are hardened, particularly toward others. I believe the change we most want to see in our world is a radical change of heart. We desire a world where we can live in peace with one another; where we recognize the inherent value and worth of every other person and respect that.

My prayer remains that God will be at work within me, changing my heart of stone into a heart of flesh; but I also hope that as God works in me, I might be a part of the change I want to see in the world around me. That perhaps I can have an impact on helping others’ stone hearts to melt, and have an impact on the presence of evil in our world.

My Luke 10 Dilemma

For years I’ve struggled with how two gospels seemed to portray the same moment, the same exchange, in such radically different ways. Perhaps there is truth to some peoples’ assertions that each is a different encounter; perhaps truth to the idea that each author recalled the same exchange differently. My struggle has been with the radically different portrayal of the expert/teacher of the Law who asked Jesus about which commandment is the most important, found in Mark 12 and Luke 10.

In Mark, I have always and read that the teacher is portrayed fairly positively. He asks Jesus, Jesus responds, he affirms Jesus’ answer, and Jesus then gives him a positive word:

One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”

“The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”

“Well said, teacher,” the man replied. “You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.”

When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” (Mk 12:28-34a)

In this telling, the expert saw that Jesus gave a good answer. This seems to inspire him to ask the question burning in his heart (akin to the Samaritan’s woman question about worship in John 4), one he would ask of God if he could. And Jesus answers, and answers well. The expert sees the wisdom, agrees with Jesus, and Jesus speaks a word of affirmation we might all long to hear: “you are not far from the kingdom of God.”

I think these are words we long to hear, like another affirmation Jesus shares elsewhere – “well done, good and faithful servant.” A divine affirmation!

But in the gospel of Luke, I’ve always read/understood the character of the legal expert in a very different way. In this, he stands up to “test” Jesus. Jesus turns it around on him, and while he can answer the question himself, when Jesus affirms him, he seeks to “justify” himself; to prove himself right. In reply, Jesus shares the amazing story of the “good Samaritan”:

On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

“What is written in the Law?” he[Jesus] replied. “How do you read it?”

He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”

“You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”

(29) But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers…” (Luke 10:25-30a…)

After the story, Jesus asks the expert, “who was a neighbor to the man in distress?” And, of course, the expert responds, “the one who showed mercy.” To which we read Jesus’ exhortation, “go and do likewise.” In short, Jesus shares a story that tells the man “don’t worry about who is your neighbor; go and be a neighbor to others.”

As I prefaced, I generally have read this version from Luke as portraying the legal expert negatively. He was, as were others, trying to catch Jesus up in saying something inappropriate; in violating the Mosaic law, or their existing traditions. When Jesus affirms he does know what he should do, he wants to trap Jesus in sharing that his neighbor would be his fellow Israelites; he wants to “justify” his existing behavior; he wants to prove he is already righteous… because how could Jesus respond otherwise?

And yet, Jesus does respond otherwise. But, when I read Jesus’ response, there is no critique. There is no condemnation upon this questioner as he sometimes places on others who challenge or test him. No sense of exasperation in his response. He answers the question with a telling story, and then exhorts his listener to go and do likewise.

My friend Kevin made a comment in his podcast (LoFi Lectionary) about this story that put me in to researching the Greek word used in v. 29 and translated as “justify”: dikaios (dik’-ah-yos). It can be translated as “just, righteous, impartial” and often is used for “innocent.” It refers to being approved by God, one who observes divine and human laws.

So, it could be read as I have generally read it – that this was another self-righteous Pharisee who wanted to be affirmed that he was holy. BUT… it could be read another way.

I think it could be read, though, that he desired to be righteous; that he wanted to be right with God. Retranslated as such, v. 29 might read:

But he wanted to be right with God, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

Doesn’t that change the exchange? Suddenly it is no longer another nefarious Pharisee, but it is someone more like Nicodemus. Someone rooted in a tradition, but truly desiring to know and follow God. And Jesus’ response makes more sense: there is no critique, because none is needed. Jesus answers the question, with a radical and telling story, because here is someone who wants to be right with God, who truly is seeking. And when this one can identify who was a neighbor, Jesus encourages him to go forth and do likewise.

Maybe this reading is wrongly influenced by my own perspective. Maybe I’m reading Scripture, of late, with Pollyanna’s glasses. Perhaps it is because I want to see the good in people – and am tired of the spiritual people of Jesus’ day always being seen only in negative terms – that this slight variation in how a single Greek verb is translated has seemed so insightful to me.

But I find greater hope in the narrative this way. The story of the “good Samaritan” has always been read as intended to be challenging; to present to us the idea that goodness can come from unexpected places and people.

If I’m honest, I am one of those unexpected people. I know myself, my heart, my life; I know to some degree the darkness I’m capable of… and yet, I often find, through my (always growing) faith, sometimes I do good, instead. Sometimes I am patient with the kids rather than just short-tempered; sometimes I am gracious to others instead of just defensive; sometimes I am generous instead of selfish.

And perhaps, too, the expert is one of those unexpected people. Perhaps he, too, contained the seed of goodness – a true, heart felt desire for holiness with God. Perhaps there was hope, even for him. I prefer the narrative this way over just another self-righteous holy man trying to challenge Jesus…