I’m just back from a couple of weeks down south as part of my role helping churches with their worshipping life. During my time I had a number of awesome conversations with some great people serving God in local congregations. One in particular stands out. The minister of this church was telling me how varied his congregation was. Recently a conversation had sprung up in this faith community about whether or not following the ‘golden rule’ wasn’t what it was all about. The golden rule is, ‘doing to others as you would have them do to you’ and it crops up in all the worlds major religions. On the face of it, it seems like a good starting place for a dialogue about what we have in common rather than what separates us.
Is the practice of compassion and goodness to others the baseline for all faithful expression? Is it an adequate replacement for the religious superstructures many of us are caught up in? I don’t know – but here are some thoughts.
I haven’t done any research to back this up, but my hunch would be that this notion of the the practice of compassion as being a fair swap for following Jesus (or is identical) is a belief that could only survive in places where people have money, choices and an abundance of freedom. You see, if ‘doing to others what we would have them do to us’ is the ground of all living it demands that you are in a position to do the ‘doing’. It insists that you be the protagonist. In fact it demands that everyone be a protagonist, initiating the ‘good things’ to others that we would like them to initiate towards us. (If you think about it, its kind of a backwards, spiritual capitalism….but thats just confusing).
The golden rule insists that everyone be in a position of power, and its understanding of compassion is not so different from the popular idea of charity – where we (the fortunate) help out those who are less well off.
The trouble is that the gospel of Jesus does not require everyone to be in a position of power. In fact, it seems to require the complete opposite. Those who are powerful with an abundance of freedom and choices seem to have the most difficulty getting in on what Jesus is doing (think the rich young ruler in Luke 18).
Yet, here we are, distilling the message of Jesus down to something that reinforces our position of power, rather than challenges it. Something’s wrong.
That ‘something wrong’ is easily seen in our interpretation of one of Jesus’ most famous parables, the Good Samaritan. Now (and here’s something I have researched) if you ask people what the main message of this parable is, in response you get, ‘be nice to other people.’ Immediately we assume the position of the helper. The powerful position. Problem is I’m not sure Jesus (or his first listeners) saw the story like this.
Here are the issues. Kenneth Bailey who knows Jesus’ parables about as well as anyone points out that the first person Jesus names in his parables is usually the person he wants his listeners to relate too. And in the Good Samaritan, it is not the helpful, generous, golden-rule-following Samaritan who enters first. It is a fool.
The parable starts with, ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho…’
First century hearers would have known immediately that A) only an idiot travels down that road on their own, and B) Jesus is calling me an idiot.
The second issue with the ‘this story is about me being the hero’ is that Jesus’ hearers were Jewish. And the hero of this story is a Samaritan. They were half bloods. As fierce as Draco Malfoy’s hate of ‘mudbloods’ like Hermione Granger in Harry Potter – so was the Jews hate of the Samaritans. So no Jew is going to let themselves be cast in a story as their sworn blood enemy. The choices aren’t actually very appealing in this story for a Jew. You can be an idiot who sets off on a solo journey he never should have. Or you can be one of two religious bigots, more concerned with ritual purity and religion than compassion and mercy, or you can be a mudblood Samaritan.
You see, no great options.
But Jesus is telling this story to convey a pretty central point to his whole gospel thing. You can’t be a helper until you’ve been helped. You can’t be a rescuer until you’ve been rescued. You can’t be a saviour until you’ve been saved (we begin to realise the New Testaments insistence that God raised Jesus from the dead, he didn’t raise himself). Jesus tells this story in such a way that our powerlessness becomes inescapable. We are the ones who set off on a dangerous journey on our own. It was foolish and misguided. The ones we thought would help us (organised religion) actually made us feel worse. Then we are rescued by one we have been taught to hate since birth, to be afraid of, look down upon and exclude. Turns out this is where God’s hides himself in the story. In the place of our enemy. Apparently Jesus is not talking about ‘loving your enemy’ from an academic distance. He has done it. He is doing it. He did it with us, with me, with you.
So you see – the gospel is not the same as being good to other people. Because the gospel doesn’t let us bring our riches in with us, all our status points, and symbols of wealth and power. The gospel asks that we find ourselves as the powerless one first, the one rescued when all hope seemed gone. That we were the fool and when we thought God was our enemy, he turned out to be our best friend.
So there you go. The gospel is a far richer story than the golden rule allows for. The gospel will undoubtedly bring us to a life of compassion towards others, but it asks us first to rest awhile in the place of God’s compassion towards us.
Worship helps us do this when it begins with God’s call and initiative towards us. It does this when brings God’s assurance of grace in contact with our confession of foolishness, selfishness and shortsightedness. While the golden rule demands a power form us that we don’t actually have, the gospel makes room for who we really are right now. That’s why its called ‘the good news’.
Here’s a song called, ‘Borderlands’ that picks up these themes. (You can even download for free!)