Monday, July 15, 2019

Empathy, Ethics & "Inheriting" Eternal Life

St. Jerome, writing in the 4th Century, referred to the twenty-mile passage from Jericho in the Jordon Valley to Jerusalem as the Red Way or the Bloody Road; such was its notorious and dangerous reputation.  Beginning well below sea level and rising to the heights of the Holy City, a traveler climbed almost a mile in elevation during a day-long journey.  When Tom Coxe and I were there last September our bus strained at times with the grade even though we were on well-paved roads. 

There isn’t a single path from Jericho to Jerusalem, but many.  We walked a portion of a downhill trail following a ridgeline.  It was an easy decent, but we did not go as far as the end where there is an impossibly steep descent into the Jordon Valley.  The land itself is little more than a series of unimaginably barren, deep, deep ravines.  There is no way to image the dry, rocky landscape until you see it.

The path we walked most likely is not the route Jesus would have taken.  He, like most people of his day, walked up and down the Wadi Qelt, a dry streambed winding its way through the bottom of a ravine.  We could see for miles and miles in all directions from our vantage point at the top of the ridge, but down in the wadi, with its twists and turns, a traveler would have no idea what waited beyond the next boulder or bend. 

At the beginning of our walk our group was ambushed by a small band of locals hawking various wears.  In Jesus’ day the Bloody Road earned its name because of the countless number of ambush points it afforded for those who meant harm.  Those who sought to sell us a kufiya headdress or leather belt were a far cry from the bandits who preyed on people passing by on their way to or from Jericho.

In today’s Gospel reading a person approaches Jesus with a question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”  The text indicates his motive in asking is not entirely spiritual.  He wants to “test” Jesus.  Jesus, in turn, asks the person what he reads about this in the law.  “You must love God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind and you must love your neighbor as yourself.”  “Correct,” says Jesus.  “Do this and you will live.”

The questioner could have followed up by asking Jesus to elaborate on what it means to love God completely, but instead chooses to inquire about the other stipulation: “Who is my neighbor?”  Jesus responds by telling what is perhaps his best-known parable.  Even if you do not know the story or the source, the phrase “Good Samaritan” still stands in our day for a person who reaches out to help another in need.

Jesus sets his story in the Wadi Qelt.  Those listening know instantly this is a place of potential danger.  The robbers who fall upon the traveler may be the bay guys in the story, but they are not the villains.  Like the wadi, they are there to set the stage for the action that follows. 

The parable has four main characters – the victim, the priest, the Levite, and the Samaritan.  Although it is a small detail, it is important to note each is going “down”, meaning each person has left Jerusalem and is headed to Jericho.  They were moving from the sacred and holy to the secular and ordinary.  Today we might tell this part of the story by saying, “A certain person was on his way home from church when he was attacked and others who were on their way home from church passed him by.”

Far from being uniformed, morally bankrupt, or under-resourced, as a demographic priests and Levites are solid, educated, middle-class professionals who either work in the church or attend it on a regular basis.  They are upstanding people and solid citizens.  In a very real sense, they are not much different from you and me.   

They may have had legitimate reasons for passing by the victim.  Perhaps they had important business to attend and could not afford to be delayed.  Some note interacting with the injured person ran the risk of making them ritually unclean, thus rendering them unable to fulfill religious obligations until undertaking an elaborate process to address their defilement.  It is possible they are afraid of being attacked themselves and scurry pass to avoid trouble. 

A perceived threat has a powerful way of shaping a person’s ethical perspective and response to a situation.  It activates in us an ancient response for self-preservation at the expense of all else.  It diminishes our ability to recognize humanity and nullifies our ability to be compassionate. As fear saturates our spiritual being we become more and more self-concerned.  And as this happens we want our religious environment and teachings to validate our actions. 

Religion, at its worst, is a tool in the hands of those motivated mostly by self-interest.  How can I justify the things I do?  Where can I find happiness and peace?  What must I do to inherit eternal life?  From Jesus’ parable we learn he believes deeply devout people can and do use their religion to shield and shelter them from what matters most.  The tale-tell sign of such a person is his or her indifference to the suffering of other people.  When this kind of indifference becomes widespread it works is way into our political debates and even becomes a part of our social fabric. 

I sense in me a numbness to human suffering because I am incapacitated by its magnitude.  The priest and the Levite invite our scorn because they sidestep a person in need.  Our modern world makes us aware of so much more than the human suffering at our side.  We see need in our neighborhood.  We hear about it in our region.  We know about it throughout our nation.  We are aware of it around the globe in a way the people of Jesus’ day never were.  It is easy to understand why we want to build around us a wall of reasons and rationales to keep us from being overrun by the suffering of the world.

When Jesus tells a parable he invites us to see the world through the eyes of each character in it.  In the priest and in the Levite we recognize who and what we are not to be, and yet in them we see much of ourselves.  There are times when we engage the world as the Samaritan and through selflessness and self-giving become a conduit of amazing grace. 

How do we act and react more like the latter than the former?

Jesus invites us to see the world from the perspective of the victim.  He invites us to ask a simple question: If I was in his position how would I want to be treated?  Some may say by traveling alone he was asking for trouble and he got exactly what he deserved.  This may or may not be accurate, but as he lied there injured and bleeding I doubt he was hoping someone would come along to tell him why he was to blame for all his miseries.  Plain and simple, if any one of us was the victim in this story we would want someone – anyone! – to stop and help us. 

The ability to empathize – to put oneself in the position of another in order to see the world from his or her perspective – is at the heart and core of all morality and ethics.  And, according to what Jesus teaches in today’s lesson, it represents one half of what is required to “inherit” eternal life.  We fulfill the law as our thinking and actions shift from how a person’s situation impacts us and our life to imaging what the other person needs, wondering how we might be a part of the answer, and then acting upon it.