Some time ago, I wrote a brief column considering the Augustinian hermeneutic of love. That is, the real question to ask in viewing any scriptural text is, “How does this relate to my love of God and my love of neighbor?”. I was amazed at the amount of pushback it received. Some evangelicals attacked the idea of a hermeneutic of “love” as though by saying the word, one was encouraging license.
Predictably, confessional Lutherans attacked the idea simply because it was not “their” hermeneutic of Law and Gospel. Then, of course, there were the dispensationalists and covenant theologians, some of whom posited that we had to place even the Sermon on the Mount, or the summary of the law (the love of God and neighbor), within the proper covenant or dispensation to understand what Jesus was really saying and who he was addressing, almost echoing the Lutherans in dividing the discourse into warnings and promises either related, or, conversely, unrelated to us.
I’m wondering… what are we so afraid of?
I think part of what we are afraid of is that Jesus actually meant what he said. What he said was not shaded or nuanced. It was direct and plainly stated for all to hear – Jews and Gentiles alike. It was surely understandable to his listeners in real time, as it was to the apostolic writers in the Gospels and the later epistles. It was plainly understood by the Church of the post-apostolic and patristic eras, as can be seen by even a cursory reading of the multiple texts of those periods. Today, however, we simply don’t want to hear it, so we kill the plain intent of the Gospel through a thousand and one exceptions.
So why is it that we run from a simple hermeneutic centered around the love of God and neighbor? Perhaps it is because it is not theoretical. It is not complicated. It is simple and easily understood.
It is similar to our reaction to the story of the Good Samaritan that followed the summary of the law. Now, I’m fully willing to admit that there might indeed be layers of meaning in this story. It could be an allegory in which Christ is the outsider, and the one who pays the price for the restoration of the man who has been set upon by sin and the Prince of this World, etc. It could, however, be a straight forward story in which he asks us, “which of these three are you?”. Are you the Levite, the upper class of society, who trusting in your lineage and position cannot be bothered to stop and give assistance? Or, are you the priest, concerned about your religious duties, afraid of ritual impurity, and considering your service to God in the Temple to be of greater importance than helping this wounded man who had been left for dead at the side of the road? Of course, we know that what he wants us to do is to imitate the actions of the Samaritan.
Yet, even here we can miss the point. We spend much time on the “outsider status” of the Samaritan and how Jesus was indicating that the real neighbor is the one who, no matter their origin or background, helped the wounded traveler. Yet, even here, we distance ourselves from what the Samaritan actually did… not what he talked about, or theorized about, but what he did. It is interesting to note, that Christ is very specific about what he did… and why.
In the story, Christ says the Samaritan “saw him”. He didn’t just see a half-naked, bloodied body at the side of the road threatening his social status or his ritual purity, he saw a person. Christ even tells us the how and the why of what impelled him to see a person. The Samaritan had taken pity on him. It was an emotional response borne out of an inner set of values. He did not reference Scripture as to what the Torah said he should do in such a situation. He used his God given humanity to make his decision. The story tells us that he went to the half dead man. He likely did not know if he was dead or alive. He had to go out of his way. He probably had to see if he was still breathing. He had to look him in the eye to see if the light of life was still present. He could not have known his condition if he had not gone to him, entered into his world, his pain, his suffering. The Samaritan was not a physician, as far as we know, but he did what he could, there and then. Although he was not prepared for such an encounter, he took what he had available, oil and wine to cleanse the wounds, bandages, likely made from his own clothes, and did all that he knew to do. Finally, he had to physically lift the bloodied half dead man on to his own donkey, giving up his own comfort, his own plans and schedule, his own convenience. Even when he was able to get him to an inn, Jesus tell us that the Samaritan took care of the injured man himself, apparently through the remainder of that day and through the night, for it is not until the next day that he made arrangements for the man’s continued care with the innkeeper. He paid the innkeeper the equivalent of two days wages to see to the wounded man and made a promise to take care of any extra expenses upon his return. What we see is an encounter becoming a relationship.
We may also note what we do not find in this story. There is no recrimination or blame laid upon the victim… after all, wasn’t he at fault for traveling such a dangerous road alone, without protection? Moreover, there is no reproof with regard to the recklessness of the Samaritan who, it seems, was the most affluent of all the characters in the story. After all, he had a donkey, money and possessions with him. He risked all by stopping. What if the robbers were still about? Was he prudent in taking such a risk? Yet there is no reproof indicated with regard to either man.
Instead, following the telling of the story, Jesus asks just one question, “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”
The answer, came from a so-called expert in the law, “The one who had mercy on him”. Jesus ended the discussion. He did not expound upon what the priest and the Levite did, or did not, do. He did not expound upon the carelessness of the traveler or the seemingly reckless actions of the stranger . Instead, he merely refers to the mercy shown by the Samaritan, and simply says, “Go and do likewise”.
This is not a matter of Law and Gospel, or of dispensations, or of covenants. It is the straight forward application of what it means to love God and to love our neighbor. It is to reflect in ourselves and in our actions the nature of God as merciful. Without the quality of mercy, our theological schemes are bankrupt and without meaning. They are truly “tinkling brass and clanging cymbals” filling the air with noise as we shout our slogans and positions to no one but ourselves.
Yet, I think there is even more to learn here. Mercy is not found in the abstract. It is only found and experienced in definitive encounters, often on the periphery of our “comfort zone”, and those encounters usually involve risk. Indeed, any real and/or meaningful encounter with “the other” involves risk, but that is where true practical theology takes place. When one extends mercy, there is no guarantee that it will be returned in kind. There is no promise that it will be met with gratitude or a successful outcome. Yet each encounter allows us not only to reflect more fully on the the love of God and our neighbor and the meaning of mercy, but to practice it as well. Moreover, the exercise of true mercy is not confined to the “theologically correct”, as the Samaritan shows us.
We live in a time in which mercy is out of fashion. Belligerence appears to be the “flavor of the month” and seems to have been so for some decades. We see it in the media. We see it in politics. God help us, we even see it among Christians in theological discourse. We are constantly divided by, “I know the truth and you don’t”. Dialogue is reduced to posturing. All around us we witness the corruption of power set over against the powerless. Winning is extolled, often at any price. Even cruelty of expression can be excused. On the other hand, to be considered a victim (or victimized) is a slur, set alongside the epithets of “losers” and “snowflakes”. Too often, victims are blamed and shamed (often, it must be said, to shield perpetrators). Those with opinions different than ourselves are not listened to, but are disregarded or, in the worst cases, bullied into silence. This is as true in the Church as it is in society… and it is shameful. Instead of truly encountering one another in dialogue and extending love and mercy, we reduce the other person (or persons) to the status of a “position” or a “problem”. We disregard their essential humanity and, in so doing, we set aside the value of one, no matter how wounded, disfigured or wrong in our eyes, was made in the image of God. In that disregard, we set aside the truth of the Incarnation that Christ assumed humanity – all humanity – to himself when he was born in the Bethlehem manger.
I’ll stick with Augustine’s hermeneutic of love, but I think that I’ll add something that should be the result of that hermeneutic… Mercy.