A Plea to the Church in America

White Crucifix

Through all the noise, confusion, opinions and fear, hear the voice of your Rabbi teaching you what it means to follow Torah.

 

 

 

 

A (Jewish) legal expert stood up to test (Rabbi) Jesus. “Rabbi,” he said, “what must I do to gain eternal life?”

(Rabbi) Jesus replied, “ What is written in Torah? How do you interpret it?”

He responded, “ You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.”

(Rabbi) Jesus said to him, “ You have answered correctly. Do this and you will live.”

But the Torah expert wanted to prove that he was right, so he said to (Rabbi) Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

(Rabbi) Jesus replied, “ A man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho. He encountered thieves, who stripped him naked, beat him up, and left him near death. Now it just so happened that a (Jewish) priest (of the Temple) was also going down the same road. When he saw the injured man, he crossed over to the other side of the road and went on his way. Likewise, a Levite came by that spot, saw the injured man, and crossed over to the other side of the road and went on his way. A Samaritan, who was on a journey, came to where the man was. But when he saw him, he was moved with compassion. The Samaritan went to him and bandaged his wounds, tending them with oil and wine. Then he placed the wounded man on his own donkey, took him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day, he took two full days’ worth of wages and gave them to the innkeeper. He said, ‘Take care of him, and when I return, I will pay you back for any additional costs. ’

What do you think? Which one of these three was a neighbor to the man who encountered thieves?”

Then the Torah expert said, “The one who demonstrated mercy toward him.”

Jesus told him, “ Go and do likewise.”

Certainly, Christians want to argue Jesus is more than a Rabbi, but hopefully, you will concede that he is no less. In fact, Jews did not just call anyone Rabbi. This is not a title one baddies about to be polite. It is a title for those that have studied under another Rabbi and have, in some measure, matriculated – for lack of a better word.

In this passage, from the gospel according to Luke, we hear a very ancient and common debate among Jewish Rabbis. When asked to clarify the right reading of Torah, Jesus quotes Leviticus 19:18, instructing the crowd to love their neighbor. This fusion between Deuteronomy’s instruction to love YWHW and Leviticus’ teaching to love your neighbor was common among Rabbis, and the expert in Torah put forth the “right” reading. However, when we read ancient Jewish writings, we find that they often debated what it meant to love your “neighbor,” and the expert in Torah is trying to debate this point with Rabbi Jesus. Rabbis often debated this point not because they were interested in obfuscating Torah, but, because of the peculiarities of the Hebrew language, the text was open to multiple readings.

The Hebrews did not write the vowels in antiquity, and this practice continues in Israel today. So, the English word “neighbor,” rendered in Leviticus 19:18, happens to be a Hebrew word whose root is just two consonants. Depending upon which vowels you choose to insert, the underlying Hebrew can be one of two options, so the LORD either commands the Israelites to love their neighbor or their enemy. The Jewish literature reveals that Rabbis offered other interpretive options between these polarities, as it appears this expert in Torah is attempting to do with Rabbi Jesus. And, like any good Rabbi, Jesus offers us a story in response to the challenge.

What is interesting about Rabbi Jesus’ story is the identity of the three characters. During this time Jews tended (no monolithic thinking here) saw themselves in three categories: Priests (in the line of Aaron and able to enter the Holy of Holies), Levites (who served in the Temple in lesser ways than the High priests), and all other Jews (who were still to be a Kingdom of Priests). So, when Jesus starts telling a story about how to interpret Torah and he begins with a Priest and a Levite, the expert in Torah would anticipate the last character to be a Jew. Not just any Jew, but a Jew who gets the right reading of Torah. The last character should be a Jew who will partake in the “life to come.” By the way, the “life to come” in Jewish terms was a very earth bound concept: Davidic Kingship, Temple, Land and Return from Exile. But, what a slap in the face, what an inversion of expectations, what a deconstruction! Not a Jew but an enemy of the Jew does Torah and participates in the “life to come.”

You have all been to Sunday School. You know at least something of the animosity between the Samaritans and the Jews. Romans were more tolerable as overlords. They were Pagans, and Jews expected little of them. But, the Samaritans had the Torah, at least part of it. The Samaritans claimed to worship YHWH, albeit on the wrong mountain. In other words, Samaritans were (or claimed to be) part of the tribe, the family, the blood line, and no hatred runs deeper than that towards family that has disgraced the name of the family.

“How do you read that ambiguous word in Torah, Rabbi Jesus?” the expert asks. Jesus is clear. It means you love your enemies. This interpretation of Torah is radical, it is risky, and it is required of students of Rabbi Jesus. If you look at early Church history – of all the things they got wrong – they understood this principle of Torah, sometimes.

In 165 CE, during the reign of Emperor Marcus Aurelius, a devastating epidemic swept through the Roman Empire. This first outbreak devastated the Empire, taking the lives of 25% to 33% of the citizens, including the Emperor himself. A second outbreak took place roughly 90 years later. The wealthy fled cities to their second homes in the country. Pagan priests abandoned the temples and cities. But, the Christians stayed. They became Samaritans. Enemies of the Empire – remember Rome often brutalized Christians – came to serve the sick and dying of the Empire. They risked their very lives living out Rabbi Jesus’ interpretation of Torah. The Bishop of Alexandria, Dionysus, wrote,

Most of our brother-Christians showed unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another. Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy; for they were infected by others with the disease, drawing on themselves the sick ness of their neighbors and cheerfully accepting their pains. Many, in nursing and curing others, transferred their death to themselves and died in their stead The best of our brothers lost their lives in this manner, a number of presbyters, deacons, and laymen winning high commendation so that death in this form, the result of great piety and strong faith, seems in every way the equal of martyrdom.

Nothing in scripture has been clearer for the students and followers of the Rabbi. Love is costly. Love is risky. Love is self-denying, even unto death.

“What is your point?” you ask. Fair enough, let’s get to it.

Yesterday, the House of Representatives passed a bill – 289-137 – called the American Security Against Foreign Enemies Act of 2015 (American SAFE). This bill is designed to restrict the admission of Iraqi and Syrian refugees to America by requiring extra security procedures. The bill would require the secretary of Homeland Security, the head of the FBI and the director of national intelligence to sign off on every individual refugee from Iraq and Syria, affirming he or she is not a threat. Additionally, the FBI director would also need to confirm that a background investigation, separate from the Homeland Security screening, had been conducted on each refugee. While Republicans have marketed this bill as a “pause” in the refugee program, all those familiar with the speed by which government agencies meet, discuss and find agreement on issues knows full well this bill prevents any further Iraqi and Syrian refugees into this country.

Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that there is a clear and present danger from Syrian and Iraqi refugees that come through the U.S. refugee program. Let’s assume that a few terrorists will take this long, arduous road into America to attack us – as opposed to fly into Honduras and walk across the border. That is not a reason for followers of Rabbi Jesus to be afraid. How many times, by the way, did Jesus say, “Do not be afraid?” That is not a reason for followers of Jesus to advocate for this bill. That is not a reason for his people to place a higher value on the security of the Country (Empire) over that of the Torah. That is not a reason to walk to the other side of the road way in order to ignore the wounded, vulnerable, and weak.

The House will do what the House will do. The Senate will do what the Senate will do. The President will do what the President will do. Republicans will do what Republicans will do, and Democrats will do what Democrats will do. Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, but Rabbi Jesus told us to render unto God what is God’s. If you say you belong to him then you owe Him the love He showed to us – thanks be to God. This is not easy. I usually get it wrong. This is risky. I often feel afraid.

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