Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Rejecting the Messiah Today

Those with nothing to lose will always gravitate to a message that removes hierarchy, in which we are all equal. It is a perspective we say we accept as part of being Americans. But we also seek the security of affluence. When Jesus famously spoke to the rich young man who wanted to know how to reach the Kingdom of God, he outlined the difficulty, but not impossibility of reaching a Utopian state. The rich will always be able to afford one more distraction that stands in the way of true enlightenment and guidance. We too, in our pursuit of profit, have also had our focus and priorities dictated by our pocketbooks, not our hearts. It is why, in large part, why we find ourselves where we are now.

The Samaritans were a mixed race of people, one not fully Jewish. At a time when proving complete purity was next to Godliness, they were routinely despised. The Parable of the Good Samaritan refers to the noble protagonist as “cursed”. The Jewish lawyer to whom Jesus tells this story cannot bear to even say the name of his spiritual stepbrother, referring to the Godly Samaritan only as “the one who had mercy on him”. There was surely no love lost here.

The Samaritan religion was a hybrid form of Judaism and idol worship, which Jews found intolerable. Of course, as we know, the Jews made idols of their own creation while pretending otherwise. Forced to live apart in a separate section of the land, considerable resentment existed between both groups. But in the irony of ironies, Jesus himself would be viewed as the Messiah only by the so-called mongrel Samaritans. Rejected by his own people, despite considerable scriptural evidence from previous prophets, he would eventually be killed.

The story by which the Samaritans came to this momentous conclusion begin with Jesus’ conduct towards a woman considered sinful. During a trip, it was necessary to pass through Samaria. Jews never tarried long here, staying only as long as necessary. And they certainly never engaged Samaritans in conversation, especially not Samaritan women. Jesus broke from established custom here quite deliberately. A Samaritan woman he spoke to at an ancient well, one that had belonged once to the Jews had been married multiple times and had a bad reputation as a result. In a time where marriage was sacred and culturally essential, she was living in sin. So he could have been more than forgiven for not even bothering to talk to her.

The disciples return from their purchasing food in town and are amazed to find Jesus talking with a woman, but none of them were bold enough to interrupt the conversation. What Jesus did was against all that they thought to be proper conduct for a Jewish man. “The spirit of the Rabbis is shown by their later precept; namely: "Let no one talk with a woman in the street, no, not with his own wife."” [J. W. McGarvey, The Four-Fold Gospels, page 150].

The woman soon leaves, but in such a hurry that she leaves her waterpot behind. What she had learned drove out all thoughts about why she originally came to the well. She excitedly tells the men of the city that there was a man by the well who knew everything she ever done and that possibly he is the Christ. She has gone from seeing Jesus as another Jewish man, to a gentleman, to a prophet, and now the Christ. But being a woman, it wouldn’t be seen as proper to assert the fact so plainly. She is giving the men of the city room to judge for themselves.

But while it is factually true that Jesus’ own people will eventually reject him, their reasons are complex. Some, like the wealthy rabbi Nicodemus are secret followers. Afraid of the consequences of active support, they never overtly display favor. Nicodemus approaches Jesus under the safety of cover of night. Judea was an occupied territory under some degree of Jewish control, but still very much under the sway of Rome. The few rights of self-governance Jews had been granted could always be revoked. And there were certainly those who made a living working closely with the occupying Romans. It made good business sense.

Jesus’ ministry threatened all of this. Those with their own agendas and axes to grind alternately feared and admired this charismatic young man of modest birth. The prophets of many past ages had predicted that the Messiah would come from a small town in the middle of nowhere, even naming the very village. But this didn’t exactly fit the profile of those who would rather substitute their own leadings for those of God. This is a trap we must avoid falling into these days. Careful discernment and critical thinking will guide us along the path we must pursue. Ego and self-interest have been the demise of many who would do right. An old Quaker saying I often return to concerns the tension between profit and piety. “Quakers came to Philadelphia to do good and did very well, indeed.”

Who among us would walk through Samaria today and find value in it? If I am to be honest, I often rush through many Samarias where I am the minority. Mistrust and fear are commonplace here and I would never think to stop and chat with anyone. The same resentments often bubble up to the surface, especially when society has deemed them not like me and not worthy of my attention. For the poor and the marginalized among us, should a Messiah figure arrive, he or she will be given an audience not present to those who live on the right side of the tracks. We can afford to doubt or to refuse to see truth. They cannot.

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