The Shortest Parable?
by Duane Litz, Jr.
Pastor Mike wasn’t wrong. He anticipated my squirming heart at every turn of his sermon. Is it really Good (with a capital “G”) for a concerned Muslim to stand sentry at the doors of a threatened Christian church? Does collaboration with world religions demonstrate Love (with a capital “L”) or does it expose an increasingly watered-down Church in a pluralistic age? When I use capital letters in the questions above, I’m asking if the story of the Good Samaritan fully captures God’s ideals or if we need to go elsewhere in Scripture to view a complete portrait of Love and Goodness? And then, as my mind was wrestling with these questions, Mike paused and softly calmed me down with, “It’s ok.” It was as if he was speaking to me face-to-face in his office at that moment. “If we can’t wrestle with these hard issues at church, where can we wrestle with them? It’s ok, Duane.” At this point in the message I spontaneously understood his intent: he wanted me to perform an existential experiment by which I felt the pain of the bleeding man; I felt the gaping disparity between Enemy Jew and Enemy Samaritan; and I felt the Splag-something-or-other (Greek is hard) affection the accursed traveler had for his dying nemesis. I can’t say that I experienced this feeling for long (my flesh is too weak), but I am indebted to Mike for unsettling my soul long enough to catch a glimpse of Love and Goodness.
Leaving church in somewhat of a daze and pondering what it means to love my adversary, I revisited Jesus’s Second Greatest Command in Matthew 22. Naturally, Christ had His way with my heart in a far more disruptive manner than Mike had earlier Sunday morning. This is what Jesus told me in verse 39: “The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” It’s a strange thing to inadvertently deconstruct a verse of the Bible because your life-long memory of the passage struggles to catch up with the fresh interpretation. After some mental adjustment, the following question blurted from my mouth: “Jesus’s shortest parable?” You see, when I read the word “as,” I took the ensuing phrase symbolically like when Jesus uses “as” or “like” in His parabolic discourses. In other words, I read Matthew 22:39 like this: “Jesus said to them, ‘Loving your neighbor in the Kingdom of heaven is like a man who loved himself.’”
I’ll get back to the point of my epiphany in a moment, but a short digression is necessary to feel the weight of my disequilibrium. In recent years, I’ve heard the Second Greatest Command preached with increasing emphasis on “as yourself.” It’s become almost a textbook qualifier to say, “The only way you can truly love others is if you first truly learn to love yourself.” Typically, the exposition from this assertion runs into a list of interesting self-help or self-care strategies for the congregant. “If you don’t discover what your soul needs to thrive–establishing healthy boundaries to protect those needs–then there is no way you will be able to love your neighbor let alone your enemy.” While the benefit of our psychological age is incalculable, I think we may have projected something onto Jesus’s words that don’t belong there. To soften the blow of this paragraph, perhaps we simply need to reclaim a balance in our sermonizing between the explicit command to love our neighbor and the inferential suggestion to love ourselves.
Now back to the shortest parable in the Bible. If Jesus isn't telling us to love ourselves–which, again, I don’t want to fully discount our modern authorities–then what is Jesus’s purpose (and Moses before Him) for comparing our love for neighbor with love for self. Let’s imagine these seven words (only six in Greek) as a full-blown parable: “Loving your neighbor in the Kingdom of heaven is like a man who loved himself. When his neighbors thought he was having an affair, they spread word around the village until everyone was convinced that he was unfaithful to his wife. His credibility at the city gates began to plummet and the doors of the synagogue slammed just before he stepped in for Saturday service. His wife was heckled and his kids were bullied. Finding his livelihood and reputation up against the ropes, his back to the wall, he fought back. He went from house to house in his neighborhood tirelessly protesting the false accusations late into the night. His witch-hunt to single-out his cruel adversaries drove him like lion to deer. After pouncing on the brigands, he posted their names and photos on the town noticeboard. ‘Shun these wicked men!’ What’s more, he availed himself of every opportunity to show the bride of his youth affection in public to dispel any lingering thought of infidelity.” Then I imagine Jesus dropping His first-century mic with, “He who has an ear, let him hear.”
At first you rightly ask, “Wait, Duane, the accused man certainly loved himself, but how in the world does this demonstrate love for neighbor?” But now I ask you to consider the following meaning as the take-away of a typical parable: “With the same instinctive intensity you have to self-protect, defend your fame, reclaim your dignity, and fight for your family, go and so champion your neighbor.” The nearest and dearest thing I have in my life is, well, me. Even moments of self-giving, sacrificial love for my wife or those I care deeply about, ninety-nine times out of a hundred I need to put my mind through mental gymnastics to empathize with them. I need to take an extra step to place myself in their shoes. “How would I feel if I was treated like that?” I highly doubt that I have ever intuitively loved anyone from pure motivation, altruistic intention, or sheer good will. All my life I’ve been looking out for number one and, more often than not, I’ve loved my neighbor through self-righteous pity, some sense of duty, a twisted desire to please, verbal commitment, or an imaginative exercise of empathy.
Before our outlook turns to the sunrise, let’s remain clouded by the dismal fog of our self-absorption for a moment longer. The tragic predicament that Jesus leaves us in is this: God commands me to love my neighbor with my most powerful resource (i.e. me), which by nature is wired to put as much distance as possible between my neighbor and me. Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from this self of death?
Let us now turn to the sunrise. I leave you with two thoughts from Jesus’s shortest parable; one idea is from Jesus and the other is from Jesus through Pastor Mike. First, I think it’s breathtaking that Jesus uses my fallen animal instinct of self-preservation-at-all-costs as a symbol of love for my neighbor. I believe it was Thomas à Kempis in The Imitation who tells us, “the highest does not stand without the lowest.” What he means by this maxim, I suppose, is that our basest instincts and vilest vices will soar to towering heights when they are redeemed and retooled by Christ. And Jesus isn’t afraid to go there. It is as if He is telling His disciples: “I will grant you the savage bear inside of you, raging in his cave against the hunting party. But even this is an analogy for the unyielding intensity that you can have for your neighbor. And if you need to use mental gymnastics to picture yourself in your neighbor’s sandals, go at it! All resources are yours! Empathize away! Love your neighbor like you know how to love yourself.”
The second thought reaches beyond sunrise to the blaze of midday for me. I have Mike to thank for allowing Christ to speak through him. It came at the end of his sermon when he wasn’t sure how to conclude and the Holy Spirit took over. He stammered, paused, and finally whispered to us, “For some of us, the hardest person for us to love is ourselves.” And then he sounded the crescendo: “Better yet, for most of us we have a hard time accepting the fact that we are loved by God and secure in His kingdom.” This is it. This is the truth that settles the conflict between life with God and self. C. S. Lewis expresses it better than I ever could. Addressing those who deny themselves, shoulder their cross, and follow Jesus, Lewis says, “These people have got rid of the tiresome business of adjusting the rival claims of Self and God by the simple expedient of rejecting the claims of Self altogether. The old egoistic will has been turned round, reconditioned, and made into a new thing. The will of Christ no longer limits theirs; it is theirs. All their time, in belonging to Him, belongs also to them, for they are His.” It is this staggering new reality that deserves attention in closing.
The potentially dangerous thing about reading Jesus’s shortest parable as an effort to reclaim self is that it does little to pull us out of ourselves. As good as self-care and self-help tips may be, they do not intrinsically demand further steps toward external reality. My move is again toward me. I stay cloistered in subjective introspection. However, when I am crucified with Christ and it is no longer I who live but Christ lives in me, I plant my foot on solid ground. My greatest resource (i.e. me) is mysteriously “in Christ” and He now mysteriously effects change in me and through me. He is now my greatest resource. The high courtesy of heaven (also from Lewis) is that Christ accepts my self-absorbed soul through repentance and trust, and not only gives me God-life in exchange, but also places many of my natural resources (and creature comforts!) back into my hands. What a beneficent God we worship!
It is only fitting that I end with my neighbor. Seven English words: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” I don’t know how to do this. That is, I don’t know how to do this in my own self-referential strength. However, I live by a new syllogism: If Christ loved me while I was still a sinner, and if Christ now lives in me, it then stands to reason that Christ-in-me will teach me how to love other sinners. I trust that every resource in heaven and earth will be at my disposal to accomplish this aim. I breathe a sigh of relief when Jesus invites this weary and heavy-laden self to rest in Him. I take comfort in the notion that I don’t need to wallow in despair over my incessant desire to please myself. Rather, I humbly accept the fact that Jesus uses me as a symbol to spur on sacrificial love for the betterment of my neighbor.