One of my problems with Christianity is that so few Christians pay much heed to the words attributed to Jesus in the bible. It's a shame: they are some of the most enlightened, compassionate words in Western literature. Red-letter bibles are even published, and still numerous modern Christians seem to skip right over those words. I grant that there are grounds to question whether there was a historical person who actually uttered them in the way that the bible depicts, but Christians are supposed to believe that there was and that he did. Surely his words should be the foundation of their religion, but the more I look at modern Christianity, the less it seems to have to do with what even they claim the man from Nazareth said.
Of course, they do face the problem that the words were not framed for world in which modern Christians live. The situations used to clarify complex philosophical issues are now as opaque as the philosophical issues themselves. The bible shows Jesus skillfully framing great truths in first-century Jews' life experience, but with a different life experience, a different frame is needed. Jesus' parables need to be told with modern equivalents that resonate with modern people for today's Christians--and the rest of us--to appreciate their true import.
To that end, I offer this modernization of a parable I think particularly crucial to today's world. (Yes, I take a few liberties with the story, but only the same ones as the children's book with which I was first introduced to this story. The authors of that book attributed the same motivations to the same characters that I do; the only differences are of culture and technology.)
A Protestant American man set out one day to drive from New York to Washington. Unfortunately, at one stop along the way, he was carjacked, beaten, robbed, and left for dead on the shoulder of the road.
The first person to pass was a Protestant minister. He was in a hurry and figured that someone else, with the cell phone he lacked, would see the man and call for an ambulance.
The second was a deacon at the same minister's church. This driver was afraid that the attackers might still be around and zoomed quickly past.
The third was an Arab American Muslim. He stopped his car and rushed to the injured man's side. He got out his cell phone and called 911 while he ripped what clean cloth he had into bandages and started wrapping up the man's many wounds. When the ambulance arrived, its driver asked for the injured man's name, but with his wallet gone, there was no way to identify him. The Arab American gave the driver his own name, address, and phone numbers. "It doesn't matter whether he has insurance. Put the bills in my name," he urged the ambulance driver.
Yes, Samaritans were liked by first-century Jews just as much as Muslims are liked by fundamentalist Christians today. They, too, were despised unbelievers. Looking at the modern version of the story (and I have taken pains to find accurate equivalents), I see one point that many modern American Christians seem to have missed: faith in their religion alone is not enough. Yes, Jesus prefaces the tale with an admonition to love their deity, but clearly, if devoted members of his own religion were portrayed in his story as being less morally good than a member of a despised religion, Jesus thought that faith is not the be-all and end-all that so many modern Christians want to make it.
Jesus does not come out and say that the actively compassionate unbeliever will get into Heaven before the merely devout, but that reading is possible. American Christians eager to launch a cultural or literal war on those who do not share their beliefs should pause to consider how the central figure of their belief system would view such an endeavor.
Meanwhile, all of us should make sure we truly are actively compassionate, that we not only help others but do so without attempting to put constraints on their beliefs. I don't know that there is a heaven for us to get into, but if we follow the lesson of the Good Samaritan/Muslim, we won't need one. We'll already have a reasonable facsimile.
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