Westmont Magazine Learning to do the Right Thing
Today we have read together a very familiar story in the New Testament: the Good Samaritan.
A lawyer comes to ask Jesus a question, intending to test him.
“What shall I do to inherit eternal life?”
But Jesus, not to be forced into anybody else’s box, turns the table on the lawyer. “What is written in the law?”
The lawyer replies, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.
Jesus says, “You have answered rightly: Do this and you will live.” Or, in other words, “You have the right answer. Now go and do the right answer.”
But the lawyer is not yet ready to leave. “And just who is my neighbor?” he asks.
Jesus, instead of being drawn into an abstract argument or quoting him another passage of Scripture, tells him a story that helps him see the meaning of “neighbor” in the very concrete context of his world.
And at the end, Jesus asks the lawyer to answer his own question for the second time.
“And who was the neighbor?”
The lawyer answers so beautifully: “The one who showed mercy on him.”
And, then Jesus says, “Go and be like that. Now you know how to do the right answer.”
Today, I want to bring this story here to Westmont College, to those of us who have come as students and faculty and staff to a Christian liberal arts college.
Like the lawyer in the story, many of us have come to Westmont with some (perhaps a lot of) background in our faith. We have come to know the language. We know the tradition. We know the right words — just like the lawyer in the story.
In fact, most of us have come to Westmont because we already believe that meaning and purpose for our life is to be found in the context of the Christian faith, in the context of Christian fellowship and worship, in the context of being a follower of Jesus Christ. In short, we have come to Westmont because we already have the right answer. Though, like the lawyer, some of us also may be trying to put Jesus to the test — asking our questions — and waiting around to be impressed with his answer.
If Jesus were here this morning, he would perhaps say to us what he said to the lawyer: “You have given the right answer. Now learn to do this and you will live.”
Notice, first, that Jesus affirms that having the right answer does matter. Head knowledge is crucial. Sincerity is not enough.
You sense that the lawyer in Luke 10 was not an intellectual featherweight.
But Jesus is saying here that head knowledge — having the right answer — is a starting point, not the ending point of our journey.
I think here of a real-life exchange I overheard between two Westmont students. One of them said to the other, “I just don’t see why in the world we are required to take philosophy. We already have the truth. We already know that Jesus is the answer.”
While the students may have thought their conclusion applied in particular to philosophy, they might well have said it about any of their studies. Why do we need to study chemistry? Why do we need to study sociology? Why do we need to study literature? We already know that Jesus is the answer.
I think if Jesus had been there he would have encouraged the young men to go to class — and might even have asked to join them.
He might well have said, “Yes, you do have the right answer. But you need to find out what it means. Then you’ll be ready to do that answer in your world.”
Head knowledge is the beginning of the journey — not the end. It is a starting point, not the ending point.
Notice, secondly, Jesus’ exhortation, “Do this. Do the right answer and you will live.”
We see the importance here of having the will to do the truth, not just to carry the truth around in our head. The New Testament is full of reminders that, as Christians, we must be people of action. We must be doers of the word, and not hearers only. Perhaps the most haunting reminder of this is Jesus’ own words,“How can you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not the things that I say?”
We know well that doing is important.
In fact, it is not hard on a Christian college campus to get people very quickly to this second point — of doing rather than thinking.
Much shirking of our academic calling has gone on in the name of this second point. Let’s face it: It’s just easier and more fun and feels more virtuous to be up and about doing “good things” than buckling down to study.
“I’ll feed the homeless on State Street; I’ll pass out tracts at the beach; I’ll help get ready for Potter’s Clay. Anything but study for that World Civ test.”
Now, of course, doing is important. So important that Jesus says, “It is in the doing that you will find the life.”
My point here is simply that when our calling is to thinking — even for a season — doing sounds very attractive and can even be a temptation, or at least a diversion from our immediate call to get our thinking right.
We can rush too quickly to the doing even before our thinking is where it ought to be. In putting thinking before doing, I do not want to imply that doing cannot be a way of coming to learn things — that is the whole point of experiential learning. Rather, I am speaking to the sentiment that sincerity in the Christian can substitute for competency. Or that if we love Jesus, we do not really have to know as much about a situation to be of help.
Third, the Good Samaritan story suggests there is a very important stage of things that comes between thinking and doing — between “having the right answer” and “doing the right answer.”
You have to learn what it means to do the right answer — and how to do the right answer. This is the point of the Biblical concept of wisdom, the call to the importance of being able to mediate whatever truth we have into the real world in a way that it can be effective. We need more than just the head knowledge and the desire to do the right thing. We need to be able to see when there is a situation that calls for certain knowledge and how to make that knowledge effective.
We’ve all known situations where principled people fail to apply their own principles. Take, for example, people who claim to know Jesus but treat restaurant waiters without any respect.
We have all known cases where people have been carrying the truth of the gospel around — or the truth in all sorts of other areas — and because of the way they have carried it or spoken it, they have made it impossible for the hearers to receive it. Think of times when you could not hear the truth of what parents or friends were saying because of a tone of voice or poor timing.
We need, then, not just right thinking and a desire to do the right thing. We need to have eyes to see situations in the world where the right thinking applies and wisdom to know how it applies.
In short, the Good Samaritan story invites us to focus on this middle stage, between having the right answer and doing it. It reminds us that if we want to be effective agents of redemption in the world, if we want to take seriously the command to love God and our neighbor with all our hearts, if we want truly for Christ to be preeminent in our lives, we must take time to learn what the call means in the very circumstances of our world today.
I would argue that it is in this middle space that we can come to see our task today as a Christian liberal arts college. This is the space and time in our lives for some focused attention of what it means to say that “Jesus is the answer” or how to mediate that answer effectively into the world, and even into the churches today in a way that it can be received and be powerful for healing and transformation.
We need to know more deeply about the God who has called us to be his agents in the world. And we need to know more about the world — its politics, its economics, its ecology, its chemistry — in all its rich diversity and complexity — if we are to be effective divine agents in this world.
Before the lawyer could do the right answer he had to learn what the words meant and how to apply them. He had to be able to recognize a “neighbor” — not just to have the principle of loving his neighbor in his head.
Let’s notice what happened to the lawyer in the course of hearing the story.
First, he had come to an understanding that both affirmed and challenged his tradition. He had a larger vision of the very truth he’d started with. He was still to love God with all his mind and heart and soul and strength, and his neighbor — but he’d learned that the neighbor might prove to be someone he’s never expected.
Second, he had come to an understanding that transformed the categories in which he had organized the world. The priest and the Levite should have been the ones to show mercy, not the Samaritan — but that is the surprise. The Samaritan was the hero.
Finally, he had come to an understanding that enabled him to imagine a new application of the answer.
Today, at Westmont College, we have been given space to puzzle and to explore what it means to do the right answer. Our journey at a Christian liberal arts college is filling the same space — or can fill the same space if we let it in our lives — as the Good Samaritan story filled for the lawyer.
This is our time to come to a larger understanding of what it means for Jesus to be Lord, of what it means for Christ to be preeminent in all things. As we walk this road, we will notice that, most often, the same words we used when we were first a follower of Jesus will still work — but they will mean more and more to us as our world becomes larger.
This middle stage between knowing the “right answer” and doing the “right answer” is also a time of having our categories transformed. We, today, may need a new vision of neighbor as much as the lawyer. Just as the lawyer’s culture had shaped his view of “neighbor” and who the “good guys” are, so has our culture shaped us. In a thousand ways, we have allowed our culture to guide our interpretation of Scripture, rather than allowing Scripture and the Holy Spirit to shape our view of our culture. For us at Westmont, our Good Samaritan story — the seeing that wakes us up to a new sense of “neighbor” — might be in a sociology class or a history class. It might be in chapel. Or it might be on the athletic field. Or it might be in the residence halls. You might wake up and see that when Jesus speaks about loving your neighbor that includes your new roommate, this person who is sharing a space much smaller than either of you had at home. So this middle stage between knowing the truth and doing the truth is a time of having our categories transformed, our stereotypes changed.
Finally, Westmont — as our middle stage — is a time of coming to new and imaginative applications of what it means to say that “Jesus is the answer” or that we want Christ to be preeminent in all things. I think of one senior who has taken it upon herself to organize a week this fall on campus on stewardship of our environment.
She saw a space where Christ’s lordship was not being fully recognized, and she’s gone to work to change that.
I think of a story I read this summer in the International Herald Tribune, “Japan stands firm on secret torture.” The story told about the particular sufferings of death-row inmates in a culture where shame is so powerful a force that most families simply disassociate themselves from a death-row criminal long before the actual execution.
Then hidden deep in the article was a two-sentence statement about a particular woman who had formally adopted one of the criminals, and the article said, “In doing so, she joined a small but fervent community of Christians and other social activists who adopt prisoners to prevent them from facing total isolation while awaiting their execution.”
Who would have thought of formally adopting death-row inmates in the name of Jesus so they did not have to face death alone?
Here we have an example of Japanese Christians taking Christ’s words, “Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” They were alert and watchful. They didn’t just assent to these words in their heads. They looked for where they might be obedient to those words in their world. To do that, they had to know something about their world to see those places of obedience. They could just have kept their eyes closed and obliviously walked by on the other side.
Today, here at Westmont, we have been privileged, like the lawyer in Luke 10, to have known the “right answer.” Many of us have even assented to that answer for our own lives. Furthermore, to varying degrees, we desire to do the right answer. We do want in our most thoughtful and best moments for Christ to be preeminent in our lives and in our world. We want Jesus to be Lord of our work and our play and relationships. And we do want to be his agents in the world to bring clarity and healing where there is so much confusion and pain.
Today Jesus would say to us here at Westmont, “Go and learn what it means to make me preeminent, to realize my lordship, to practice my love and my obedience to the father” — to do Christ’s pre-eminence, as it were, not simply as if he is first in line before all the other things in our lives, but so that he is Lord in every part of our lives: in our care of the natural world, in how we function in politics, in the academy, in athletics, in business, in how we love and care for our family and friends, and in how we care for those in need who are beyond our immediate circles of love and affection.
May we, like the lawyer, listen very well. May we be attentive to our education — to our Good Samaritan story.
May we come to see what it means for us in this world today to love God with all our heart, with all our mind, with all our strength, with all our soul — and our neighbor as ourselves. May we see and understand what it means in our world for us to make Christ preeminent in all things.
May we be deep enough in our seeing and in our understanding so that Jesus can say to us, as he said to the lawyer so many years ago, “Now you are ready . . . Go and ‘do’ the right answer, and you shall live.”