In the Gospel of Luke, an expert in religious law stands up to test Jesus, asking what he must do to earn eternal life.
In response, Jesus asks, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?”
The lawyer answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”
“You have given the right answer,” Jesus affirms. “Do this and you will live.”
This, of course, is the preamble to Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan.
Today, Jesus’ divine wisdom offers direction to us — fellow Presbyterians with sometimes differing views — as we seek to talk to each other about the Special Committee’s preliminary report on marriage.
In its report, the committee calls on us to show love, respect, and mutual forbearance, and the Outlook’s recent editorial was right to reinforce that call to “discuss it openly” and “tell the truth, in love, to one another.”
But to foster true dialogue and understanding, we must go about it in the right way. Let us seek more wisdom from the story of the Good Samaritan.
The religious scholar asks Jesus one last question: “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replies with the now famous parable in which the Samaritan passing by — not the Levite or the priest — proves to be the true neighbor because he shows mercy to the man left for dead.
In our world today, good Samaritans have become synonymous with do-gooders who help people in need. Christ’s parable had a much deeper meaning.
In ancient times, Samaritans and Jews were an abomination to one another. They accused each other of misinterpreting the Torah, practicing false worship, and falsely claiming themselves as God’s chosen people.
The Samaritan didn’t just stop to help a stranger, he stopped to help his adversary, a person his tradition told him was unclean — a Jew.
As fellow Presbyterians, may we not be such adversaries. We share far too much in common. Yet how often do we let our disagreements prevent us from understanding one another and reaching out a hand to our neighbor?
As we consider marriage and the place of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender faithful in our churches, there are three things we can do to ensure that we learn the profound lesson of the Good Samaritan — God’s commandment to love our neighbor.
First, we must understand that tough conversations take time. Sometimes, even the best-intentioned efforts to foster dialogue have gone awry when too little time was allowed for different voices to be heard.
For instance, on the day of my local presbytery’s vote on Amendment 08-B, only 20 minutes were allowed for debate — from everyone. Just 20 minutes. Now think back to the Good Samaritan. He didn’t rush by like the two before him. He stopped. He took time to bandage the wounds. And he took time to take him to an inn.
Are we prepared to take the time to care for each other, offering both our heart and our ears?
Second, we must recognize that hearing is not the same as listening. Giving each other the space to be heard is the first part. But then we must truly listen. Listening takes both compassion and patience — the same qualities the Good Samaritan showed when he offered to pay the innkeeper’s expenses to care for the injured Jew.
In dialogue, listening with compassion means exploring one another’s stories and experiences, striving to understand each other’s perspectives with empathy.
Finally, we must engage in purposeful dialogue within the church. Fruitful dialogue is not about simply talking, or even simply talking and listening to one another. This is what we have done for 30 years, since the Definitive Guidance of 1978 first encouraged us to be in dialogue about marriage. Ultimately, we also need to have a goal in sight — resolution of the difficult questions before us and the healing that can be built upon it.
When the Good Samaritan left the stranger in the innkeeper’s hands, he said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.” Symbolically, this is the most powerful part of the story. He not only signals his willingness to return, but to make a long-term investment in his act of healing and mercy. He is ready to do whatever is necessary to get results.
In our relationships with our neighbors, the status quo of discomfort and alienation is not acceptable. We must keep returning to the inn — investing time and patience in moving our church forward toward true reconciliation.
Then, and only then, will we truly be neighbors: those who are willing to show mercy to one another, as Christ commands us to do.
JANET EDWARDS is an ordained minister in Pittsburgh Presbytery, co-moderator of More Light Presbyterians and a blogger at TimetoEmbrace.com.