Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Traveling Through Samaria

Where Are You Leading Us, Lord?  
Traveling Through Samaria

“When the days drew near for [Jesus] to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; but they did not receive him…”    Luke 9:51-53a
If in his time on earth Jesus had ever filled out an IRS Form 1040, what occupation might he have listed, right behind his signature, on the bottom of page 2?   “Son of God?”  “Long-Expected Messiah?” “Savior of the World?”   

Any of those responses would have been accurate, of course.   But, they’d never have “registered” with the Roman empire’s tax authorities.   I think something more on the order of “itinerant preacher” or “traveling healer” might have made the most sense.   Whoever Jesus was, whatever Jesus did, he was always on the move.

Traveling Man

Although there’s a hint in Mark 2:1 that Jesus had a home in Capernaum, his ministry seems to have been  described best by his stark contention that “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20).   Jesus was, in short, a traveling man.

And that was true from the very beginning of his time on earth.   Jesus was born while Mary and Joseph were away from their home (Nazareth), having traveled under orders to their ancestral village, Bethlehem.  Matthew’s gospel tells us that because of the treachery of King Herod, his parents had to flee to Egypt when Jesus was merely an infant (Matthew 2:14-15).   The lone scriptural story we have of Jesus’ childhood occurs in the context of his family’s annual pilgrimage from Nazareth to Jerusalem, for the Passover (Luke 2:41-51).

From the very beginning, to the very end of Jesus’ earthly story, as related to us via the four gospels, he was on the move.    Jesus’ life was not a settled existence of comfort and ease.   Jesus had places to go, people to see, his Father’s will to accomplish, God’s rescue mission to pursue.   Jesus didn’t wait for life to come to him; he was forever going out to meet whatever or whoever was on his path.

So the story of Jesus’ life, as the gospels tell it, has a breathless, constantly changing quality to it.   The pace of Mark’s gospel (which we’re focusing on this year in our lectionary) is especially relentless and fast-moving.  “Immediately” is one of Mark’s favorite vocabulary words!

Jesus travels to the Jordan for his baptismal “inauguration” in ministry, then treks into the wilderness to be tempted for 40 days and nights, then begins three years of perambulating ministry—never staying any one place for long, always feeling the tug of the Cross, eager for the dramatic final leg of the journey.   Along the way Jesus gathers followers who—literally (but also metaphorically) follow him---trace his steps, travel where Jesus travels, on the move with their traveling Master.

The Gospels as Travel Narratives

This gives a “travel narrative” quality to the four gospels.   The evangelists (writers/editors of the gospels) even use this on-the-move character of Jesus’ life and ministry as a principle of organizing and interpreting Jesus’ teaching, preaching healing, saving activities.   As this happens, implications are constantly drawn out for the continuing faithful lives of all Christ’s followers, in every time and place.

In his book, Tell It Slant (2008, Eerdmans)[1] Eugene Peterson points out that the center of Luke’s gospel is an extended travel narrative (Luke 9:51-19:44) in which Jesus and his followers leave the familiarity of Galilee (in the north) in order to spend significant time moving through the unfamiliar territory of Samaria (in the middle) before the final chapter of Jesus’ story unfolds in Jerusalem (in the south).

Peterson finds significance in the fact that so many of Jesus’ greatest parables and teachings on prayer are “located” in this Samaritan portion of the journey.  “It is while traveling through Samaria…that Jesus takes the time to tell stories that prepare his followers to bring the ordinariness of their lives into conscious awareness and participation in this kingdom life.”  (pp. 15-16).    Peterson finds two things especially intriguing in this Travel Narrative:

“First, it deals with what takes place ‘in between’ the focused areas of Jesus’ life and ministry, Galilee and Jerusalem.   Jesus and his disciples are traveling through the unfamiliar and uncongenial country of Samaria…(which) is not home ground to Jesus and his companions….They don’t know these people and have little in common with them….[Jesus and company] are outsiders to this country and this people”  (p. 17).

Implications for Our Traveling

Peterson perceives an analogy here between the Samaritan part of Jesus’ journey and the portion of our faith-journeys that happens “between Sundays,” i.e. in between our weekly “set-aside, protected time[s] and place[s] for prayer and prayerful listening among men and women who are ‘on our side.’”   In fact, most of our lives of discipleship play out during the other six days of each week, away from the church building, sort of like traveling through Samaria.   The gathered church that we experience on Sundays lives out most of its days as the scattered church in the world during the remainder of each week.   “We spend most of our time with people who are not following Jesus as we have been, who do not share our assumptions and beliefs and convictions regarding God and his kingdom.”  (p. 17)

The second thing that intrigues Peterson about Luke’s long Travel Narrative “is how frequently Jesus tells stories, the mini-stories we name parables.”   Why is this significant?   It’s because the parable, “is a way of saying something that requires the imaginative participation of the listener….a parable involves the hearer.”   Moreover, Jesus’ parables in the Travel Narrative are not overtly religious in their language or focus.   “They are stories about farmers and judges and victims, about coins and sheep and prodigal sons, about wedding banquets, building barns and towers and going to war, a friend who wakes you in the middle of the night to ask for a loaf of bread, the courtesies of hospitality, crooks and beggars, fig trees and manure” (p. 19)

Peterson perceives a mission strategy in Jesus’ preference for story-telling while traveling through Samaria.   “Samaritans, then and now, have centuries of well-developed indifference, if not outright aversion, to God-language—at least the kind used by synagogue and church people….So, as Jesus goes through Samaria he is very restrained in his use of explicit God-language….Jesus circles around his listeners’ defenses.  He tells parables.  A parable keeps the message at a distance, slows down comprehension, blocks automatic prejudicial reactions, dismantles stereotypes.  A parable comes up on the listener obliquely, on the ‘slant’” (p. 20).[2]

There are profound implications here as we live out our own Travel Narratives as disciples of Jesus.   As we achingly seek out ways of sharing Christ with those (“Samaritans”) around us, might we not discover that engaging stories will usually be more winsome than compelling arguments?   (Please tell me:  How likely is it that we will argue anyone into the Kingdom of God?)  In our own Monday through Saturday journeying—in which we can’t always presume a shared God-story with the “Samaritans” around us—how might we cultivate Jesus’ art of spinning yarns (parables) that crack open the Good News in fresh ways?

A Church That’s Going Mobile

This month’s Bible study, as you may have noticed, reiterates themes from last month’s Bible study (“Toward a Church That’s All About ‘Going’”).   One of the biggest challenges before us, it seems to me, is this:   “How do we jack up the church and put wheels under it?”    How is God un-settling us in order to equip us for “going mobile” with the Good News of Jesus Christ?

If the church is the only Body the Risen One still has in this world—ought we not pay closer attention to how Jesus himself lived in this world?   As we do so, we will notice, time and again, how Jesus was always on the move.   He did not wait for people to come to him; he was always heading out and meeting someone new, wading into the muck and mud of life, walking right up to hard questions and prickly controversies.   This Traveling Man still calls us to be a traveling church, does he not?

Bishop Larry Wohlrabe
Northwestern Minnesota Synod
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
God’s work.  Our hands.

For reflection and discussion:
1.      What strikes you about the notion that Jesus was primarily a “traveling man?”
2.      How is it for you, “traveling through Samaria” each week?   What is it like for you, living alongside folks who may not share your commitment to following Jesus?
3.      Why might stories (parables) be more effective than arguments, in sharing Christ with others?
4.      What are some of the reasons why it’s so challenging to “jack up the church and put wheels under it?”

This is the fifth in a series of monthly Bible studies during 2012 focused on the question:  “Where Are You Leading Us, Lord?”   These columns are designed to equip the disciples and leadership groups such as church councils, for faithful and fruitful ministry.   Feel free to use the column for personal reflection or group discussion, e.g. church council meeting devotions/discussion.

[1] Eugene H. Peterson, Tell it Slant:  A Conversation on the Language of Jesus in His Stories and Prayers, Eerdmans, 2008.
[2] This explains the title of Peterson’s book, Tell it Slant.

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