Great Ideas: My Neighbor, Myself

December 7, 2008.

Dear Expert in the Law: I’m writing this letter today because, recently, I had the opportunity to look again at one of the most famous parables in the Christian scriptures—the Parable of the Good Samaritan—and this time, it struck me with particular force that the center of the entire story is really you. Your thirst for eternal life. Your anxiety to justify yourself as having already “earned” it. What Jesus said to you, and how you might have actually heard it. Then his concluding invitation: “Go and do likewise.” Your learning and your growth are the real story here, and as I reflect on it, I see so much that relates to my here-and-now world. Your story speaks to mine, as well as to the story of the congregation I serve in Atlanta, Georgia, though we are separated by thousands of years and thousands of miles. Thus, this letter.

I’ll start by acknowledging how your fellow Jews needed you. Devout Jews needed “experts in the law” because there are 613 commands that come out of the foundational texts of your religion, the first five books of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy. Five books, collectively called the Torah, conveying 613 laws which devout Jews are to practice so as to bring God into every aspect of daily life and to maintain right relationship with Him. Rules about talking, eating, walking, bathing, dressing, buying and selling, honoring one’s parents, no lying, no stealing, and on and on. A lot of rules, yes, but devout Jews saw themselves as privileged to have this kind of structure in their lives, one which gave them a rock-solid spiritual identity and kept their minds constantly on God. And yet, because of all the rules, no wonder people needed an expert. At the very least, just to remember them all. And then there were times when circumstances seemed impossibly complicated—circumstances in which multiple rules seemed to apply but also seemed to conflict with each other, and so people found themselves wondering how to balance the differing obligations in tension. Sometimes it wasn’t just an internal struggle but one between people, people who differed—sometimes violently—on what they saw as fair. In all such moments, they needed you: an expert in the Law.

Not that we do not require experts in the law today. Plenty of devout Jews these days who aspire to infuse their lives with God rules. And then there’s everyone else, us, whose lives in one way or another are, at one and the same time, both organized and complexified by rules of some sort or another. My congregation, for example. Its legal existence articulated through ByLaws. Its purpose defined through a mission statement, together with a statement of ends describing all the basic ways in which we want to bring positive change to people’s lives. Then what are called Executive Limitations, which basically hold us accountable to our highest hopes, and call us to stay within proper limits in our work together. Then its Covenant of Healthy Relationships, together with all the other guidelines, procedures, principles, precedents, and on and on, which help us get on the same page, and which we sometimes fight over. Some will think that there are way too many rules. Yet it sounds like a lot only because we are a large community, and the larger a community gets, the more explicit it needs to be about rules. Smaller communities, families even, have just as many rules, but many of them are tacit, unspoken, taken for granted, and usually you realize them consciously only when you blunder into them—and suffer the consequences. Not a helpful thing in a community as large as the one I serve.

But you know all about this. You are an expert of the Law. And it was as an expert that, one day, you decided to test the upstart rabbi that your neighbors must have been gossiping about. This teacher, saying shocking things. This Jesus of Nazareth. “Teacher,” you said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” As you well know, he gave this question right back to you, and I’m struck by your answer, which Jesus himself liked very much. Basically you said “love to God and love to people.” “Love God with all your heart, and love your neighbor as yourself.” I’m struck by this answer, for two reasons.

Reason #1: How the emphasis is on doing right things, not believing right things. Too many people today think that believing “10 impossible things before breakfast” is the pathway to eternal life, the hallmark of authentic religious faith, and I refuse to lose that word—“faith”—to such a poor definition. I refuse to put my mind (with all its questions and curiosity) in one box, and my faith (which sustains my heart and gets me up every morning) in another box. For me, faith is all about action. Or, rather, it’s all about acting in trust that my effort to connect with the Spirit of Life—to create, to worship, to study, to meditate, to appreciate, to forgive, to serve—that any and all such acts will lead to something positive, no matter how frail or flawed the effort seems to me. Acting in trust that my effort to love another person, no matter how small, will somehow make a difference. Faith is all about action, and keeps us acting, keeps us from getting paralyzed by our fears. What is eternal life, anyhow, if not a quality of life right here and right now? Eternal life as a richness in each moment, as a timelessness of meaning, a sense of poise and courage in the face of adversity, a sense of triumphant abundance, a sense of release from all that knots up our spirits. Brings to mind a story by a classic 20th century writer named Dr. Suess. How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Wish you could see it—in particular the part where the Grinch realizes that Christmas doesn’t come from a store—means perhaps a lot more. The moment when his heart grows three sizes, the true meaning of Christmas comes through, he finds the strength of ten Grinches plus two. That’s it. That’s how the eternal breaks into life. That’s how we inherit it.

But now let’s turn to the second reason for why I like your answer to the question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Short and sweet: it implies something very positive about humanity and its place in nature. Take the part about “love your neighbor as yourself.”  I’m reading this book with my congregation right now—called The Happiness Hypothesis, by Jonathan Haidt—and in the third chapter, the author talks about how large, relatively peaceful animal societies become possible. Amidst all the variety in the animal kingdom, we see it only among humans, termites, naked mole rats, and hymenoptera (which is a name designating one of the larger orders of insects, including ants, bees, and wasps). Talk about strange company! Nevertheless, it’s only here where we find individuals living in large cooperative societies—individuals reaping the benefits of an extensive division of labor. In the case of termites, naked mole rats, ants, bees, and wasps, the explanation is found in a mechanism known as “kin altruism,” a reproduction system in which a single queen produces all the children, and everyone is literally brother and sister to each other, and “love your neighbor as yourself” happens quite naturally. All are part of one big family; all share a common parent.

Of course, human reproduction is NOT a matter of a single queen producing all the children. For us, the way to “love your neighbor as yourself” isn’t through kin altruism. Rather, it’s through existence of a deep instinct for what scientists call “reciprocity.” As in, “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.” An instinct that explains why it is, when someone does something nice, you reflexively want to return the favor even though you might not know them from Adam. Why it is, when people are sent Christmas cards from complete strangers, a great majority will go ahead and send a Christmas card in return anyway. It’s true! Reciprocity is hardwired in us. Part of our nature as human beings. And I think that that is cool. I know—“you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” is not actually on the same level as the Golden Rule, but it puts us on a path that takes us to it eventually. The instinct for reciprocity is a start in the right direction, and everything needs a start. Above all, the start is nothing supernatural. Nature puts us on the path of ethics and spirituality. It means, ultimately, that even our highest aspirations for heaven are rooted in earth. The earth is truly and fully HOME.

But it’s not all peaches and cream. Nature gives us predilections for hell as well. “Natural selection, like politics,” says Jonathan Haidt, “works by the principle of survival of the fittest, and several researchers have argued that human beings evolved to play the game of life in a Machiavellian way.” Part of this has to do with something we see in your story, where, right after you answer your own question about how to inherit eternal life, you ask Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” You do that because you have overestimated your own virtue. You already think that you’ve earned eternal life, and that there’s nothing else lacking. In effect, you are daring Jesus to prove otherwise.

The tendency to see ourselves as in a “rose colored mirror.” I do it too. We all do. There is evolutionary survival value to this, very definitely; “evidence shows that people who hold pervasive positive illusions about themselves, their abilities, and their future prospects are mentally healthier, happier, and better liked than people who lack such illusions.” True enough. But there’s a downside as well. Jonathan Haidt puts it this way: “Such biases can make people feel that they deserve more than they do, thereby setting the stage for endless disputes with other people who feel equally over-entitled.” In other words, disputes over who is doing more of their fair share of the work, as in spouses estimating the percentage of housework each does, and estimates totaling up to more than 120%. Disputes like this. Disputes over who is more wrong, more to blame. Disputes over who understands and applies the rules more fairly. Our biological-based penchant for overestimating our own virtue gets us in trouble, time after time, and in effect blocks the reciprocity instinct within us. We stop listening to the other person and imagine their action to stem from, if not malice, then no reason at all, nothing that would make what they did at least understandable. We stop listening, and we get resentful, we get enraged. Because others are not doing unto me as I deserve, well then, the worse for them! They better watch out! So much for “love your neighbor as yourself.” So much for eternal life.

The rose colored mirror gets us into trouble. It causes people to spin their case in their own favor, furiously, protesting innocence all the way. Russian author Leo Tolstoy said it like this: “Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.” Dear Expert in the Law, this is what you were doing—trying to put the spin on Jesus, and he knew it. He saw exactly what you were trying to do. And this was the launching point for his famous Good Samaritan parable. This is what was in back of his mind when he said those words, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead with no clothes. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.….” Did it shock you to hear that this is what the priest and Levite did? Especially when they, if anyone, should know that the way to eternal life is love to God and love to people?

It probably didn’t shock you. You are an Expert in the Law, after all, so you understand why they felt justified in staying away. One of the 613 commands of the Torah says that people should stay away from corpses, which are considered spiritually unclean. In the case of the priest, if he had come over to help the man, and the man turned out to be dead, he would have contaminated himself and would no longer be allowed to officiate religious rites at the Temple. Not permanently—but he would have had to go through a lengthy, arduous period of decontamination to get back to ritual cleanliness. Thus his reason for staying away.

But for Jesus, the reason was not good enough. It was just something that the Priest and Levite used as a basis for spinning the case furiously in their favor. They looked into the rose colored mirror, they thought only about how they are commanded to preserve their religious purity, and in the end, this blinkered form of idealism made it OK for them to commit what was, in truth, a horrible sin. Being in a position to help someone in dire need, and not doing it. Not loving a fellow human being and, in this way, not loving God. One of the Hebrew prophets, Amos, puts this in perspective when he speaks for God and says, “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. […] But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” That’s what Amos says. Where established law and genuine human need are in conflict, choose compassion, as far as possible. That’s what you do.

The rose colored mirror. It makes it so easy for people to appear, to themselves, far more virtuous and innocent than they really are, and to spin their case in their own favor, protesting innocence all the way. Jesus challenged you, and he challenges all of us, to take a long hard look at ourselves. “Why,” he asks, “do you look at the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?” Why indeed.

But Jesus is not done. He’s got more to teach you. Later on in the parable, Jesus describes how a Samaritan helps the man by the side of the road and so behaves in a way that leads to eternal life. “Go and do likewise,” Jesus says to you. How infuriating. For this is what you know: Samaritans are the historical enemies of the Jews. All your life, you were taught that their faith is wrong. That their society is wrong. The very thought of them makes you burn. For you, the mere phrase “good Samaritan” is an impossible combination of words. On your own, you would never put those two words together in a sentence. But Jesus did. Jesus was telling you that someone you viciously and virulently hated—someone you didn’t even see as fully human—was worthy of eternal life, and not you. At least not yet. How difficult it must have been to hear this. How outraged you must have been.

Dear Expert in the Law, I applaud your courage in addressing Jesus. I’d be scared to death to test him. In his time, Jesus always took people to challenging places, and he never pulled his punches. He still does that today, when people read his words, and they are open to them.

In the end, this is what I think he was trying to get at. Samaritans are beaten up in their own way, by the society that surrounds them and vilifies them. And so, just as the Samaritan in the parable helped the man by the side of the road, would you be open to seeing the Samaritans around you with new eyes? Jesus was suggesting that, to “go and do likewise,” you didn’t have to wait for a circumstance identical to the parable but that you could start immediately, right that moment. Bring to mind a social group you have grown up to distrust, or hate. At the very least, bring to mind a person you are angry at, whom you feel is treating you wrongly, unfairly. As you do this, notice how your heart hardens. Notice how you immediately start to spin the case in your own favor, imagining yourself all right and the other all wrong. Above all, own up to it. Acknowledge the rose colored mirror. Acknowledge the log in your own eye. Then do your best. Try to walk a mile in their shoes. Try to understand. If the way to eternal life is anywhere, it is here.

I want to close this letter with a story, which captures some of the essence of what I’ve been talking about. I hope you find it interesting. It comes from a contemporary spiritual teacher named Ram Dass, and it describes his effort to deal with a kind of Samaritan of his own time.

Once there was a spiritual man named Ram Dass, and he lived in a turbulent time called … the Reagan era. He looked around, and he could find nothing that he liked. But his aggravation happened to settle on a particular target: Caspar Weinberger, Reagan’s Secretary of Defense. When Ram Dass thought about it, he realized that, in truth, Caspar was no worse than many others. But there was just something about him that got under his skin. So this is what he did. He got a picture of Caspar and put it on his home altar, together with pictures of spiritual heroes like the Buddha, Christ, Ramana Maharshi, and Hanuman. He included Casper right along with the rest. Each morning, when he’d light his incense and honor his heroes, he’d greet each with tenderness, and he’d feel waves of deep love and appreciation towards them. But then he’d come to Caspar’s picture, and his heart would constrict, he’d hear coldness in his voice when he’d say, “Good morning, Caspar.” Each morning he’d see what a long way he still had to go. But this is what he thought to himself. He thought, “Wasn’t Caspar just another face of God? Couldn’t I oppose his actions and still keep my heart open to him? Wouldn’t it be harder for him to become free from the role he was obviously trapped in if I, with my mind, just kept reinforcing the traps by identifying him with his acts? Do what you do to another person, but never put them out of your heart. It’s a tall order. But what else is there?”

And there it is, dear Expert of the Law. How shall we inherit eternal life? It’s all in the doing. What else is there?

I am yours, sincerely,