+ + +
Do you know what a snow-plant is?
I had never seen a snow-plant until I was walking in a grove of sequoias a year or two ago, up at Lake Tahoe, and there they were, two or three of them, poking up from beneath the pine needles, looking like red torpedoes, or fat red asparagus, or some kind of lumpy red mushroom. I stopped in amazement, and crouched low over them, with my hands clasped behind me, to look closely without disturbing them. And someone, it seemed, had taken the trouble to make sure I didn’t disturb them, because around them was drawn a circle in pinecones.
On this hike, nearly every little cluster of snow-plants I saw had a similar circle of pinecones drawn around it. Some of the snow-plants were done for the season, rusty brown and dried out with their seeds sprinkled around them; and some of them were still bright red and fresh. So I was sure that the same person had not drawn all the pinecone circles. And what made me the most sure was that finally I found a group of brilliantly colored, new snow-plants, and I stopped for a minute and enjoyed them, and then I gathered pinecones and drew a circle around them myself.
Later, back at camp, I was reporting my experience to my husband. “Why did you draw the circle?” he asked. “I’m not quite sure,” I answered. “It seemed like the thing to do. It was like when you see something really wonderful, or you see something that looks magic or sacred, you want to draw a circle around it to set it apart, to hold it up, to say, ‘This is special, this is to be noticed, this is to be wondered at.'” And my husband answered, “Seems to me when you draw a circle around something, it means, ‘Keep out.'”
Boundaries. The problem is, they don’t have any absolute meaning in themselves. My husband and I, looking at the same raw data, made two different meanings of it. I saw a frame around a work of art. He saw a fence. A wall. And we were both looking from the vantage point of someone standing outside the circle of pinecones. Might the boundary mean something else from inside the circle?
You know on the west shore of the lake, those magnificent estates that you can barely see into, because they have a huge wall around them? Boundaries, for sure. But what do they mean? If you live in the big house inside, maybe you’re thinking about security, or privacy. All those tourists, you think. All those people like Linda Clader who want to peer into your yard, and catch a glimpse of how you live. If you’re on the outside, driving by, you’re probably thinking about snobbery, or the division of wealth in our society. And you might feel a little envious. Or you might reverse the discrimination, and feel superior because you have to work so hard for what you have.
Boundaries. They aren’t all like a wall or a circle, or the frame around a picture– a line you can see. Boundaries can be produced by sounds, too. A neighbor of mine keeps his dog in the yard with a boundary made by a high-pitched noise. And another friend of mine doesn’t go into a store unless she can hear someone speaking Spanish.
Boundaries. Without them, you can’t play tennis. Without them, you can’t drive a car safely. Without them, you can’t keep a calendar, you can’t run a government, you can’t wage a war. It seems that we humans are programmed, or built, to need edges on things.
Which is why we need to be patient with that lawyer in the story. Like all of us, he was educated to appreciate the usefulness of boundaries. When he asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” he was doing nothing more outrageous than anyone does who tries to get a firm grip on the meaning of some rule or other, some boundary or other.
Even more to the point, as a lawyer, he was a professional reader and interpreter of the Book of Deuteronomy.
Now, the book of Deuteronomy has a lot to do with drawing distinctions, with defining what it means to be a member of the people of Israel. But that lawyer, that student of the Law, knew perfectly well that the Law of Moses wasn’t intended to be wielded like a club to bash those who were outside the community, outside the circle. He knew perfectly well that the Law of Moses wasn’t aimed at keeping outsiders outside; it was aimed at teaching the community under the Law to live justly with one another.
The Law drew a circle around this peculiar community of people who saw themselves as subject to their peculiar God; the Law drew a circle, to point up the wonder of that people’s story, and to mark how sacred that story was. But the Law did something else, too: it commanded those peculiar people to look around within that circle, and outside it, and to pay attention to their neighbors who were in need.
The lawyer in the story understood all this. In fact, he and Jesus seem to have agreed right away that the whole of the Law boiled down to love God and love your neighbor. “You have given the right answer,” says Jesus; “Do this, and you will live.”
The problem with the lawyer was that he apparently had no intention of doing anything. Like so many of us, he had gotten trapped into believing that knowing was enough. And again, like so many of us, he had also slid into that very dangerous habit of using his knowledge to draw a little circle around himself so he could feel safe. The circle he had drawn was smaller than that other boundary between us and them. The circle he had drawn protected him even from his own countrymen.
The story Jesus tells him takes aim exactly at those circles, those boundaries that the lawyer has pulled up so close to himself. The story follows a familiar Jewish pattern. A man lies at the side of the road, stripped of everything and beaten to a pulp. A priest passes by, and then a Levite. Both of these characters are professional holy men in the Jewish tradition, but they don’t do what is obviously–to everyone, certainly including the lawyer–they don’t do what is obviously the right thing; they pass by on the other side.
Now we’re following a traditional storytelling pattern, and Jesus’ audience and we all know that the third person is always going to be the good guy. The expected character here would have been the humble Jewish layman, who follows the Law, shows compassion, and somehow saves the day. That’s what the lawyer would have expected. Something like that is what we expect. But it’s not what Jesus gives us.
The “hero” that Jesus brings into the story at this point is the despicable Samaritan. Today, when we call someone a “Good Samaritan,” we are never playing on that aspect of the story. A Samaritan was a heretic, and an outcast, a thoroughly loathsome, barely human character. We all want to identify with the hero in a story, and so when we retell the story of the Good Samaritan, we conveniently forget that the hero is someone we wouldn’t even speak to. Then we go on identifying with the one who showed compassion.
The lawyer in the story doesn’t have that freedom: it’s entirely unthinkable for him, as a devout Jew, to identify with the Samaritan. If the lawyer is going to stay in the story at all, that leaves him only one option: he has to cross over that circle he has drawn for himself, and identify with the guy lying naked, penniless and unconscious in the ditch. He has to see himself as the victim.
Now, there’s plenty of evidence in the scriptures that Jesus was very interested in injustice among his people. And there’s plenty of evidence that possibly the form of injustice he was most interested in was injustice committed in the name of religious purity. And there’s no doubt that as the early Church got going, there was more and more interest in questions about who was out and who was in, and in particular those questions focused on distinctions between Jews and non-Jews in the Christian community. All these interests, all these themes come up in the familiar story of the Good Samaritan.
But I don’t think that those are the real target. Because this story, about crossing the boundary between privileged lawyer and hapless victim, is followed in the Gospel of Luke (next week’s reading, in fact) by another story about crossing boundaries, the famous story of Martha working in the kitchen and Mary sitting at Jesus’ feet. In today’s story, the lawyer who knows it all but won’t do anything is shown to be on the wrong track; next week, it will be the doer who is told that she needs to pay attention to another way.
God knows we need our boundaries. In today’s society, somebody with “good boundaries” is considered a healthy person, and we talk about boundaries when we’re discussing the protection of the less powerful. Boundaries are with us, and they’re good and they’re useful. But the gospel of Jesus Christ is challenging us to look straight at our boundaries, and to consider what spaces or people they might be dividing, and to consider whether those boundaries have been devised to shut gates and doors rather than opening them.
Are they circles meant to frame something wonderful–a flower, a community, an experience–and hold it up so all can see? And if that’s what they’re meant to do, are they succeeding in that without being misinterpreted? Do the fences, the walls that we erect to feel snug and secure from danger keep out love, as well? Do our so-called “professional boundaries” work so well that they prevent our acting with compassion? Whether we see ourselves inside or outside someone else’s circle, can we step across and look at ourselves from that other person’s vantage point? And once we’ve stepped across, can we reach back with an open hand?
God knows we need our boundaries. But God doesn’t seem to. When we talk about God, we hear words like bound-less. Boundless wisdom. Boundless love. And we hear story after story about boundaries broken. Jesus eating with the outcast. A Samaritan presented as the hero of a story. Forgiveness offered to a sinner who hasn’t even asked for it. Our God, coming among us in the flesh, dying for us all.
God knows we need our boundaries. But we gather, now and then, to celebrate the glimpse Jesus Christ has given us of the boundlessness that is the Reign of God. Gathered here, we celebrate our claim that we dwell under that Reign of God, that everyone dwells in that Kingdom. Look hard at those circles, those lines, those walls and doors and gates and fences.What do they protect? Whom do they reject? And how might we Christians be called to open the door or hold out a hand?