I don’t know how or when, but something changed.
Approximately 2000 years ago a young rabbi from an obscure middle eastern village began travelling the countryside to teach. Along the way he embraced the untouchable and infuriated the religious. He lifted up the downtrodden and unsettled the comfortable.
Detractors labeled him a heretic. Others called him a lunatic who performed miracles by the power of the devil. He struck fear in the hearts of religious and political leaders who rightly believed that his teaching would turn the world upside down. In a desperate attempt to protect the status quo they arrested the rabbi like a common criminal and publicly executed him.
Tradition teaches that many of his earliest followers met a similar fate. They were beaten and jailed, pursued and executed. In its earliest form, to be Christian meant abandoning comfort and security. In a very real way, it meant putting your life on the line.
Then something happened. Somewhere along the line Christianity became safe. Maybe it started with Emperor Constantine. When faith meets empire the allure of power and influence can easily draw us away from a life spent with those on the margins.
Whatever the case, much of modern Christianity and particularly Western Christianity, has become domesticated. We have tamed the radical teachings of Jesus and transformed them into something safe and comfortable. Belonging to a church has become akin to visiting a spa. We go to receive personal comfort, to be refreshed. Then we return to our real lives.
Put another way, Jesus called us to walk upon the waves of a raging ocean and we tried to meet him in the wading pool.
I’d like to think that I am an exception to this attitude, but I’d be lying to myself. I live in lavish wealth compared to the majority of the world’s population. I give occasional time and money to my favorite causes, but not too much. After all, if I give everything away what would be left for me? I spend the majority of my life surrounded by people who look and sound like me. I attend church on Sunday and say prayers before meals and bed. I don’t risk much.
The problem is that Jesus demands more. When asked the greatest commandment, Jesus said, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this, love your neighbor as yourself. No other commandment is greater than these.” (Mark 12:30). When asked, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus responded with the story of the Good Samaritan:
“A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’ Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.” – Luke 10:30-37
In a 1967 sermon titled “The Three Dimensions of a Complete Life” Martin Luther King Jr. discussed this parable.
“It’s possible that these men passed by on the other side because they were afraid. You know, the Jericho Road is a dangerous road….it’s a winding, curving, meandering road, very conducive for robbery….During the days of Jesus that road came to the point of being known as the “Bloody Path.”…The first question that the Levite asked was “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me? But the Good Samaritan came by and he reversed the question. Not “What will happen to me if I stop to help this man?” but “What will happen to this man if I do not stop to help him?” (from “A Knock at Midnight: Inspiration from the Great Sermons of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.)
To be a Christian is to live like the Good Samaritan. To do that we must be on the Jericho Road, ready to help those who have been broken along the way. We must be willing to ask, “What will happen if I do not stop to help?” We cannot be safe.
May God protect us from a faith that is safe.