Forming Faith Blog

Breaking Boundaries (February 21, 2021)

A person wrapping a bandage around another's leg. The story of the merciful Samaritan showed Jesus breaking boundaries.
Two Stories

This week marks the first Sunday of Lent. Lent is a season of preparation, a journey to the cross. It is first of all Jesus’ journey, but one that he calls us to follow after him on. Jesus has set his face toward Jerusalem.

This first Sunday, we encounter two stories: that of the merciful Samaritan and that of Martha and Mary. How do these stories move us further toward Jerusalem and the cross?

The Central Question

In the first story, a lawyer comes to test Jesus. The lawyer would be an honored member of society whose job it was to know the Torah and to judge whether actions were within the law or outside of it. He is likely coming to Jesus to judge whether this new rabbi was teaching within the law or outside of it. His question gets to the heart of it. He asks, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” In other Gospels, the question is “What is the greatest commandment?” But the sense is the same: What is the most important principle of the Torah? Where does your theological center lie?

Jesus answers the question with another question. He turns the question on this expert in the law. “What do you think?” he asks. The lawyer answers by combining two verses from the Torah that define the most important commandments: love God, love your neighbor.

Defining Boundaries

But a lawyer’s job is to define the boundaries. Rules may be simple on paper, but life is full of gray. He probably assumed that he knew (and they agreed upon) the definition of “love” and what it means to “love God,” he needed to define who this neighbor is whom we need to love. The original context for that part, Leviticus 19:18, is clear:

You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.

Here, “neighbor” is “any of your people.” A neighbor is a person like me, one of my people. The question this raises for me in this exchange: why did the lawyer feel the need to elaborate? The original context is clear. Had he heard something about Jesus that would make him wonder about this rabbi’s definition?

Ethnic Boundaries

This Jewish lawyer is basically the quintessence of an insider. He is a Jew, one of God’s chosen people. He is a respected member of society. He is an expert on the Torah. It’s even his job to judge other people. This Jesus knew. So he set up a story illustration taking place inside Judea, with the following characters:

  1. An injured man (presumably Jewish since he isn’t defined as anything else). He is in clear need of help, urgent help at that. If we are talking about loving, we need someone who needs that love. It’s not even ambiguous about what needs to be done to love/help.
  2. A Priest. Another insider. He has the most insider-ly job you can have. He is of a chosen line within a chosen tribe within a chosen people.
  3. A Levite. Another insider. Perhaps a little less insider-ly. He is of a chosen tribe of a chosen people.
  4. A Samaritan. An outsider. Perhaps considered even more “outside” than the Roman occupiers.

We have probably all heard the same interpretation: the expectation would be that the holy insiders (priest and Levite) would be the heroes of this story. They exemplified the best God’s chosen people could offer. They would follow this commandment, helping the injured man, and we should strive to be like them.

But that’s not how Jesus tells the story. The priest and the Levite choose to follow different parts of the law (that they shouldn’t touch dead bodies, or they couldn’t do their important, holy work). They are not being wicked, but they need to re-evaluate their priorities. The dirty, nasty Samaritan would be expected to despise the injured Jewish man as much as the man would despise him. That is the expectation. But that’s not how it works here. The Samaritan defies cultural expectations and boundaries.

Breaking Ethnic Boundaries

Then, Jesus subverts expectations one more time. The lawyer asked, “To whom am I expected to love/serve/show mercy?” That’s an easy answer: the injured man. That’s not what Jesus asks of the lawyer in his response. He asks, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man?” Not “whom should you love?” but “whom should you emulate?”

The answer was to emulate the despised outsider who did the right thing.

Gender Boundaries

Jesus doesn’t just expect us to break culture-based ethnic boundaries, but others as well. In the next story, Jesus visits two sisters, Martha and Mary. In their household, there is nary a man in sight. It should be a man who welcomes Jesus and his disciples, but instead, it’s Martha. How improper! He, a man, enters their house (also likely improper). Martha (I’m guessing the older sister by their dynamic) gets busy doing the important work of hospitality. Martha often comes off badly in this story, but she is doing good, important work. Hospitality was a major cultural priority. Here we’re in familiar territory, as that work would often be done by a woman.

Breaking Gender Boundaries

Mary is the rule-breaker here. She is sitting at Jesus’ feet, learning from him. This is the behavior of a disciple. Disciples were basically in training to become rabbis themselves. Women couldn’t be rabbis, so women shouldn’t presume to be—or act like—disciples. Jesus’ response to Martha’s complaint is not only a rebuke of Martha’s frustration, but also a rebuke of the gender boundaries that would have prevented Mary from being a disciple (and later a rabbi/church leader).

In both stories, Jesus encourages others to break boundaries.

Free Resource

God’s kingdom appears in acts of kindness and mercy to both friend and foe, insiders and outsiders. However, if we aren’t used to this, it’s important to practice. Our free activity “Oil and Bandages” creates an opportunity to show kindness and mercy to those around us, at home or at church (or anywhere else). After we practice in a safe space, we can move to break boundaries like Jesus did. This activity is found in our Living the Word: Cross+Gen Education (NL) curriculum and can be easily used in many different contexts.


Gregory Rawn (Publisher)

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