When the lawyer finally got face time with Jesus, he poured out what was heaviest on his heart, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He groped for a guarantee. He wanted a divine will and testament. He was begging for a bill of rights.
As usual, Jesus pivoted on freedom. He was never much into being The Bible Answer Man. He asked the lawyer how he interpreted the sacred text. The lawyer’s answer, according to Jesus, was spot-on. Eternity’s most valuable asset has nothing to do with where we go when we die. It is a gut-busting love for both our higher power and our lowly neighbors. Right here. Right now.
However, the lawyer just had to press further. He just had to know how far the boundaries of his neighborhood actually extended. The lawyer was gerrymandering love. But Jesus filibustered with a parable about the Samaritan, a dark-skinned immigrant with a foreign accent. This neighbor par excellence exploded love’s borders with oil, wine, a donkey and a couple of denarii. There goes the neighborhood. The Samaritan was moved by the power of mercy. Unlike the entitled and interrogating lawyer clinging to his inheritance, the Samaritan lived with a sense of obligation that resisted qualifiers.
I’ll be honest. When god-talk starts dabbling in duty, my heart starts waving a theological red flag. I am a codependent in recovery. I learned early and often that I must earn love through a full-court press of obligation to people and tasks. I said “yes” over and over and over and over again because I believed this was the route to real love and acceptance. However, this counterfeit form of obligation sucked my soul dry. It stripped me of freedom. It still does.
An obligation built on a fake love that refuses to rock the boat is the opposite of the permission-giving love grenades that Jesus lobbed the masses. Fake love hoodwinks me into believing that I cannot, I must not, I should never ever ask for what I need. Fake love is nice and agreeable no matter what. My coaches and bosses, abusers and addicts, delighted in this harsh discipline of duty. And then along came my evangelical pastors. I remember when, in early adulthood, a mentor employed by Campus Crusade for Christ passionately quoted Philemon 6 to me:
“I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective when you perceive all the good that we may do for Christ.”
Yes, Tommy, it is vital that you share your faith with nonbelievers — not only so that they get saved from the fires of hell, but also so that you might come to a clearer and deeper understanding of the riches of Christ.
Indeed, the Apostle Paul was quoted to me ad nauseum. Paul, that authoritarian for the Gospel, who remained celibate for Christ (1 Cor. 7:8) and was gifted with a thorn in his flesh to keep him from being too elated (2 Cor. 12:7)! Paul possessed the key to abundant life, writing of burden upon burden stacked on his shoulders as he worshiped unceasingly at the altar of a spiritual squat rack:
“I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them” (1 Cor. 9:19b).
Paul was winning, I was assured, because he was shackled by a sense of duty, sacrificing for the needs and expectations of everyone else! Like Paul, I loved winning too. I took the sports page as seriously as my evangelical daily quiet time in the Word. I revered athletes who could do all things through steroids-Christ who gave them strength. So I ripped this page out of Paul’s playbook and memorized it. This mantra was like crack cocaine for a codependent like me. But lo and behold, my performance for an “audience of one” was leaving out the first postulate of Paul’s training program:
“For though I am free with respect to all . . .” (1 Cor. 9:19a).
Freedom! Authentic spirituality begins and ends here. The liberating God of Jesus and the real Paul yearns for lovers, not victims and martyrs. We always have a choice. No one is holding a gun to our hearts. Jesus shared universal human truth when he proclaimed: No one takes my life from me, but I lay it down of my own accord (John 10:18a). This, I’ve come to believe, is the starting block of what it means to be spiritual-but-not-religious.
We’ve ruthlessly rejected religion and its long-and-still-growing rap sheet. Religion has, for millennia, been used by professional religionists to shoulder people into following. No matter the cost.
Authentic obligation, rooted in the Latin obligatio, means being bound by an oath. Jesus extended the boundaries of the oath. He did not focus on the family. When he told the disciples to let the little children come to him, the little children were other people’s children. Jesus was a kinnovator and a clanarchist. He experimented with an alternative community of people bound by an oath to God’s will — in every era, inevitably different than the will of empires and institutions.
However, Jesus bestowed upon his followers the authority to discern together not only what they were bound by, but also what they were released from (Matt. 16:19; 18:18). It liberated them from the constraints of conventional wisdom. Their only litmus test was love, which demanded that they block the usual suspects from asserting their will upon groupthink. Love trumps powerful vested interests, deep fears, unresolved hurts, family expectations, peer pressure, economic opportunity and social ideology.
Detroit community organizer Monica Lewis-Patrick calls this the ideology of the beloved community. It’s simple. “If my brother’s not doing alright,” she lamented to a delegation visiting from Venezuela back in 2016, “then I’m not doing alright.” The Lakota say Mitákuye Oyás’iŋ. All are related. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called it “the interrelated structure of reality” and “the web of mutuality.” Brené Brown (bless her holy name!) writes that authentic spirituality springs from the fact that we are “inextricably connected” to one another by a power greater than all of us combined. There are so many ways to say it and slice it. The story of the Samaritan subversively proclaims the good news: we have already inherited eternal life. Because we are already (and always) bound by love. Now, we are simply called to live love out.
Tom Airey is the co-editor of radicaldiscipleship.net, where this post first appeared. He and his wife, Lindsay, live in Detroit, where they are serving with St. Peter’s Episcopal Church and the Jeanie Wylie Christian Community.