Perspective

Several years ago I facilitated a training session of volunteer youth ministry people in the community in which I lived. We talked about how perspective is important to what we do and to the outcomes we hope for. In an earlier post I included a worthy saying that reminds us that perspective affects how we see things, which in turn affects what we do, which naturally impacts outcomes. My point was this: If we want to experience different outcomes in life or ministry, that only happens with a changed perspective, not just by doing things different.

To drive the point home, I showed the group the drawing of the woman below. The participants were given the task of planning an evening with her. What might they do and talk about? One younger person said she would ask this older woman what life was like as a teenager “back in the day.” An older gentleman (60ish) in the group, looking puzzled, said, “I was thinking of asking her, as a young woman, what she thinks her life might look like when she is my age.” Each person planned an evening for the woman based on their perception of her age. What they planned to do was based on their perspective.

Old or young woman?

Our perspective as to why Jesus came to our planet has a huge impact on how we do life, on all that we do. Of course the orthodox understanding is related to our salvation (or soteriology, to use the theological term). I suspect the overarching soteriological perspective of western evangelical Christians is this: Jesus came to save us so that we can go to heaven when we die. Actually, it probably sounds more like this: Jesus came to save me so that I can go to heaven when I die. We call this good news because it is. But the Good News of Jesus is much bigger.

If my perspective is “Jesus came to save me so I can go to heaven when I die” then what do I do with the rest of my life while I wait to go to heaven? If I have already accepted Jesus into my life or given my life to Him (or whatever terminology we choose to describe how we participate in his saving work), then what is there left to do? I suspect if we are honest, far too many of us simply live out life, waiting to go to heaven, maybe wishing we could go sooner than later. We hear it all the time – life will be so much better in heaven.

But then guilt sets in. We should be doing something, shouldn’t we? We hear a sermon that suggests we aren’t doing enough. Or we read a scripture that suggests a need to change something we are doing (or not doing). So we try to make changes to what we do. We work on changing the behavior that seems to need tweaking (we all need to change, right?). Problem is that behavior modification leads to moralism and moralism doesn’t work!

What if our perspective is wrong or, at least, incomplete? What if being a Christian is much bigger than simply going to heaven when we die? What if heaven is only a slice of a bigger pie? NT Wright would suggest a perspective amiss: “people often imagine the main purpose of Christianity to be getting people to heaven and teaching them to behave along the way.” * He goes on to reminds us that heaven is a big deal, but it’s not the end of the world.

So, what perspective did Jesus want his followers to come away with after hanging out with him for three years? It’s important to understand because it affected all they did and said as they went “into all the world.” Jesus did not tell his disciples to go into the world and tell people how to get to heaven. It was never his message. Read the Gospels – its not there! Jesus did not leave his disciples with a self-focused perspective of simply getting to heaven.

Here’s the thing – A theological perspective that Jesus simply came to save me so I can go to heaven when I die will not serve me well in this world. Nor will it serve those around me. Moralism is the natural outcome. Moralism doesn’t lead to loving neighbor well. And it certainly doesn’t lead to loving our enemies. We all would agree that American Christians don’t love our enemies well, which should tell us something is amiss. I would suggest it’s our perspective. The result? The Good News simply becomes good advice and the world is left wanting.

* Wright, N. T. (2017). Simply good news: Why the gospel is news and what makes it good. New York:Harper One. P. 22, Kindle Edition

“You are NOT the Good Samaritan”

Hearing this statement at a Young Life conference 35 years ago set me on the path to discovering the Jesus of scripture. The speaker (I think his name was Bob) wanted the audience to understand that we tend to eisegetically read scripture. Eisegesis was a newer term to me – one of those theological terms that I thought was of no practical use. The speaker proved to me otherwise.

Eisegetical scripture reading, Bob explained, happens when we read the text through the lens of what we already believe to be true. What we read is shaped by our preconceptions. As I took notes, this cognitively made sense to me. I prided myself that I certainly was above reading scripture through such lenses. Then the speaker rocked my world, wounded my pride, and pretty much disrupted everything for me.

Turning to Jesus’ parable we know as the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), Bob showed us just how real and subtly we read eisegetically. I remember him asking the audience, who in the story we most identified with. It seemed like we all figured we were the Good Samaritan, or at least tried to be. I know I assumed as much – after all, that’s what Jesus was asking of us, right? It’s what we learned in Sunday School.

Then the unraveling began. Bob helped us understand that Samaritans were despised (nay, hated) by Jesus’ audience, the Jewish theologians of the day. Some members of the Jewish nation had long prior compromised their charter and beliefs and married people outside their faith and ethnic group. These were the Samaritans. They were called half-breeds and dogs. When people traveled to Jerusalem from Galilee to honor God through the various annual festivals, they added days to their journey just to avoid Samaria. The parable, the story that Jesus told, was in response to a religious expert’s question:

On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” “What is written in the Law?” Jesus replied. “How do you read it?”  The expert answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.” But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

As Jesus told the story, one could envision the legal expert understanding why the priest and Levite passed to the other side of the road, away from the robbery victim. They were on their way to serve in the Temple and contact with a bleeding person would have disqualified them to do their jobs. It was the law. However, what probably made the expert’s hair stand up on the back of his neck was Jesus’ introduction of the Samaritan as the ‘good guy.’

Wanting us to get the effect of what Jesus was saying to his audience 2000 years ago, Bob retold the story in modern terms. He talked about a pastor or a Young Life leader passing to the other side of the injured man. Then Bob went on to say, “But a Homosexual, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him.” The hair stood up on the back of my neck! Not so much because he said ‘homosexual’ but because he had messed with scripture, that he had messed with the neat, domesticated story I was so familiar with. I was no longer the good guy – that was no longer on the table as an option.

What’s more, Jesus’ primary point wasn’t to be a ‘good’ Samaritan. The expert wanted to know who his neighbor was. After hearing the parable, he had to admit that his neighbor was, in fact, the Samaritan (though he couldn’t bring himself to utter ‘Samaritan’), and that’s who he was to love.

Who might Jesus substitute for ‘Samaritan’ today, if he were to tell the story in a manner that might make the hair on the back of your neck stand up? It’s an important question that we may not want to think about. Discovering the Jesus of scripture is a wonderful thing, but doesn’t come without the undoing of our domesticated version of Him or without some angst. But, as I said in the previous post, it’s well worth it!