The other day someone explained the parable of the Good Samaritan in a way that made me see both the tale and Jesus Christ in a new way. This person asked me if I knew what that story really meant, and I said, "Of course," ever so mildly miffed that he'd think I didn't. And by the end of his telling, I realized that I'd always missed a good portion of what that story was all about.
Here's how he told it (with a little extra color from me):
A general authority sees an injured man lying naked, bloody and half dead by the side of the road, and moves his car into the far lane, getting as much distance as possible between himself and the unconscious, immobile wretch. Then a temple worker sees the same injured man, and likewise leaves the poor guy there to die. They don't even get out their cell phones and call an ambulance.
Then along comes someone that the general authority and temple worker would consider the dregs of society--an anarchist lesbian who works in a vegan restaurant, maybe--who sees the poor filthy, bloody man, stops, gets out the first aid kit she carries in her car, and does her best to clean and staunch his wounds. She doesn't have a cell phone, so she can't call 911; instead, she puts they guy in the back of her Subaru station wagon and drives him to an emergency room, where she agrees to pay all his expenses even if it turns out he doesn't have insurance, and she also promises to come back and visit the guy.
"Now, you have to remember: this guy was almost dead," my friend said. "And corpses were ritually unclean--touching one was one of the most defiling things you could do; it would mean you were unworthy to participate in a great many ceremonies until you had done some sort of ritual cleansing. So what really happened is that these two men, considered the pinnacle of righteousness within their church, chose to behave in a way that let them keep their temple recommends but did not adhere to the basic religious requirement that they show compassion to other human beings, particularly those who are suffering. And Jesus was saying that to inherit eternal life, you have to be willing to sacrifice your temple recommend if that's what's needed to help someone else."
It has been a long time since I have liked Jesus. There are many reasons for this. One is the fact that despite the church's name, I never really had the sense that Jesus Christ was all that important to Mormons. OK, they believe he's the savior of the world, but he's not the one in charge. The one you pray to, the one who will judge you, the one who set up the whole system, the one you have to placate and please--that's God the Father, and he's who matters; he's who Mormons obsess about most. And as I mentioned back in March, Mormons don't really seem so big on Easter, despite the fact that it is supposedly the anniversary of the event that makes resurrection available to everyone.
Another is that I have long felt that Jesus is used primarily as a weapon. He's something I've been bludgeoned with, by people ranging from bishops to my six-year-old nephew, who screamed at me in fury and outrage when he found out I didn't go to church. If you've never had a first grader yell "Obey Jesus!" at you with so much venom he sprays saliva all over you, well, you're lucky. (And the fact that I didn't say a single thing in response is one more reason I think I've shown some forbearance in my relationship with my family.)
OK, I respected Jesus for his historical importance, the same way I respected Napoleon and Teddy Roosevelt. But I also felt that his reputation was a little inflated.
Now I'm starting to think that maybe I have more to learn from Jesus. This telling of the tale of the Good Samaritan made me interested in Jesus, primarily because I realized just how offensive his story would have been to his audience. It made me realize that Jesus would have been considered an asshole by a lot of the people who heard him speak. "What is this guy's problem?" people would have said. "Why is he criticizing our leaders, whom we're supposed to revere and follow? Why is he acting like all the commandments aren't important? Who the hell does he think he is, the son of god or something?"
I sort of always knew that--I mean, that's the narrative--but it's always told in such limited terms: Jesus offended the Jews, who had lost sight of what is godly. It's another to realize how much Jesus would likely offend Mormons if he were to speak to them today. He preached against a rigid system of behavioral codes that impeded true compassion, which is what I feel Mormonism has become. I do wonder what he'd have to say to the members of the church on topics like gay marriage, universal health care, a higher minimum wage. Would he tell them that the divine doesn't really give a shit about whether or not they drink coffee? It seems possible.