It used to mean a pungent smell, and a bitter taste, and great confusion about adulthood. Now it is the smell to start the day, the taste that brings energy, and the way of life. I’m talking, of course, about coffee. In my childhood I didn’t understand it at all, and then, thanks to a certain college roommate, slowly, over time, it became a staple of my life.
As we learned long ago words derive their meaning based on the context they are used in a sentence, and that sentence gets it’s meaning based on the paragraph it is a part of, etc. etc. At some point words find meaning according to the story of which they are a part. The word ‘college’ conjures up all sorts of images and meanings based on the stories we tell ourselves we are a part of. For some it is a past life where great (or terrible) moments happened. For others it is bittersweet because it is the place where your child is, and you both mourn their absence and celebrate their progressive journey through life. For others still it is a reminder of what a failure you believe you are for either not going to college yourself or for your inability as a parent to raise kids who go to college.
We are all collections of stories that we tell about ourselves, this world, and even God. These stories have the power to either empower us to live or they pull us down like an overfilled backpack. The Christian message is the true story orienting the whole world. It is the story of a God who loved the world enough to send his only Son, to save the world by putting evil and death to death on the cross and by rising to new life in his resurrection. In light of this person, Jesus of Nazareth, and his work, the whole world is living under a certain story, and this story often shows that some of our words are being understood incorrectly.
Jesus would tell stories to explain the new way the world was functioning now that he had taken the reigns as king. And these stories would change the meanings of words. A clear example of this is when a religious teacher was trying to be clever with Jesus and asked him “who is my neighbor?” in reference to the command, “love your neighbor as yourself.” The man is essentially asking this question because he is trying to determine who he is not obligated to love. He is hoping that loving his neighbor is something that he is already doing. When we think of the word ‘neighbor’ on its own we often think of those in proximity to us. Most of us live next to people who are similar to us; they are of the same race, religion, educational upbringing, and income. This means that loving our neighbor is not too difficult because it is often easy to love others who are like us. Jesus turns this idea of neighbor on its head as he tells him the story of the Good Samaritan. I won’t repeat the whole story (you can read it yourself in Luke 10:25-37), but the punch line of the story is that after two Jewish religious leaders walk past a recently attacked and abandoned traveler, a Samaritan comes and helps the man. A big deal because at that time Samaritans were to Jews maybe what ISIS is to Americans today. And Jesus asks the man, “which one of these three was a neighbor to the man who was hurt?” Jesus is turning the question of “who is my neighbor?” from being about who am I supposed to love to a question more direct about how can I be a neighbor to all I encounter in my life.
We are going to be looking at several words that need to be re-understood in light of Jesus in the coming weeks. We have already looked at Doubt/Belief, and Sinners/Saints, and we are going to examine Religious/Spiritual, Mercy/Justice, and Submission/Subversion.
Join in on this conversation by attending Sunday mornings and by checking it out yourself. All of these words are pretty explicitly addressed in the Bible, especially in the New Testament. Whether you simply want to learn more about this story, or you are a Christian attempting to let this story guide and direct you, reading Scripture has been throughout the history of the Church one of the best ways to hear this story. More than hearing, reading Scripture captures us into the narrative; we see that this God of the world is the God for us, that the promises are for us, that the love of God is for us, that we are the stranger who has been attacked and abandoned on the side of the road, and it is Christ who has come to bind up our wounds. Won’t you listen to the story?