Subverting the Tropes in Christian Missions

The following is an excerpt from my new little book, “Missions in Samaria.” This section seeks to look at one principle for missions that can be drawn from the history of missions work in Samaria and with Samaritans. This one is about Subverting the Tropes.

Missions in Samaria

Subvert the Tropes. Jesus did this in the Parable of the Good Samaritan. The story could have followed a classic structure maintaining a mythic role supporting cultural values and prejudices. Consider the following story:

One day a Gentile had business in Jericho and so started the windy arduous road down to that village from Jerusalem. At one of the blind turns of this road he was accosted by highwaymen who stole everything he had and left him for dead.

As he was lying there bleading, a tax collector came upon him. However, the tax collector did not even slow down but hurried on past. “No profit here for me,” he thought, “and whoever attacked him may be waiting for me as well.” Soon another man came along the trail– a Samaritan. “Better him than me.” He also hurried onto his destination.

After awhile, a poor Jew came by. He saw the Gentile and had pity on his plight. He thought to himself, “The Law says that I must show hospitality to all, including aliens and strangers. I certainly cannot just leave this man here.” So the poor Jew cleansed and bandaged the Gentile’s wounds and clothed him as best he could, and put him on his donkey and brought him to Jericho where he tended to the man until he was able to care for himself.

This story fulfills the common tropes of the time with tax collectors being too concerned with self and with money to provide help, and Samaritans being bigoted, selfish, and not obeying the Mosaic Law. The poor Jew, however, piously does what is right in honor to his faith and to his God.

As you know, I am sure, Jesus did not do this. The unmerciful ones were not only Jews, but they were Jewish religious leaders. The merciful one, the hero, was the Samaritan.

By learning the stories, tropes, prejudices that exist driving communities apart, we have the tools for subverting them. Stories that challenge the status quo and the preconceived notions of a culture have a parabolic role– serve in the role of a parable. Jesus did that a lot. His stories would often subvert commonly-held values. The one most precious is the one that wandered away. Divine love is most clearly visible when it is given to those who seem to deserve it the least. The most weak or seemingly insignificant things are often what matters most. The wealthy may not only NOT be closer to God, but the wealth may actually be a hindrance to their being righteous in God’s sight.

A second way to change the narratve is to Change the Focus. Consider the old trope of the silent era (lampooned in the cartoon shorts of “Dudley Doright”) of a love triangle of a rejected ugly bad man, a beautiful but helpless young woman, and a handsome noble hero. Ultimately and predictably, the hero overcomes the bad man and wins the heart of the ‘fair maiden.’ There are many options to subvert this story, such as making the woman heroic and capable rather than helpless. However, the narrative also changes when one changes the focus. In this classic example, the focus is on how the hero resolves the conflict by “saving the day.” But one can also focus on the woman who lives in a world of objectification, or on the bad man, driven to hate and revenge for reasons that could be fascinating to explore.

In the story of the ten lepers we see a change of focus from the norm. Jesus tells ten lepers who are seeking to be healed to go to the priest to be declared clean (a requirement in the Mosaic quarantine laws). On their way, they discover themselves healed. Nine of them joyfully continue their journey to be legally declared clean. One however, turned back to express thanks to Jesus. The story specially notes that the man who thanked Jesus was a Samaritan. The story could be presented as many other stories in the Gospels with Jesus as the focus. In this one, however, the focus is not on Jesus primarily. It is also not primarily on the lepers as a whole, but is rather on the Samaritan who returned to express gratitude.

Sometimes we need to change focus. A few years ago in the United States there was a movement called “Black Lives Matter.” It was a response to some questionable shootings of African-American men by police officers. In many of those cases the police were exhonerated by the justice system, often despite pretty damning evidence against them. Some people, including many Christians, responded negatively to the Black Lives Matter movement suggesting that it is better to say “All Lives Matter.” In a sense they are right— All Lives do in fact Matter. However, when there has been a strong amount of discrimination and marginalization in a society, it needs to be responded to with focus, not with generalities.

During this pandemic, there are people, again including some Christians, who are making the argument that the elderly should be given lesser priority. Some see it as a “thinning of the herd”– a surprisingly Darwinian attitude. For others, it appears to be driven by a higher value on economics than of human life. If one would seek to counter this attitude, saying “All Lives Matter” would be inadequate. We would may need to say that “All Elderly Lives Matter,” or “All Medically Under-insured Lives Matter.”

Taking this same example into first century Judea, saying that one must love one’s neighbor, or one must love everyone, may be true but is too general to hit home. Focus is needed to make the message hit home. You must love your enemy. You must love Samaritans. You must love the poor. You must love Gentiles. You must love tax collectors and prostitutes. And you must demonstrate that love not only through words but through action. This leads to the second point.

Words for the Timid Soul

Parable of the Talents
Image via Wikipedia

J. B. Phillips, the Anglican rector who gave us such a special translation of the New Testament, disagreed sharply with the line from a familiar hymn: “O to be nothing, nothing…” Dr. Phillips said he searched the New Testament in vain to find an endorsement for that point of view. If ever a book taught people to be “something, something,” he said, and to stand and do battle– “to be far more full of joy and daring and life than they ever were without God– that book is the New Testament.”

How can we claim to believe in heaven if we have so little regard for the potential of life in the here and now? Perhaps there is no better way to prove that we cherish the prospect of eternity than to take hold of life on this earth with a passion and a gladness. Those who wrap their gold in a napkin and bury it, while they think of the world to come, show that they don’t have much regard for eternity, because they have so little regard for time.

So the timid soul for whom I feel so sorry is, in truth, a villain. And the villain I see in him too often shows himself in me. On dark days of self-doubt (which are likely to be those days when I doubt the goodness of God), in times when weariness shuts out the sunlight of vigor and hope, or at times when I’ve simply lost heart, I bury the gold. Usually it’s only for a brief time. But if life is such a precious thing, then why do I bury it for even a brief time? Sadly, some people bury the gold for all of their days– not because they’re bad or because they hate God, but simply because they, like the timid soul in Jesus’ story, are afraid.

I want to do something for that timid soul, partly because I have a picture in my memory of good but inadequate people who are somewhat beaten by life, who can’t imagine themselves as winners. They’ve lost so often for so many years that they can’t conceive of winning. I want to help those persons who are so timid about life and so doubtful of God and of themselves. I want to see them break free from their sense fo worthlessness or helplessness, so they might fulfill the confidence shown in them by the One who entrusted them with their gold. 

God’s vision for us as workers ought to deliver every timid soul, for now and for eternity.   <Parables from the Back Side: Bible Stories with a Twist, by J. Ellsworth Kalas. p. 31>

I really enjoy this book  It looks at some parables in the Bible but focuses on a different aspect of the story than is commonly dealt with. It has been argued (such as by Julicher) that parables are a story built about one basic meaning or point. Clearly, the structure of some parables point to more than one understanding. For example, in the Prodigal Son, if the single point was about the relationship between the younger son and the father, the older son element would be unnecessary, even confusing. If the single point was only about the relationship between the older son and the father, the younger son would still be necessary, but should have been dealt with much more briefly. The elements to the story guide the range of perspectives.

Kalas’ book attempts to look at some parables from a perspective that is Biblically sound, yet is different than the most common perspective. The above quote is a part of the discussion on the Parable of the Talents. Kalas looked at this parable from the perspective of the relationship between the rich man and the 1 talent servant. Clearly, being humble (a virtue in the Bible) is far from being self-deprecating, or being timid.