Club Think and the Good Samaritan
10th July 2022, Glynn Cardy
The conclusion of the book ‘After Jesus, Before Christianity’, which surveys the Jesus groups in the first two centuries of the Common Era, is that there was a wide variety of beliefs and practices, experimentation and thought in the groups, with very little in common. What was in common was that people came together to support one another in those troubled times. So, they were a friendship club. Or as Hal Taussig says, in reference to their eating together, a ‘supper club’.
There were lots of clubs around in those ancient days. Clubs based on ethnicity, or religion, or occupations, or interests. Friendship in every time and culture tends to find a corporate expression in groups or clubs. When we think about today and groups that ‘support one another’ then we could make a long list: service clubs, sports clubs, education clubs, cultural clubs… And religious clubs, including churches.
The point of difference for the diverse Jesus clubs is in that phrase ‘troubled times.’ In short, they were non-compliant with the ideology and mythology of the Roman Empire, and tried to express their non-compliance in ways that didn’t get them killed. So, by and large, the wealthy and successful in society in those first two centuries did not join Jesus groups. Those who wanted to get ahead in society, who were happy to be conventional, did not join Jesus groups. Those who were content or profited from the patriarchal and class structure of society weren’t found at a Jesus supper club.
Those who were attracted to the friendship of the Jesus clubs were those who didn’t fit. And their exemplar was a man who didn’t fit (and was crucified as a result). And they worshipped the Jewish God who was seen as a weak God (regularly defeated by the superior Roman armies). So, those who came to a Jesus club were the misfits, the weak, women who’d had enough of patriarchy, men who’d had enough of patriarchy, the enslaved who dared to believe they weren’t inferior, the marginal, including the sick who were blamed for being sick. It was such as these that found and gave support to one another.
There are groups that exist to support one another in all classes of society, in all ideological and political shapes and sizes. For in the words of Maya Angelou we know “Alone, all alone, Nobody, but nobody, Can make it out here alone.” The difference for the Jesus groups was that they were supporting one another, not just in personal or familial crises, but in developing and holding to a different vision of society that upended the pyramidal policies and practices of the Roman Empire (and every empire since) and proclaimed an egalitarian, inclusive, justice vision, where all were one.
Friendship – knowing one another, caring about each other, supporting one another – had this backdrop of building an alternative, upside-down empire, that didn’t look like any known empire at all.
There is a well-known children’s book by Kate de Goldi called Clubs. It’s on our YouTube channel.[i] It’s a story about the misfit Lolly who, like her teacher Ms Love, is not keen on the clubs that exist in her school. They are clubs designed to keep insiders important, and outsiders not. De Goldi is critiquing ‘club think’.
And that’s the trouble with clubs, including church clubs, they can easily become a reflection of those attending, attracting only those who look and think like current attendees, and putting their resources primarily into serving their own group needs. There are, for example, stories you can find on the internet of an American church pastor disguising himself as homeless and turning up at his large middleclass church only to find himself patronized or shunned. Like de Goldi, such stories – though somewhat trite – are trying to critique ‘club think.’
Yet clubs, at their best, also give a sense of belonging, camaraderie, and purpose. And two of the clubs I’ve belonged to in the past – a ski club and a Rotary club – were very good at that. Even Kate de Goldi’s Lolly creates a club of sorts for those who don’t fit with the conventional clubs on offer: called ‘the grass growing spectators club who hang upside down.’
The challenge for a church is to be a place of support, care, and friendship for those who come through the doors, while simultaneously in word and deed symbolizing its conviction that all who experience exclusion and discrimination – racism, sexism, homophobia, poverty – belong within the alternate vision of society the church proclaims. So, the church is a home, with comforting surrounds and friendships, but also, a place where uncomfortable others may come and call home.
And in a sense this tension around home and club-think, goes to the heart of the well-known story of the Good Samaritan we heard this morning. The parable asks the question ‘who belongs?’ In the mind of the lawyer questioning Jesus, the Hebrew Scriptures include in belonging both those who are ‘sons (and daughters) of your own people’ (Lev 19:18) and ‘the stranger who sojourns with you’ (Lev 19:34). The club can include the regulars, the familiar, and also strangers.
But Jesus in the story expands this concept of belonging further, uncomfortably further, as he challenges the racism operating here. The neighbour, as the story concludes, is the person who is moved with pity, and then acts charitably, compassionately, in a costly manner, even when that person is a racial and religious outsider and enemy. This is no ordinary sojourner visiting your club. This is an enemy of the club caring for a beaten club member whose pain and need has been ignored by other club members.
As Brandon Scott says, “(this parable) proposes a new world in which the wall between us and them no longer exists and even more that one of them can come to the aid of one of us”.
Identification with characters is an important element in any story. When the man is attacked and left in the ditch half-dead, an audience recognizes this as a hero story and awaits the arrival of the hero, with whom they will identify. In a very real sense, they will ride the rescue of the man in the ditch.
When the Samaritan first approaches, this plan remains in force and is even reinforced by the similarity of his description to those of the priest and Levite, failed heroes. But when he has compassion and takes the beaten man to a Jewish village inn (where he as a Samaritan could well be himself beaten by a racist mob), this plan is thrown into confusion.
A hearer now has three options.
They could say “In real life this would never happen. It’s only a story, fiction.” Such a hearer stays in the same worldview they have always dwelt, and reject the parable’s opportunity of envisioning life anew.
A second option is to identify with the Samaritan. For a hearer who wants to stay in the hero’s role, that is the only alternative. For some few in Jesus’ audience this may have been an option. But such people are already different and do not live by the normal values of the Palestinian world of the first century.
The third and last option is the hearer can identify with the man in the ditch. If we want to stay in the parable and experience a new world, that is our only available choice. Having begun the parable in expectation of playing the role of a hero, one ends in the role of the victim, being taken care of by one’s mortal and moral enemy.
This is a story that shakes up and messes up boundaries.
The inference is, when transposed into the context of church and club, that a member has been beaten up. Some members of the church come by, and fail the man in the ditch. Then an outsider and enemy to the church club comes by and saves the member in the ditch. Salvation has come by an outsider saving an insider. Likewise, salvation for the whole church might come from those who are outsiders to the whole church. For God is never kept in, or out, by our boundaries and borders. Indeed, God shakes us up and messes with us.
If the lesson from our early forebears is to support one another within the context of a subversive revisioning of how the world might be, the lesson of the parable of the Good Samaritan is that both compassion and God are not constrained by our unexamined prejudices, but might break in unexpectedly challenging our revisioning, unsettling what we thought was settled, giving sight where we haven’t seen, and sharing wisdom with we who think we’re wise already.