Culture is everywhere.
Literally. Culture is everywhere. It’s wherever people are. We’re a part of it, and it’s a part of us. It’s inescapable and wonderful.
But it’s also true in the sense that everybody’s talking about it. Culture is everywhere in the Church: books, sermons, teaching series, conversations, mission statements. Everywhere we turn, we’re called to “engage the Culture”, be “counter-cultural”, and “change the Culture”.
This wasn’t the case even a century ago. But culture has changed a lot since then, often in some concerning ways. The “Culture War” of recent decades has propelled culture into pulpits and dinner table conversations.
Christianity once had the seat of cultural influence, but no longer. Now we’re left wondering how to influence culture once again.
It’s into this wondering, this desire to change culture, that Jesus’s story of the Good Samaritan – a parable designed to correct a lawyer’s misconception about neighborly love – speaks powerfully.
How Do We See Culture?
This lawyer’s conversation with Jesus never includes the word “culture.” Nor does the Bible itself, for that matter. But it nevertheless teaches us about it.
The closest biblical term for culture is often “world”. But “world” is used a lot of ways in the New Testament alone; it could mean “age” (aión, see Romans 12:2), “the inhabited world” (oikoumené, see Acts 17:6), and even “the created order” (kosmos, see John 3:16). Yet none of these really capture the fullness and complexity of culture as a whole.
A fourth term seems the best fit with how the lawyer in Luke 10 thought about culture (we’ll see why in a minute): ethnos.
Ethnos doesn’t mean “world”. Instead, it means “race” (think “ethnicity”), “nations” or, more often, “Gentiles”. Most of the time it contrasts the chosen people of God (the Jews) with the outside, unbelieving Gentile nations.
This contrast isn’t bad, actually. Jesus Himself used it (see Matthew 6:32, Mark 10:42, and Luke 18:32). Israel was a holy nation, set apart to be different from the surrounding Gentile world.
But this also reflects how Christians have come to think of culture, doesn’t it?
In speaking about how bad the Culture’s become – how we need to “change the Culture” and be “counter-cultural” – aren’t we speaking of culture as something outside of the Church and different from it? as simply the embodiment of the unbelieving society of our nation and world, much like the Gentiles were to Israel?
In many ways, this isn’t wrong either. But we’re about to see that this view of culture led the lawyer in Luke 10 to a dangerous misconception, and if we’re not careful, it could do the same to us.
Who is My Neighbor?
The lawyer’s initial attempt to test Jesus’s doctrine (“What must I do to inherit eternal life?”) was immediately turned back on him by Jesus: “What is written in the Law?” (Luke 10:25-26).
Not surprisingly, the lawyer passed the legal pop quiz, quoting “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” (Luke 10:27, see Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18), the same two greatest commandments Jesus quoted in Matthew 22:37-38.
“You have answered correctly,” replied Jesus (Luke 10:28). So far so good. But the lawyer “wanted to justify himself,” so he piped up, “And who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29).
Why? The “Jew vs. Gentile” view of culture seems to have gotten to this lawyer’s head, as it had for many of the scriptural interpreters of the time.
The common understanding was that “neighbor” meant fellow Israelites. It’s not so hard to see why, really: “Love your neighbor as yourself” is tucked in with various Levitical laws about how Israel ought to treat each other. It was pretty natural to see the surrounding context and conclude that “neighbor” need only ever mean the Israelite community.
It also seemed compatible with the “eye for eye” principle (Leviticus 24:19-20, see also Matthew 5:38-39). If “the nations” (ethnos) didn’t extend “neighborliness” to the Jews (and most certainly didn’t), why extend neighborliness to them? Perhaps by not showing neighborly love to the Gentiles, the Gentiles would actually be convicted and repent.
This is where we 21st-century Christians need to be very careful.
As the tides of culture shift, new powers take the cultural stage, and cultural values change, it’s tempting to see “the Culture” as either an enemy in the battle for morality or as mere sinners to condemn for their ungodliness.
Given enough time, either of these views could change culture: If we win the battle against our cultural enemy, Christianity might once again take the seat of cultural influence. If we condemn the ungodliness enough, we might convince enough of the culture to abandon it.Jesus's story of the Good Samaritan teaches us an entirely different way to change culture: through radical love. Click To Tweet
One Samaritan’s Radical Love
To correct the lawyer’s misconception, Jesus set up a hypothetical scenario: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead” (Luke 10:30). Then a priest and a Levite each passed by the half-dead man without helping. Their reasons could’ve been many:
“I have to get back to Jericho on time!”
“If I check and he’s dead, I’ll be ceremonially unclean!”
“Best not to stick around too long, robbers could still be nearby!”
“The guy really should have known better and protected himself!” (the road wouldn’t come to be called the “Bloody Way” for nothing.)
These excuses could certainly have even been on the tip of the lawyer’s self-justifying tongue. “Sometimes there’s good reason to be hesitant in that sort of situation,” we might even chime in if we were in his place.
Here we see the first radical thing about the Samaritan’s love: the fact that he even stopped.
What drove the Samaritan to action, as ought to drive all radical, culture-changing action, is compassion:
“as he journeyed, [the Samaritan] came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’” (Luke 10:33-35)
I’m sure the robbed man would have been exceptionally grateful had the Samaritan simply bandaged him up and sent him on his way. Heroic stories like that go viral in our own social media age.
But the Samaritan’s love was motivated by compassion that exceeded the minimal obligation.
So much was radical about the Samaritan’s love:
- He treated the man’s wounds with his own (expensive) oil and wine, giving up the profits he could have gained by selling them.
- He set the man on his own animal, perhaps even walking the rest of the way.
- He took him to an inn, forsaking his plans for the day, and patiently acted as nurse to his needs.
- He stayed overnight, ensuring the man stayed well.
- He dropped two days’ wages for the man to continue to stay and receive care until he was well.
- He promised even more help, even accepting the risk that the innkeeper might extort that promise for some extra cash.
The Samaritan in Jesus’s story gave up his own safety, his own belongings, his own rights, his own time, his own plans, his own money – all out of compassion.
It’s no wonder why the lawyer automatically knew which character was the true neighbor (see Luke 10:37).
How Does One Samaritan Change Culture?
But where’s the culture change here?
It’s just one guy doing a good deed. It’s great, but what difference does it make in Jericho, or Jerusalem, or the rest of the world?
In order to see how such radical love changes culture, we need to re-evaluate culture itself.
Over the two years of our marriage, my wife and I have developed a shared lifestyle. We’ve gotten accustomed to some favorite regular meals. Each week we faithfully await content from our favorite YouTube channels and TV shows. We’ve grown a shared sense of humor and a shared set of values we most cherish.
In effect, we’ve formed a small culture.
Our family culture is influenced by many, many things. For one, our regular meals are shaped by the types of foods sold at our local grocery store. Our favorite shows, by the streaming services available. Our humor and values, by our various shared experiences. And when our daughter was recently born, she influenced our family culture in far greater and more beautiful (even if less restful) ways.
Families don’t exist independently. We join other family cultures in a church, where we sing hymns written by other cultural beings and hear sermons tailored to our particular needs. We develop shared values and influence each other as an expanded culture.
Our church cultures form communities, our communities form towns, regions, then nations. Each layer is a little more resilient to change; our daughter’s birth changed our church for a time, but her effect on our town as a whole – much like the Samaritan’s effect on Jerusalem – was minimal (Sorry, girl).
But that doesn’t make large cultures unchangeable. Given enough people impacted by enough new traffic lights, grocery store renovations, iPhone upgrades, pop hits, and birth announcements, cultures significantly change. And here and there, certain seemingly trivial changes (like the Internet) spark unexpectedly colossal cultural shifts.
It’s in the same manner that lots of little cultures – families and churches, each demonstrating radical, head-turning love in our own cultural spheres – can radically transform cultures.
Still not convinced? Consider the first-century church.
In another article, I discussed the astounding cultural change of the earliest believers. They were champions at radical love. Toward the start of Acts, Christians were “selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need” (Acts 2:45).
Their love clearly wasn’t limited to the “neighbors” within the church, since by the time the Emperor Julian came around in the fourth century, he recognized (reluctantly) that Christians “support not only their own poor but ours as well … All men see that our people lack aid from us.”
During the Plague of Cyprian in 260AD, Bishop Dionysius wrote this about the believers:
“Most of our brother Christians showed unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another. Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy.”
The (mostly Jewish) first-century Christians changed culture and reached the Gentile nations (ethnos), not by defeating a cultural enemy or convincing enough people to be more moral, but by showing radical love.
As we the modern church find ourselves in culture increasingly hostile to heavenly things, we must resist the temptation to simply become culture warriors or culture condemners. We must be Good Samaritans.
Radical love doesn’t invalidate political action or social issues, however. Rather, radical love extends to every sphere of life, affecting how we vote, how we spend, how we consume entertainment, and more.
But What about the Gospel?
My focus in writing here at TheReb is theology. I thoroughly believe that the Gospel transforms people, and that kindness and humanitarianism are not enough to save the soul.
So it may seem odd that I’ve spent an entire article about cultural change without mentioning the need to preach of the Gospel “in all the world for a witness unto all nations” (Matthew 24:14) and “in season and out of season” (2 Timothy 4:2). The Gospel, after all, is “the power of God for salvation” (Romans 1:16).
In fact, the story of the Good Samaritan itself is ultimately about our need for the Gospel. We can’t love our neighbor perfectly. Only Christ can – and He loved us at a far more radical cost than the Good Samaritan.
But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. The Gospel focus of the Good Samaritan story doesn’t give us an excuse to ignore what it says about our call to love our neighbor as ourselves. After all, “Love your neighbor as yourselves” charts in the Top 2 of the whole Law. On it hinges every other command we’re given about living with others.
So when the Messiah presents us with such a lofty example of this command being obeyed, far be it from us to overshadow its importance with only theology.
It’s also true that the Gospel produces radical love within us. Love, patience, kindness, and goodness are all fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22), with whom we are sealed when we receive “the gospel of [our] salvation” (Ephesians 1:13).
But this doesn’t mean the Gospel produces radical love automatically, as if on auto-pilot. Radical love must be “worked out … in fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12). It must be intentional. Purposeful. Active. Why else does God give it to us as a command rather than simply a promise?
This is why I’ve waited until now to talk about the Gospel: not because it’s not necessary for cultural change, but because it’s too easy for us to simplify cultural change to a naked gospel – a gospel not clothed with the active love that ought to characterize children of God (see John 13:35).The cultures of our world today need the Gospel, but they need the whole Gospel - alive, active, and relentless. Click To Tweet
So go, Good Samaritans. Fill every culture with the Gospel, engulfed in radical love.