An ancient tension in Christian discipleship often trips us up. Are we capable of doing what God asks us to do? If we are, why do we not follow the divine guidance more? This debate is as old as Augustine and Pelagius, and it concerns the nature of the human will.
These two early theologians held very different perspectives on human capacity to do good. Briefly put, Augustine believed that humans have a perverse and wicked will, bound to sin. Only by the regeneration of grace can they fulfill their obligation for righteous living. Pelagius asserted the full ability and potential in the human will. God would not command humanity to do what cannot be done by humanity, he argued.
Of course, they had a widely disparate understanding of original sin. Augustine contended that no human escapes the biological inheritance of the sin of our forebears; Pelagius taught that the human will, from birth, is a tabula rasa — neither sinful nor holy. One can escape sin if one uses the will rightly. Augustine’s view requires a Savior; Pelagius’ view requires great self-discipline.
Although Augustine’s views prevailed in the 5th century, the controversy did not go away; the issues reverberated in the Reformation as Luther and Erasmus re-visited the character of the human will. And the paradox of human capacity and bondage continues, in philosophy as well as theology.
The Gospel lesson for this coming Sunday is Luke’s story of the Good Samaritan, surely one of the most beloved and instructive narratives in all of Scripture. The richness of this text is hard to capture in a sermon, much less a little essay like this.
Starting with a conversation between Jesus and a lawyer about how to inherit eternal life, the parable moves from loving God to loving neighbor. The pivot question is: “And who is my neighbor?”
Often the preacher wants to name the neighbor, especially as he or she thinks about those outside the orbit of comfort for a particular congregation. For some it is race; for others it is religious identity; for others it is sexual orientation; and for others it is political affiliation, although it is wise as Baptists who treasure religious liberty to speak obliquely in these testy times.
I once was the guest preacher in a rural Kentucky church, following two other guest preachers. Somehow each of the “pulpit supply” ministers had chosen to preach from Luke 10:25-37, including the third one. I learned this when one wry deacon inquired: “And who is the Samaritan in your sermon?”
Actually, the Gospels do a rather remarkable job of rehabilitating Samaritans. John’s Gospel portrays the “Samaritan woman” of chapter 4 as a theologically astute interlocutor of Jesus, and the present story renders the Samaritan as one to emulate for his merciful action to the one who had been assaulted. Yet we know that there had been centuries of bad blood between Jews and Samaritans, and the reasons are many and complicated.
Arthur McGill made the interesting suggestion that it would be helpful to regard Jesus as the Samaritan (see his book Suffering: A Test of Theological Method). Jesus is the despised one, the “other” whom we struggle to embrace. McGill goes further and suggests that all of us are the wounded one, left in the ditch to die. Before any of us can move to love the neighbor fully, we must receive the tending that Jesus offers.
Part of the problem with the Augustinian tradition, which Luther shares, is that it does not pay enough attention to gradual healing, or the doctrine of sanctification. The conversion of will does not happen at the point of “justification,” rather it requires our whole life long.
McGill perceptively notes that we strong and decent people read the parable as an exhortation to love and serve the neighbor. (Pelagius would say amen!) The “other” is the needy one; we are capable of serving out of our abundance, usually out of self-interest that does not require much sacrifice. This parable reminds us, in McGill’s words, “that the one who truly serves us and is our neighbor, who saves our life and therefore draws forth our love, does not wear a very reassuring appearance.” Truly. For those of us given to achievement, receiving from him requires a de-centering of self and growing humility. (A mature Augustine offers his amen.)
Our self-giving arises out of the compassionate action of Jesus, and we must learn to rest in our need. That way we will not “love” others in a dominative way that shores up our hopes for eternal life rather than expressing our solidarity with the broken. We are broken, too, after all. As Jesus binds our wounds, we will recover enough to do what he asks, but never by sheer dint of unredeemed will.