Recently, I was invited by Park Avenue Baptist Church to give a reflection on the meaning of reconciliation and/or restoration during morning worship. At the time of the offer I eagerly agreed. They gave me the opportunity because of my association with the Stewart Center and my presumed knowledge of the subject matter. I, like those that invited me, assumed that I could provide a relevant perspective on reconciliation/restoration thanks to my involvement with under-resourced children and families.
As the day approached I searched my memory for experiences and conversations with our children and families that testify to the Center’s engagement in restoration and reconciliation. Instead of providing examples and validation of the Center’s work my preparation cast doubt on my understanding of, and involvement in, reconciliation and restoration.
My appeal to the dictionary did not alleviate my dismay. The first definition for ‘reconcile’ I encountered said “to win over to friendliness; cause to become amicable.” Surely the Stewart Center’s ministry amounts to more than winning children and families over with friendliness. According to numerous sources, restoration can be expressed as “a return of something to a former, original, normal, or unimpaired condition.” This definition makes restoration more troubling than reconciliation because it implies the existence of a time or condition better than the present. The idea of restoration lacks relevance for many of our children and families because there is nothing in their past to which they would desire to be restored.
Last month I read a book by John Dominic Crossan – a prominent theologian of our time – entitled The Power of Parable: How Fiction by Jesus Became Fiction about Jesus. In the book, Crossan challenges the mainstream understanding of Jesus’ parables. He also proposes an alternative understanding for parable as genre. Crossan utilizes the “Good Samaritan” to propose a paradigm through which other parables might be considered.
Traditionally the “Good Samaritan” has been understood as an example parable. Followers of Jesus are to emulate the Samaritan’s posture of faith, and course of action. The title good Samaritan now extends beyond faith language and exists in our vernacular to represent anyone that helps someone in distress. To our ears, good Samaritan is a redundant cliché but this would not have been the case for Jesus’ first century Jewish audience. For them a Good Samaritan was an impossibility. Jesus’ first audience would have understood the priest and Levite as good guys set against the Samaritan as antagonist.
For the Samaritan to emerge as the hero in Jesus’ story makes it possible for us to understand the Good Samaritan as a challenge parable as opposed to an example parable. As a challenge, the parable intends to subvert prejudices and social absolutes. It is the Samaritan that offers restoration and reconciliation not the religious leaders. In Jesus’ most famous parable the character of restoration is occupied by the despised, the undesirable, the disreputable, someone left out of God’s favor. Could it be that Jesus’ parable of social upheaval reveals something about the nature of God’s Kingdom?
Could Jesus be saying that restoration and reconciliation do not come from those we assume are in the center of God’s will; that it is not the ‘haves’ that convey restoration but the ‘have-nots.’ It is obvious that we should help those in need. The parable of the Good Samaritan did not become one of the most transcendent passages in scripture because it tells us to help the needy. Maybe God’s kingdom is contrary to the assumptions we glean from our society. Maybe those on the margins do not need our restoration, maybe we need theirs.
My reflection at Park Avenue focused on the above themes but lacked resolve. Since that Sunday in December I have been looking for evidence of restoration and reconciliation in every possible outlet. I have spent time considering how our children, youth, families, volunteers, staff and supporters model the restoration portrayed in the Good Samaritan. It is unnerving for me as an ordained minister and someone who feels called to social ministry to confront the reality that I might be the receiver of God’s restoration rather than the purveyor. What if God’s restoration is not for those that are left out but by those that are left out?