Columbanus and the Samaritan (Feb 2012)

By Matt Dabbs

By Nick Gill

A Note About Historical Context

Love doesn’t concern itself with order” is one of my favorite quotes from Christian history (obviously, or else why try and establish a column with it?), but it is a dangerous phrase, too. That’s part of its appeal – it has HANDLE WITH CARE written all over it! Last month’s use is a case in point: while this quote can be used to talk about orderliness, that’s not what Columbanus was talking about when he said it. I am beginning to learn that it is just as important to pay attention to why someone said something, as much as the actual words they said.

Rome, France, and Ireland – Fighting Cousins

The Catholic Church is not quite as monolithic as our Protestant and Free Church fathers would have us believe. During the lifetime of Columbanus, great conflicts rose between the Roman church, the bishops in France, and the rapidly growing Irish missionary churches that were spreading like wildfire across continental Europe. Columbanus was one of the Irish missionary leaders, and it was only a matter of time before the comfortable Frankish bishops became very annoyed at the bluntness and strange attitude of this no-nonsense Irish monk. Summarizing a lifetime of conflict into a paragraph or two is always risky and unfair to all parties, but in order to try and limit the influence of Columbanus, the French bishops called for the pope to reaffirm their authority over monastic orders. It was against this attempt to dominate and smother Irish Christianity – specifically the radically loving (and effective!) Celtic style of evangelism – that the Irish abbot wrote Amor Non Tenet Ordinam – “Love Does Not Concern Itself With Order.”

In other words, we are going to keep loving people, and your restrictions (concerning our monastic orders) can’t contradict the clear commands of the Gospel. And right here, brothers and sisters, is where the words of Columbanus meet Jesus’ parable of the Samaritan, and we can talk about a possible answer to this month’s question: Who’s In and Who’s Out?

Right Answers, Wrong Questions

No matter how well we work out the answers, we won’t find the right answers if we are asking the wrong questions. Our logic can be impeccable, our motives pure, our hearts full of love, but the computer-age-ancient (1980’s) computer programming slogan still holds true: GIGO – Garbage In, Garbage Out.

Jesus got ambushed by someone who was desperate to have the right answers to the “Who’s In and Who’s Out” question. I say ambush about this particular instance because the text clearly states that the challenger questioned Jesus “in order to justify himself.” Lots of times in the Gospels, we read that so-and-so tested Jesus with a question. From our perspective after 2 millennia of worshiping Jesus as the Incarnate God, that sort of language makes us nervous and suspicious. “How *dare* someone test JESUS?” But the language of testing comes right out of the teacher of the law tradition from which Jesus relates to the religious culture of his day. Testing a rabbi is how you found out where they stood, what they believed. Of course, as with any practice, it can be done for self-serving motives or for honest, truth-seeking motives. So it isn’t because the expert in the law from Luke 10 tested Jesus that I suggest that his questions were an ambush, but because he tested Jesus in order to justify himself. Theologians of all stripes, beware!

The ambush comes in the form of a typical two-part question among experts in the Mosaic law. “Rabbi, what must I do to inherit the life of the age to come?” and then a follow-up question based upon how the rabbi in question responds. Nothing at all wrong with the first question, so Jesus responds with a question of his own: “What is written in the Law? How do you understand it?” The expert replies with what Jesus eventually enshrines as the Greatest Commands: Deuteronomy 6:5 + Leviticus 19:18. I can imagine the Messiah’s eyes lighting up as he responds, “Well said! Do that, and you will live!”

“‘Ah,’ said the lawyer, wanting to win the point. ‘But who is my neighbor?'” (Luke 10:29, KNT) Isn’t that the essence of this month’s question? “But who is my neighbor?” Watch how Jesus reverses the ambush, and remember a couple of things:

  • the expert in the law has never heard this story before,
  • experts in the law were typically Pharisees,
  • priests and Levites were typically Saduccees

Now, with those three points in mind, re-read Luke 10:30-32 again and let the suspense build as you cast yourself in the role of the expert in the law asking Jesus (basically), “Who’s In and Who’s Out?” Who does this expert think the third person is going to be? Hear the level of reversal, the punch in the gut that Jesus delivers when the hero of the story is, not another expert in the law, and not even a fellow Jew with whom said expert might have some serious disagreements, but a sub-human Samaritan! Such an explosive reply that, at the end of the story, the expert in the law still can’t bring himself to say “the Samaritan.” But his reply does show that he understood the larger point: “The one who showed mercy to him.” It is by using the rhetorical force of this dramatic reversal that Jesus creates for himself an opportunity to reverse the orientation of the man’s question.

The question that kingdom people should be asking, according to Jesus, is not, “Who is my neighbor?” That’s an extrospective (is that even a word? Well, it is today!) question that gets us deeply into the business of judging another man’s servant. MY neighbor dresses the right way, eats the right way, worships the right way (in Columbanus’ day, belongs to the right order). In other words, if they don’t fit into my bounded set, they aren’t my neighbor, and so I don’t have to love them. That’s how right logic + pure motives + bad questions lead to bad theology.

No, the questions that kingdom people should be asking, according to Luke 10, are:

  • To whom can I show mercy?
  • To whom do I exhibit compassion?
  • To whom can I show myself a neighbor?

Those are introspective questions that get at the heart of who we are as Christians – whether or not we’re exhibiting the fruit of the Spirit. It’s not up to us to decide who’s saved and who isn’t. It is up to us to love the Lord our God with all our heart, all our soul, all our strength, and all our understanding – to love our neighbor as ourselves – and let the chips fall where the Spirit draws them. Love doesn’t have time to concern itself with anything else.

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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