There is a Jewish parable, quite famous, that runs something like this: Once upon a time there was a Rabbi who was old, wise, and very holy. One day he gathered his disciples around him and asked them this question:
“When is there enough light in the world?”
The first disciple answered him in this fashion: “Rabbi, there is enough light in the world when it is bright enough so that, from a distance, one can see whether a stream of water is moving or standing still.”
“That’s not enough light,” the rabbi answered.
A second disciple ventured another answer: “Rabbi, there is enough light in the world when it is bright enough so that one can tell the difference between an oak tree and a sycamore tree.”
“That’s still not enough light,” the rabbi replied.
A third disciple offered his opinion: “Rabbi, there is enough light in the world when it is light enough so that one can tell a sheep from a goat!”
Again the rabbi replied: “That is still not enough light.”
All his disciples were silent then. No other answers were offered. They looked at each other in wonder and then at the rabbi in a questioning way. “What answer could he possibly want?” they wondered.
At last the rabbi answered his own question: “There is enough light in the world when it is so bright that anyone can look in the face of anyone else and see in that face the face of a brother or a sister.”
This is a parable about the essence of religion, all religion, Christianity included. Religion, as the parable makes plain, is not ultimately about reading the signs of the times (telling flowing streams from stagnant ones), dogmatic or political correctness (telling oaks from sycamores), or even about morality (telling sheep from goats). Good as these things are in themselves they are not what religion is really about.
God is light and God’s light in this world is meant, first of all, to help us see each other’s faces correctly. Religion is about charity towards each other. Everything else, dogma and morals included, is secondary.
Jesus used his own parable, now also famous, to try to make precisely this point.
In the parable of the Good Samaritan, we see that the two persons who did not stop to help the man who was lying half-dead in the ditch did so for high reasons. The priest passed by and did not stop to help. Why? The parable does not say that he failed because he was hardened, mean, selfish, or lacking in goodness. He did not stop, it tells us, precisely because he was a priest. His motives were religious. Not knowing whether or not the man was dead, as a priest he could not risk touching the him because if he touched a dead body he would sustain ritual defilement and this would bar him from certain priestly duties. Hence, whether moved in compassion or not, he left a dying man lying alone in a ditch. He had religious considerations that outweighed his compassion. The scribe, I suspect, did not stop for similar reasons. The Samaritan, however, free from those same constraints, was able to follow his heart and let simple human compassion move him to reach through the distance that had been created by reputation, ethnicity, ideology, bad history, and religion. There was enough light for him to see that the face of the man lying in the ditch was the face of a brother, despite all that race, creed, and circumstance had placed between them.
We all need to let ourselves be challenged by this and the challenge it brings is not simplistic and saccharine (“Can’t we all just love each other?”). The challenge of these parables is to look at all the things that, for high reasons, block our basic compassion towards each other. The challenge is to look at the various ways we rationalize our lack of fundamental charity and respect for each other, how we use high (religious) reasons to block what charity asks of us. What should we be watching for?
If I am of a more conservative bent, I want to be careful that my legitimate concern for dogma and orthodoxy does not get in the way of my charity. The same holds true for my concern for morality, especially sexual morality. It is not that these things are not important; it is just that charity is more important.
Conversely, if my leaning is more liberal, I want to be careful that my legitimate concern for liberal orthodoxy (political correctness) does not derail a more primary religious demand, namely, to be charitable above all and to all. In the same vein, my passion for social justice, no matter how urgent the cause, does not give me permission to be selective in my charity.
The old rabbi was tight. In the end, God’s presence is this world is about charity. Let’s not kid ourselves about that!