at the church I attended during college, one of their sponsored missionaries asked if he could organize a brief little missions trip. Not a month-long, nor even a week-long, but only for a day: this missionary’s mission field was Jackson Heights, Queens, an hour away. He wanted a couple of us to understand the rich multiculturalism of the area. He had the eight of us hand out foreign-language tracts on the subway station. He explained to us some of the difficulty of explaining Christianity to, say, a Muslim mindset. But the highlight of the trip was when he had us visit two temples and a mosque, not as evangelists, but merely as visitors.
We were actually turned away from the first two houses of worship. The mosque was not entertaining visitors at that time, and at the first Hindu temple we visited the gods were “having lunch.” By the time we reached the second temple, however, lunch was over, and we were welcomed inside.
I don’t know if you’ve ever been inside a Hindu temple, but this place was beautiful. You came into this big room where large statues stood against the far wall: Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva. All along the other walls, and all along these balconies looking down into this room, were statues of other gods (or of avatars of the main three): I recognized Krishna and Ganesh, but many of the others I did not know. In one corner of the gallery there was this sort of phallic rock that you were supposed to pour milk over; in another, this really stunning mural depicting he birth of Krishna.
The priest was very kind; he showed us all around the place, explaining his faith as best he could despite a limited mastery of English. There were times when I had to help him explain, drawing from what I remembered from my Comp Religion class: he was having a hard time articulating that all the Hindu gods are believed to be aspects of the divine force, the Brahman.
After showing us around, he offered us some fruit which the gods had just finished “eating.” (Apparently when the gods eat something, they only eat its essence, and when they’re done humans can eat what’s left. I could feel my fellow Christians sort of freeze in place, the wheels turning. What was that Paul said about food sacrificed to idols? Seeing our hesitation, the priest offered to bless us: still nine Christians hesitated, all but shrinking back. Would that be right? Shouldn’t we stay away from having someone pray to other gods for us, as good Christians?
Then Artie Martin, the leader of my church’s men’s group, stepped up with a big smile. “Sure,” he said.
The priest annointed Artie’s forehead with some reddish sort of oil and prayed over him in a language I couldn’t understand. Artie kept his head bowed respectfully until the priest was done. Then he said, “Thank you so much. And, may I bless you in return?” When the priest assented, Artie laid hands on him and prayed aloud to Jesus, asking that God would watch over the old man’s life, that he would come to know how much God loved him. The priest seemed a little quizzical, but thanked Artie for his blessing, and renewed his offer of fruit. Artie cheerfully took a banana.
That always struck me, even years later. When the rest of us cringed back, wondering what was right and what was wrong to do, Artie reacted in love. He accepted the blessing of what is, from Christianity’s perspective, a false god–in order to show our God’s love in return. Artie demonstrated the Law of Love.
Jesus of Nazareth told the story of a Jewish man beated by robbers and left for dead on the side of the road. Two of his fellow countrymen passed by: a Jewish priest and a Levite, both religious men, both respected. Both crossed over to the other side of the road. Why did they do this? Recently the members of my Bible study were trying to get into their heads, come up with possible motivations. Perhaps the priest needed to be at a religious gathering. Perhaps they were both afraid that the man was already dead, and that by touching him they would make themselves ritually unclean. From a religious standpoint, there are plenty of justifications for not stopping to help a man on the side of the road. Yet the one who finally stopped to help–a Samaritan, a half-breed, one who followed a faith that was basically a perversion of Judaism–ignored all such justifications and boundaries of ethnicity and religion. The Good Samaritan followed the Law of Love, which always places people first before all else save God–the law which outranks concerns of ritual or cleanliness.
When asked to sum up the Jewish Law–a thousand rules regarding ritual, hygeine, government, and society–Jesus boiled them down to two: love God, love your neighbor. Loving your neighbor will often be inconvenient, costly, and risky. But Jesus put people before his own needs–going without sleep to care for them, going out of his way to help them, and ultimately giving his life to rescue them. If we as Christians claim to be followers of Jesus, we must follow his example of sacrificial loving.
Even if that means eating an idol-sacrificed banana or two.