Monday, August 17, 2015

The Parable Of The Whole Samaritan

Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God is One. And therefore you are to be at one: your heart and your mind and your strength and your soul – your whole personhood, made whole - all gazing upon God in love, and as a consequence seeing your neighbour as God sees them, and seeing yourself as God sees you.

If I am honest, my heart and mind and strength and soul are not always at one. Often, they pull in different directions.

Jesus told a story exploring what it looks like when your heart (choices) and mind (thoughts and feelings) and strength (actions) and soul (your life; composed of these other parts, and indeed more than the sum of the parts) are one. Or not, as the case may be.

In his story, a man is travelling the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. It is a notorious road, known as the Red Road, so much blood was shed by bandits preying on pilgrims and other travellers. The man is alone, and pays the price. He is beaten, stripped, robbed, and left for dead. Which implies that he looked dead.

Into his story, Jesus introduces a priest travelling along the road. Priests had a particular role, helping the people to encounter God’s presence. Most priests did not spend all of the time at the temple, or even live in Jerusalem, but farmed small parcels of land given to them to live off, and went up to Jerusalem to serve at the temple for blocks of time on a rota basis. (The church rota is an ancient and noble tradition.) So, here is a priest on his way to serve his turn at the temple.

Despite every pictorial representation I have ever seen, we would be mistaken to think of the priest as travelling alone. You simply wouldn’t run the Red Road alone unless you had no other option, for reasons that the story has already made graphically clear. This is not a Sunday Afternoon Drive scenic route. Jesus’ listeners would understand that the priest would be travelling with others, on their way to Jerusalem, on their way to present themselves before God at the temple.

So the response of the priest towards the dead-or-dying man is not just the response of an individual towards an individual: it is the response of a person embedded in community, a person who by virtue of his position exercises weighted influence over the response of other persons embedded in community, towards another person who found himself – for reasons, and a duration, unknown to us, but this is why he was alone – not at-one with his neighbours.

From the moment that the body is brought to the priest’s attention, the priest is torn. We might reasonably assume that he is not without feeling for the man, but he is literally in two minds – his feelings go out towards the man, but his thoughts pull him back. He must choose between the conflicting responses, and gives way to his thoughts. He acts, moving physically as far from the body as he possibly can – and with him, those with him, justified by the argument that if they were to touch a dead body they would be ritually defiled, and therefore unable to enter the temple, and therefore their pilgrimage to present themselves before God would be over before it began.

There is often a strong undercurrent of irony to the stories Jesus told.

The crowd passes by. The man continues to bleed out. The flies ...

Jesus continues painting the scene. Another party of pilgrims is coming along the road, and in their midst is a scribe, someone whose role it was to help the people understand and follow God’s law, God’s principles for how to live in community. Again, whatever the scribe does will determine what the group does: for the community is faced with a problem that is both ethical and practical, and – how fortunate for them – here in their midst is one who can give expert opinion.

The details of the inner conflict might differ, but like the priest, the heart and mind and strength and soul of the scribe are not at-one, not aligned together, focused on God and following God’s gaze towards their neighbour. So another crowd passes by, and the man in the road continues to bleed out.

At length, Jesus introduces a third character, a Samaritan. Again, we should not picture a man travelling alone – not least a man of means, an obvious target for bandits. Like the priest and the scribe before him, this man is part of a larger group. If that group comprised mostly of Jews, he would not be made especially welcome, though he seems at ease with his neighbour, one who would turn away wrath with a gentle reply. And that would be striking. That might make him worth watching. If he were to tend to the victim, it might even make him worthy of influence, however unlikely that would have appeared when they set out.

Here is a man whose heart and mind and strength and soul are at one.

The Samaritan makes a choice (heart), not only to stop but to set aside whatever business he was going about, to put his plans on hold.

His thoughts and feelings (mind) are undivided, concern for a fellow human being in need working in harmony with identifying resources to hand and using them to administer ‘first aid’.

He acts (strength) in a way that is fully consistent with his heart and mind, even if that might make himself a target.

Each component of his life is harmoniously involved (the fruit of a healthy soul), and continues to work together as he evaluates the longer-term need and comes to further decisions to implement it: getting the man to an inn (a place of hospitality – a hospital, if you will), paying a deposit up front, and arranging the means to cover the full (as yet, unknown) expense.

Jesus never calls him the Good Samaritan. As far as Jesus is concerned, God alone is good. But the description ‘the whole Samaritan’ – the Samaritan who is at one with himself and with his neighbour because (despite being a Samaritan, whose theology was considered suspect at best) he was at one with God – seems fitting.

Implied in Jesus’ story is the suggestion that the wholeness of the Samaritan leads to the healing of the man left for dead. Not only his physical healing, but his return into community. To being more at one with his neighbours. Conversely, the story implies that the dis-integration of the priest and the scribe leads to a greater experience of dis-integration – of an erosion of integrity – for those who travelled onward with them.

Jesus draws out of his audience the admission that it is (ironically) the Samaritan who lives out the Shema: ‘Hear, O Israel ...’ And then he ends: Go, then, and do likewise.

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