Dancing Like a Samaritan

Week of Sunday July 10
Gospel: Luke 10:25-37

25 Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,’ he said, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ 26He said to him, ‘What is written in the law? What do you read there?’ 27He answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.’ 28And he said to him, ‘You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.’

29 But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbour?’ 30Jesus replied, ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. 31Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33But a Samaritan while travelling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. 34He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 35The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.” 36Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ 37He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’

In the previous two weeks (here and here and ,) we have seen Jesus sending people to bless and heal, and with the strong command to walk away from retaliation:

Wherever they do not welcome you, as you are leaving that town shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them. 6They departed and went through the villages, bringing the good news and curing diseases everywhere." 52And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; 53but they did not receive him, because his face was set towards Jerusalem. 54When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, ‘Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?’ 55But he turned and rebuked them. (Luke 9:2-5, 52-55)

Luke 9 makes it clear that Jesus is ranked above Elijah and Moses, and that Jesus repudiates the violence and fire that Elijah wielded, a violence and fire which was attributed to the power of God.

In all this, Samaria was one of the key images, and it is a Samaritan outsider who is the key person in this week's text.  James Alison says

Now the interesting thing about the Samaritan is that he is not, from the perspective of the Jewish lawyer, the totally outside “other” - a complete foreigner. He occupies the much more infuriating place of being exactly the wrong sort of other: the one who is sufficiently like us to get us all riled up - a classic trigger for the reaction produced by the narcissism of minor differences. The Samaritans after all, worshipped the same God, with a slightly different, but overlapping, set of Scriptures. They didn’t acknowledge Jerusalem as a sacred centre, worshipping instead on Mount Gerizim. So Jews and Samaritans were a perpetual reproach to each other, sources of reciprocal moral infuriation.

 Please notice what Jesus is doing here. As part of his picture of what it is like to be on the inside of the life of God, he is nudging his listeners into being stretched out of their comfort zone, into traversing their own hostility, by having to look at the situation through suspect eyes. (Jesus the Forgiving Victim Doers Publishing, Essay 12, Section 2)

There is no comfortable distance between us and the Samaritan. He is not the domesticated "Good Samaritan" of Sunday School stories. (It is worth watching this: Good Samaritan - That Mitchell and Webb Look) Instead, in the readings of the previous two weeks, and today, we are being confronted with those people right next to us who are the "sources of reciprocal moral infuriation." If, at the end of the story of the Samaritan, we are still morally infuriated with the nearby travellers on our road, we might wonder if we are only quantitatively different from the disciples who thought it fit to call down fire on Samaria all over again.

Where is the life of God?

This is the lawyer's question. Jesus said I have come that you may have life and have it more abundantly. (John 10:10) He made it abundantly clear that life was not in material success and possessions— you cannot serve God and mammon— and sensitive people who live in our over sated society know the truth of that. We see that our service of mammon is destroying our world and our selves. So where is the life with God, the abundance we sometimes sense close by, but which is so often over-egged with preacher promises that do not deliver? Is our half disappointed longing as good as it gets?

The life of God is not some never ending life in heaven. Understand that I think some kind of existence after bodily death to be more likely than not, since I think our spirit is our primary being. What I mean is that the words eternal life, zoe aionios, don't mean everlasting life; at least, not in the beginning. If we hang on through life being good in the hope that after death we will get to zoe aionios we will have missed the point. Life with God is now.

In the TV series called Life, Ted Early, back in prison, is befriended by a long term prisoner, who will be there for many years, if not his whole life. The man asks his new friend a question about missing so much of life by being in gaol. The friend says, “But this is life.”  (Quoted here)

James Alison translates zoe aionios as becoming an insider in the life of God.

'Inheriting eternal life' is a more interesting phrase than it might seem to those of us whose first reaction is that it is a simply another way of saying "what must I do to go to heaven?" Inheriting is what the ultimate insiders did (in those days, sons, but not daughters) and "eternal life" was a way of referring to the life of God. So St Luke frames the parable as a discussion of what it looks like to become an insider in the life of God. (Jesus the Forgiving Victim Doers Publishing, Essay 12, Section 2 Paul Neuchterlein quotes some of this book here.)

The lawyer stands for the good person who knows that they nonetheless lack life with God. He knows what is right. He knows the laws for living well with God.  But he has not found the life of God.

In his answer to Jesus, he joins together Deuteronomy 6.5, which says:

 ... you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might

 and part of a verse from Leviticus 19.18:

    ... you shall love your neighbour as yourself.

As usual when the Old Testament is quoted, there is more in the background— more being understood in the conversation— than we westerners who don't know the text realise. The full verse says

18You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbour as yourself: I am the Lord.

and shortly afterward, Leviticus 19 goes on to say

33 When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. 34The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.

As Alison says, Leviticus interprets itself

for the same phrase, “you shall love him as yourself”, which was previously applied to the word “neighbour”, here acquires a new density: the stranger who sojourns among you is declared to be the exact legal equivalent of one of the “sons of your own people”, and therefore a neighbour in the strict sense of the commandment. In other words, the text of Leviticus seems to be heading in the direction of the term “neighbour” becoming universal, and that is worrying legally, since if everyone is your neighbour, then the term “neighbour” has no longer got any precise legal meaning at all, and how are you to know if you are obeying a commandment when it has no precise meaning?

Where are the limits to being neighbour? How can I live this? Do I have to give everything away and starve? We are right to ask these questions of the Jesus stories. They are the implication of the text, not mere hyperbole.

The Old Testament, with its constant concern for the poor, the widows, the orphans and the alien may not have used James Alison's words, but it understood that our life is formed in relationships. Alison says of the lawyer

he has made an act of interpretation which, while it was probably not innovative, is, in the different variants in which it has reached us, definitive… This is not merely a moralistic matter, but shows a firm anthropological insight. What I mean is that we are animals whose “selves” are brought into being through our relationships with others: we are reflexive. So how we treat our neighbours and how we treat ourselves are inescapably linked, and … indeed, our only access to finding ourselves loved is through our learning to love someone else.

 And Jesus said to him, “You have answered rightly; do this, and you will live.”

You will live means you will find the life of God. The lawyer is not asking "Who is my neighbour," out of ignorance. He is asking because he knows his neighbour is everyone, and cannot see how he can practically live that out. How then can he live and be right with God, and have the life of God?

Jesus' answer seems to be that he is asking the wrong question. When we think in terms of obligation we place ourselves as people who have neighbours to whom we are obliged. We don't have neighbours, we are neighbours, or not. It's a way of being, not a way of obligation.

The priest and the Levite had other obligations which they considered to be more important than the obligation of being neighbour. But the Samaritan was

ἐσπλαχγνίσθη — which our translation gives as “was moved with pity”. In fact the word is much stronger than that. It means “viscerally moved” and so is much more like our English “was gut-wrenched”. What is important here is that this is the Greek form of the word by which God was described as viscerally moved, moved in the entrails or the womb. In other words, right there, in the midst of this happenstance, what it looks like to be on the inside of the life of God has burst forth [in this Samaritan man who is such a rival and sore point in our sense of what is good and right]. (My addition) (Ibid)

And then:

The lawyer had asked him “Who is my neighbour?” with the implication that the term “neighbour” referred to the passive object of mandated benevolence: “If we can define who my neighbour is, then I will know towards whom I am obligated to behave in a neighbourly way.” But Jesus has it the other way round: the word neighbour refers not to the passive object of the benevolence, mandated or not, but to the active creator of neighbourliness. A further hint that he is answering the question “what is it like to be on the inside of the life of God”? 

… In other words: if you want to inherit the life of God, there is no safely circumscribed definition of who your neighbour is. Instead you will find yourself swept up into the inside of an infinitely attentive creation of neighbourliness amidst all the victimary contingencies of human life. (Ibid)

The spirit of Jesus is about being neighbourly; blessing, healing, bringing peace… and in the most practical of ways. It completely transcends moral and religious "Samaritan" issues; those people who don't do what God wants; the ones I think have been a byword for bad religion or for incivility; the ones I despise; even these people can be my neighbour. If I make them other, which is the prior judgement (prejudice) which says, "Of course they would not be neighbourly to me," I will also reject the spirit of Jesus moving me.

My experience is that letting myself feel those who suffer rather than looking at them according to some sort of moral worthiness, makes all the difference. I sometimes say that Jesus thought along the lines of "What do you need to be healed?" and, only then, "Is there something you should do to tidy up in your life with God?" The view of life he opposed is more inclined to say, "This is what you should you do to be right, and then I can help you."

It's significant that the next story in Luke 10 tells of Jesus and Martha's over busy distraction. We need to be still and reflective enough like Mary to be wise to the life in us which wants to move us! "Go and do likewise" is a faith demanding command. There is no intellectual figuring this out. There is no setting of limits, and no ordered way of living the life of God.  As Alison says, the opportunity for the Priest to be moved by God begins with the words, "Now by chance…"

Central to all of this is the fact that the story revolves around a victim. Alison says a sacrificial victim, the one who is the outsider,

… the one who is “not us”, the one who, being “out”, enables us to be “in”, the one who thus enables us to sense the “goodness” of what we have done, as they come to be detected as “bad”…  

Goodness or badness according to “sacrifice”, then, is what enables us to be good by contrast with some defiling other. And goodness or badness according to mercy is discovered in our being moved, or not, to show neighbourliness to one considered defiling. Thus we may find ourselves relating to victimhood in a way that dances around it, as it were, being given an apparently strong identity in our going along with the various forms of fascination with, and repulsion from, victimhood. In this way we will merely be continuing the founding gestures of human culture, seduced by our own lie about the one who “is not us”. Or, with much greater difficulty, at least in my case, we can allow ourselves to face the centrality of the victim in a way that is not run by a mixture of fascination and fear, and be given to be who we are to be, starting from our recognition of ourselves in the one who is just there. The attitude to victims is the criterion for neighbourliness. (Jesus the Forgiving Victim Doers Publishing, Essay 12, Section 3)

The fascination of this dance is intriguing. So much of the political and social discourse of the social elite in my country is fascinated with the victims, and with punishing the victims— the ones who have not made good. And this creeps into punishment of the accidental victims such as the chronically ill, or the impoverished aged. We are fascinated because we are defining ourselves by them. They give us a life— we are not like them— but not the life of God.

My own small Samaritan moments have given me a different fascination. To use Alison's image, I dance around the sense of the deathlessness of God. What the lawyer speaking with Jesus could see was that being neighbour ultimately removes any protection from death. As a neighbour we tear down our protective walls. We are sent, as Jesus says earlier, like lambs among wolves. We can only be fully neighbour, only fully experience the life of God / spirit of God moving in us, if we will risk death.

In one approach to life, where we rain down fire on those who do not comply,

God’s deathlessness is somehow thought to need protecting. Protecting in two senses: protecting against, because thought to be a hugely violent and unstable reality that might swamp mere humans with wrath; and protecting from contamination, as though God’s deathlessness would somehow be diminished if allowed to be brought close to corruption and mortality. (Alison)

This is the ultimate weakness of Elijah's, and so much of the early tradition's, jealous God. It is a God who needs to be protected, and so not really God at all. (It is also the god of fundamentalism; it cannot let its god be corrupted by the humanity of the scriptures.)

In the other approach, the deathlessness of God is such that it is …  able to move towards, and around, and with, mortal beings and mortal remains without in any sense being weakened by them.

I note that only as I have embraced small Samaritan moments have I begun to be free of my fear of people unlike me, and of death. (Emphasis upon begun.)

One last point from Alison, who notes the "open-ended commitment [of the Samaritan] to the well-being of the victim without any fear that he would be limiting himself, be getting tied down, trapped, in a responsibility that would in some way diminish him."

We know this fear which the promise to repay the innkeeper anything owing, raises in us. Will I be able to bear the cost? It is, in the end, a death fear: this could cost me everything, how would I live then? I might die.

As death loses its power, so commitment to the flourishing of what is fragile and precarious becomes possible, and our relationship with time changes. I don’t know about you, but pledging yourself in an open-ended manner to make good on the hospital expenses of a severely injured person without any guarantee of payback for yourself is mostly a terrifying possibility. What is to stop you being “taken to the cleaners” for everything you’ve got?

 But what if time is not your enemy? If time is not your enemy, then what you achieve or don’t achieve, whether you are “taken to the cleaners” or not, is secondary, and whatever you have will be for the flourishing of the weak one for as long as it takes, since you know that you will be found there. Being on the inside of the life of God looks like being decanted, by a generosity you didn’t know you had in you, into making a rash commitment which makes a nonsense of death, of worry, and of the panic of time, because you know that you want to be found in loving proximity to what is weak and being brought into being. (Jesus the Forgiving Victim Doers Publishing, Essay 12, Section 3)

And so zoe aionios does have something eternal about it. But if we aim for the eternal without discovering what it means to be neighbour, we may not find it.

And so I am dancing, as I have always danced. I am both fascinated and terrified by what I see of life, as I have always been. But the object of the fascination, the thing I move towards and away from, and approach from different angles, is different. Something is letting me seek out people, enjoy life, even risk losing myself. I dance with two left feet and a poor sense of rhythm, but it is no longer a dance of fear, of defining myself over against, of walling off.

Andrew Prior

Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!



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