A sermon by Rev. James Ishmael Ford, delivered at the First Unitarian Church in Providence, RI, March 30, 2014
FALLEN AMONG THIEVES
A Meditation on the Parable of the Good Samaritan
A lawyer asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” In reply Jesus told a story.
“Once there was a man traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho who was set upon by thieves, who beat him severely, stripped him of his money and even his clothing, and left him lying in the road, half-dead. A series of people passed by the man. The first was a priest, who noticed him, but turned his gaze away and walked by. Then a Levite, one particularly knowledgeable in the law noticed him, but crossed to the other side of the road to continue on his way. Then a Samaritan who was walking by saw the man. Filled with a wave of compassion, he knelt down, cleaned the man's wounds using wine as a disinfectant, bandaged him, set him on his donkey and then carried him to the nearest inn. There he continued to care for the man. The next day as he left to resume his trip, the Samaritan gave money to the Innkeeper, saying take care of this poor man, and when I return if there's any additional cost, I will pay it.”
Then Jesus looked at the lawyer who asked, who is my neighbor, and asked his own question. “Who do you think was that man's neighbor?
— The Gospel According to Luke, chapter 10, verses 29 through thirty-six
Once I had my alphabet I learned to read by sitting with my grandmother, who held a large illustrated edition of the King James' version of the Bible open on her lap. Slowly words and sentences and then their larger meaning were opened to me. I remain forever grateful. And because of this the stories from the Bible are pretty much part of my bones and marrow. Those who are familiar with such things have commented to me on occasion about how as a preacher my cast of language and idioms seem to be about equally informed by anecdotes from Medieval Chinese Buddhist monks and the King James Bible. Perhaps, at least one has observed, with a slight tilt toward those biblical allusions.
I like to say for myself that my sense of the world is about equally informed by those Medieval Chinese as well as a couple of Japanese Buddhists and my natural critical disposition, which, I'm sure most here know is rather more to the rational end of the spectrum than average. Still, when I sleep, the content of my dreams is crowded with Abraham and Sarah, Moses and Miriam, Jesus and the Mary's. And of these figures Jesus looms largest.
As a teacher, at least as best we know from writings put to paper one, two and three generations after his death, the good rabbi liked using short stories to make his points. As a literary form they're called parables. Approximately a third of his recorded teachings are parables, by a strict definition of brief story with a moral, there are thirty-three of them recorded in the synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark & Luke. Interestingly, well, at least to me, John the outlier gospel in so many ways, written maybe two or even three generations after the others doesn't feature these stories.
I deeply love several, but one that continues to haunt me is the parable of the Good Samaritan. Partially because after the first read, the moral, that point which marks parables, can in fact become slippery. It appears only in the Gospel of Luke, which makes it a little bit suspect. But the majority of biblical scholars seem to concur that it is indeed a story attributable to Jesus, in part because the obvious point is consistent with the general direction of his teachings.
The story has a set up, the lawyer who asks about who is “one's neighbor” is following on an earlier part to the conversation, where the lawyer asks, apparently as an entrapment, there's a lot of set ups where enemies ask leading questions that could earn the word heresy, or, worse, sedition. These are indeed dangerous times. In this case the lawyer asks how to earn eternal life, to which Jesus responds, what do you think? The lawyer then says, love God and love your neighbor, what has come to be called the Great Commandment. Jesus agrees. The lawyer then goes in an interesting direction, asking, “Who is my neighbor?”
There is a world of comment on this parable. Frankly, I find most of it not particularly interesting. The earliest strata of these comments are, typical of late antiquity, pure analogy with Jesus himself understood to be the Good Samaritan. In more recent years Liberationists and others put a lot of emphasis on the outsider qualities of a Samaritan to some good effect. I kind of like how Christopher Hitchens, late raconteur and atheist polemicist cited the Good Samaritan parable as evidence that you don't have to be religious to be ethical. I'll return to that in a moment.
I mentioned that I was writing on this subject on Facebook and the minister types all jumped in with their suggestions. What surprised me was how much of it was the same old, same old. “Don't forget Samaritans were a hated minority. For liberals, think of the story with Rush Limbaugh as the Samaritan, for conservatives think Barack Obama.” Worthy, yes, but hardly tilling new soil. “Remember we'll all the parts, sometimes the Samaritan, sometimes the man, sometimes the robbers.” In response to that I tried picturing myself as the donkey. “Don't forget the ritual prohibitions that hampered the observant from acting out of love.” That's an old standard for Lutheran types holding up spirit against letter, but actually not true, as there are clear exceptions in the traditional Jewish laws to the prohibition on touching blood in just this sort of circumstance.
Then a friend and colleague with, how shall we put it, a less conventional view of reality pointed us all to a YouTube clip of a Mitchell and Webb retelling of the telling of the parable where Jesus is caught up in a conversation that could easily take place in your typical Unitarian church coffee hour. In the clip the listeners are offended at Jesus' use of Samaritan as a placeholder for a bad person, suggesting this revealed Jesus' own underlying racism. It concludes with Jesus making a very badly done apology for offending anyone who might've been offended, and then saying with exasperation, “it's only a parable.” Then he is asked, “What, it didn't really happen?” And he replies, “Well, of course not. A Samaritan wouldn't do that for his own grandmother…” Actually there's an adjective used to modify the noun Samaritan in that line I can't use in a sermon.
I like playing with these things. We do tend to get in ruts with our sacred texts, particularly if there's an obvious truth involved. As today's anthem sang to us, “Walk a mile in your neighbor's shoes, you'll understand him better if you do.” And, “See the world through your neighbor's eyes, there's plenty you'll come to realize…” True. And, easy to say, not so easy to do. To hold that sense of identity with another, with the other, with new eyes, with new ears is indeed worthy. So, thank you Mitchell & Webb.
And, there are yet other directions yet we can go with this story, if we can shake it up a little. Some, I feel, deeply useful. Let's go back to Mr Hitchens, just for a moment. For him this story suggests we don't have to be following some particular spiritual path to feel the need to do good, to care for others. Those who were debating Mr Hitchens pointed out that the Samaritan ethic was pretty much identical to the Jewish, so not particularly strong evidence of some universal urge to care for the other. I find this back and forth worthy. Both make good points. Yes, the Samaritans and the Jews are following a shared ethic calling us to care for others, and yes, there's, I really believe there's some deeper sense of fair and of connection that we all share just because of our humanity, and probably, just because of our mammalian heritage.
And, there are yet other invitations to be found in this parable. One of my mentors is Ruben Habito, a former Jesuit priest who now teaches comparative religion at the Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. In one of his books he comments on this parable, saying it can in fact be seen as something more than a moral injunction, however useful, and whether God given or as natural as nature itself. Ruben points out that it all turns on the question framed at the beginning of the conversation with that lawyer. “What do I do to earn eternal life?”
Eternal life: a lovely placeholder for the great longing of the human heart. For some perhaps it is a literal hope of living beyond our physical deaths, although I hope all here have long since noticed how that longing of our hearts can't be contained by such a limited view, the desire of a mortal to live forever. It is also, and I find vastly more important, a sense of separation, of hurt, perhaps of wound, and with that a hope of reconciliation with our divided hearts, with ourselves and nature, of healing, of hope, of finding ourselves lost and longing for our true home. For Ruben, Jesuit priest for a dozen or more years, I no longer recall exactly, this eternal life is the same as that kingdom of God which in various other biblical passages is clearly something not elsewhere, or at least not entirely elsewhere, rather most importantly right at hand, within us, and among us. All of a sudden I find myself very interested in what that might mean for this parable.
So, what about that eternal life, that peace that passes all understanding, that hope for a healing of broken hearts, that finding of our true home? That place, I suggest, which when found, corrects the misunderstandings we bring to our desire to be of use in the world, to find justice, to do mercy, is critically important. It is about a fundamental reorienting of our selves and our lives. It is about the path of harmony and love.
For Ruben loving God and loving neighbor are one thing. This, I believe is critical. For me, there is no other place to find God than right here, in this place, within my own heart, and among us. In my very ordinariness, in your very ordinariness, that is exactly where God is.
For Ruben this parable becomes a direct pointing to the deep and true and an invitation into a conversation, into a more intimate presence with our own hearts and with the world itself, all of it. From this perspective of wild intimacy God and love and neighbor cannot be disentangled. As Ruben says, “As we see our neighbor as not separate from ourselves, but as embraced in the same circle of Love that we ourselves are embraced in, in the same way, we embrace them with our whole soul, our whole mind, our whole heart, our whole strength.”
So, my Facebook friend is right: we do play all the parts, but in a deeper way than as a thought experiment. We are the wounded man. We are the thieves who set upon him. We are the Samaritan and the innkeeper. And, yes, we are the donkey. And the inn and the road between Jerusalem and Jericho, and the sky and the sun and the moon and the stars in heaven. We are all of these people and things. Yes. And.
We open our hearts and we see it and know it.
Then the mysteries of remembering and forgetting and acting all come together like a song or a dance. And perhaps then we come to understand a line from one of those ancient Chinese worthies, who when asked why is it that the Bodhisattva of Mercy has all those hands and eyes? And replies, it is like someone in her sleep, who reaches behind her head and adjusts the pillow.
Or, it is like a man walking down a road and sees another who has been set upon by thieves, and lies broken and wounded. No theology. No commandments. Unencumbered by should or should not, he simply does what needs doing.
The great way.
All we need do is open our heart.
And we find the intimate way.
Each of us as different as night and day, and each of us one thing, like a hand and a heart. All of it, all of us, you and me: a thread within a seamless garment, a point within a vast web of interdependence.
And all of it, shot right through like a deep breath, dazzling, amazing, wondrously, with Love.