“And one of them … turned back … giving him thanks;
and he was a Samaritan”
Last Sunday we had the powerful and familiar story of the Good Samaritan. Today we have another gospel story in which a Samaritan figures also most prominently. It is an intriguing aspect of the Christian Scriptures, particularly of St. Luke’s Gospel, that the Samaritans are often used by Jesus to teach us about what belongs to the truth of our common humanity. At once an implied criticism of religious divisions, particularly among the Jews but by extension to other religions, Jesus talks about what transcends the differences between and within religious cultures. In these back-to-back Sunday Gospels we are reminded about the true nature of our obligations to God and to one another as well as our failings.
Both Gospels, the one a parable, the other an encounter, reveal to us something of ‘the good, the bad and the ugly’ about our humanity at the same time as they remind us of the necessity of God’s grace as the operative principle in our lives. There are our failings but there is the triumph of God’s grace in us compelling to “go and do likewise” both towards our neighbour and towards God. “A certain man” is wounded, lying half-dead on the road between Jerusalem and Jericho, the heavenly and the earthly cities respectively. “A certain Priest” and “Levite” “look and pass by”. There were “ten men that were lepers,” ten that were healed by Jesus.
Only “a certain Samaritan as he journeyed”, who having seen the man who was wounded, “had compassion on him” and “came where he was”, “tak[ing] care of him.” Only one of the ten who were healed “turned back, and with a loud voice glorified God, and fell down on his face at his feet, giving him thanks; and he was a Samaritan.” In the Jewish context of the Gospel, the Samaritans were a despised sect, outcasts, the proverbial “other.” The area of dispute between the Samaritans and the Jews is about the place where the Law of Moses was delivered and about what books truly comprise the Scriptures. In the encounter in John’s Gospel with the woman at the well of Samaria – the most intense Gospel story of Christ in his engagement with the Samaritans – Jesus is very clear about how they have erred on these doctrinal points at the same time as drawing them into conversation, even into communion with him.
Outsiders such as the Samaritans provide a corrective lesson to all the forms of religious self-righteousness and division. Jesus uses the Samaritans to show us our failings and to show us the setting right of our hearts and minds. No one lies outside of the reach of the Gospel.
“By his own blood he entered in once into the holy place,
having obtained eternal redemption for us”
Our Prayer Book provides a Collect for Holy Cross Day and appoints the Epistle and Gospel of Passion Sunday for its commemoration. There is something quite wonderful and powerful about that sensibility. We are being recalled through a non-biblical feast based upon a set of post-biblical events to what is central and essential to the Christian faith. We are simply recalled to the centrality of the Cross.
Why? The Cross is at once the meeting place of lovers and the betrayal of all our loves. We crucify Christ. The Cross confronts us with the failings and failures of our humanity, of the disorder and disarray of our hearts and minds that lead to devastation and destruction in every age. But the Cross confronts us with the greatest betrayal – our betrayal of God and his friendship with us. To be recalled to the Cross is to be recalled to the Passion of Christ – to what he wills to endure for us. It shows us the divine love which is greater than all and every human love and which overcomes all our sin and folly. Such is the power of forgiveness.
Forgiveness. The Cross is the sign of forgiveness. Forgiveness is the reconciling love that makes all things new out of the violent nothingness of our sins. Forgiveness is made visible and audible on the cross. “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” Christ carries us in our ignorant folly and violence into the hands of his Father, into the reconciling love which is his Passion and Death. Such is the radical meaning of the Cross. It is then in turn required of us to live and act in the same way. What is that way? It is the way signaled in the Collect. God’s grace is given so that we take up the Cross and follow Christ through life and death.
The Cross speaks to us about death and resurrection and about the necessity of sacrifice. Sacrifice is about Christ’s life in us. Another lives in me and I in him and only so can we live for one another. It means a dying to ourselves and living to God and one another in the body of Christ, the Church.
“And when he saw him, he had compassion on him”
We know it as the parable of the Good Samaritan. A familiar story, a familiar concept, even in our secular world, it suggests the powerful influence of religion on culture and society. We want to think that we can and should do good towards our neighbours, towards our fellow human beings. But we know, too, that what we want to do and even what we do is never fully complete, never fully enough. We even know at times that our efforts to do good have precisely the opposite effect. We make things worse.
Such reflections do not take away from the power and the truth of the parable of the Good Samaritan. Quite the opposite. They help to make us think more deeply about the Good and to realize that the power of doing good does not simply come from us. It is really altogether about God in us, not as if we are merely ‘passive vessels,’ but as moving our hearts and minds as active agents towards certain actions that arise from a certain kind of thinking. In a way, the parable is more about a certain attitude of mind that is needed in us and which is illustrated so beautifully, so powerfully, and so poignantly in the parable which Jesus tells.
What we see is the radical nature of love itself, the love that is God himself and God in us without which we are not lovely and without which we can only ‘look and pass by’ those in need. The divine love moving in us allows us in the journey of our own lives to come near to those in distress. It allows to see, to have compassion and to act. But it does not allow us the presumption to think that it is all our doing or that we have all the answers to the world’s problems. The parable of the Good Samaritan teaches us about what I would call, the humility of compassion.
What that entails is the realization that we ourselves are like that “certain man who went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, which stripped him of his raiment, and wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead”. And we ourselves are like that “certain Priest” and “Levite” who “look and pass by”. But we are also to be like that “certain Samaritan” who, “as he journeyed, came where he was; and when he saw him, he had compassion on him.” In other words, we ourselves are in this parable in every way both in our intentions and actions and our sufferings and failings. Yet we are called to be compassionate towards one another, both the stranger and the friend, because of the divine compassion which has been bestowed upon us. That is the deeper meaning of the parable, I think, and the only way in which we can understand it in relation to the questions which precede it.
Ephphatha, that is, Be opened.
It is an Aramaic word translated by Mark into Greek and by extension for us into English, all the while keeping before our hearts and minds the original word, Ephphatha. Aramaic was probably the language which Jesus himself spoke. The Christian Scriptures as a result retain a handful of Aramaicisms.
The story in which it occurs is unique to Mark, though the Greek word translated into English as “Be opened” is the same word used by the other Evangelists, especially by Luke in the Resurrection accounts about how Jesus opened the minds and opened the understanding of the Scriptures to the disciples. And so too something is being opened to us.
Guarda è escolta. Look and listen, Beatrice tells the pilgrim Dante in the poet’s great poem, the Purgatorio of the Divine Comedy. Look and listen to what? The pageant of Revelation in a sacramental form. It is not too much to say, perhaps, that Mark’s story here is the scriptural fons et origo of such imagery. For here is a story which speaks directly to the meaning of the Scriptures and in a way that is inescapably sacramental. In other words, we are being reminded of an essential feature of our own Catholic and Reformed Christian tradition, namely, the interplay between Word and Sacrament, the Word audible and the Word visible.
There is a kind of wonder in encountering this story in the midst of the Trinity season. It is one of the few Gospels from St. Mark in the classical eucharistic lectionary during the Trinity season; there are only three Gospel passages from Mark out of twenty-four or twenty-six Sundays. It speaks, I think, wonderfully and directly to our current confusions and uncertainties which are really about a kind of closing of our hearts and minds. “Ears have they and hear not; eyes have they and yet they see not.” Here we are being opened. Opened to what? What is it that we do not hear and see? What is it to which we are closed in our hearts and minds? To the presence and truth of God in our lives. We are closed to the very principle of all life, God. Here we have a powerful story about what God seeks and wants for us: our being opened to his transforming grace in our lives.
Here is a story, too, which reminds us of both the power and the limitations of language. You might say that the power and the truth of language actually is found in our recognition of its limits. Such is the meaning and nature of translation. Translation opens us out to the Word behind the words, if you will. It is an important feature of Judaism and Christianity that there can be and must be translation. And yet that doesn’t excuse us from appreciating and even learning other languages, even ancient languages. It means, however, that truth is not the sole property of any one language.
“How can any one satisfy these men with bread here in the wilderness?”
It is a good question and one which haunts our age of extreme affluence, on the one hand, and extreme poverty, on the other hand, an age of extremes despite the claims to the reduction of universal poverty overall which may indeed be true but tell that to those in radical need! But the Gospel speaks to another kind of poverty which underlies each and every other form of poverty. It is spiritual poverty, the poverty that belongs to our neglect of God and as a consequence to what God constantly provides for us.
In a way, the Gospel presents to us a fairly common biblical theme, the idea of God feeding his people in the wilderness journey. What is that journey? It is about our life to God and with God in the learning about the will and purpose of our life with God. This Gospel story explicitly recalls the provisions which God makes for his people in the wilderness of Sinai. Tough lessons actually. There is a certain reluctance among the children of the Hebrews to accept the discipline, the learning. The lessons are more intellectual and spiritual, we might say, than simply material.
And therein lies the difficulty. It is the constant temptation to measure the reality of God by way of our immediate material concerns. It is not that they don’t matter; they do. It is just that they are subordinate and depend upon something far more radical. The physical and material world is not nothing but neither is it everything, a point which the teaching of the Law of Moses makes clear as does the Gospel of the Resurrection. It is in the light of those ideas that we best make sense of this Gospel pericope. It recalls Deuteronomy’s claim that “man cannot live by bread alone but by every word which proceeds out of the mouth of God.” That does not deny the need for bread – for food – but it conditions that need by placing it squarely within the providence of God revealed in the Word of God as Law. There can be no bread without the Word of God in creation.