The last Chapel service for this year was on Monday with the Junior School who have had to contend with more ups and downs and changes than all other students at the School in terms of Chapel. Despite the irregularities of schedules and vagaries of restrictions, Junior Chapel has been exceptional in terms of enthusiasm and singing, in attention and commitment to this important aspect of the educational programme of the School. The leadership of the students has been extraordinary. Some of the best readers in the School are those in the Junior School. It suffices to mention Will Larder and Vinnie Armstrong. It was also the last Chapel service with Head Boy, Will Ahern, playing the organ, something which began when he was in the Junior School!
So it was wonderful to end this up and down year with a Junior School Chapel service and to reflect with them about the importance of the ethical by way of the parable of the Good Samaritan. The story is actually framed by Jesus’ questions about “what is written in the Law?” and about “how do you read?” and the story of Martha and Mary which immediately follows it. In other words, our actions expressed in the injunction to “go and do thou likewise” are shaped and informed by our thinking. There is an essential interplay between the practical and theoretical, between the active life and the contemplative. That Mary has “chosen the better part,” the unum necessarium, signals the priority of wisdom which is found in contemplation but only as the principle which governs and guides human actions.
To think about the ethical is to consider what is the Good and how is it to be realised in our lives. What is especially important about the parable of the Good Samaritan is that it highlights that the ethical demand for compassion is required of us towards everyone in spite of and not because of various particular identity claims. It is not by accident that Jesus uses the Samaritans to underscore what belongs to the truth and dignity of our common humanity. The Samaritans were despised in the Jewish world. There were deep divisions between Jews and Samaritans about the Mosaic Law. And yet, the actions of “a certain Samaritan” illustrate precisely what it means to fulfil the Law in terms of the love of neighbour, the one who is the stranger, the proverbial other, as oneself. It is about the recognition of our common humanity regardless of cultural, linguistic, social, and political identities which are constantly in motion.
In this sense, it emphasises what unites us rather than what divides us. While the parable is told to teach the radical meaning of the love of neighbour, it also shows that the love of neighbour is nothing less than the love of God moving in us towards one another. In short, it is about the Good alive in us in our care and compassion towards each other. The Good, as Plato teaches, is always “beyond,” always something more and greater than ourselves. As such it frees us from ourselves and to one another. Martha complains to Jesus that Mary has “left her to serve alone.” As Luke notes, Martha “was distracted with much serving,” or as the King James version wonderfully puts it “cumbered about with much serving,” signalling the idea of being burdened by the weight of practical concerns. But our preoccupations mean the loss of wisdom and understanding which alone give meaning to our actions.
We can be too careful, literally too full of cares, and thus anxious and troubled about a multitude of things whether about the right things but in the wrong way or about the wrong things altogether. Such is our unwisdom. Getting the relation between our thinking and doing right is our lifelong task and challenge. “Teach us to care and not to care,” as T.S. Eliot puts it (Ash Wednesday). In other words, how to care and act in the right way. But that comes down to wisdom, to an understanding about what is right and good not just for oneself but for all. And that has very much to do with what we learn, with what belongs to an education which emphasises character, an education which seeks wisdom.
Chapel, in this sense, is the one thing necessary. It provides a time to be quiet in ourselves and to ponder together the great questions about the ethical that never really go away. It is the counter to the culture of the isolated self, buried in a myriad of distractions and concerns that separate us from one another. The wisdom of the ethical requires our compassion towards one another.
(Rev’d) David Curry
Chaplain, Head of English & ToK teacher
Chair of the Department of Religion and Philosophy