Sunday, 14 July 2013
You're not the Samaritan, you're the dying man
The good Samaritan: a story drummed into our heads from primary school days, perhaps familiar even to the primary school children of this secular age. So maybe you've heard it all before. And with good reason: there's quite a lot you can do with it.
At its most basic, it makes a good moral tale. If you're around my age, maybe you remember at school singing the song "would you walk by on the other side?" The idea being, of course, if you see someone in need over the road, as it were, maybe someone upset in the playground, or whatever, you shouldn't just walk by, you should cross over that road, you should do the right thing and go to help them. So, at this basic moral level, we all know that story and we all know that we're supposed to identify with the Samaritan, as a guide for how we should behave as good Christians.
And then If you go into it a little bit deeper, you can get a delightfully right-on message out of it about how nice foreigners are, a sort of paean to multiculturalism, the New Labour version of the parable, if you like. You shouldn't judge people by what they look like or where they come from, you should get over your prejudices, because even those nasty Samaritans can be nice too. And again, you've probably heard all that before.
So let's take it one little step deeper. Perhaps you've heard from the pulpit the significance of the priest and the Levite who passed by: the priest is on his way to Jerusalem to offer sacrifice at the Temple, so he can't touch the bloodied body because that would make him ritually unclean. Similarly the Levites, a representative of that old hereditary priestly family which Jesus supersedes by offering a priesthood to be shared by all who come to Him. And here comes another moral for us to take home: we can beat ourselves up about being too concerned with our Churchly rituals, (whether that means ringing the bells at the right moments in the Eucharistic prayer, or being obsessed with the spoons being put back in the right place after coffee) when really, we should be looking out for our neighbours, whoever they are, and trying to serve them like Jesus did. Alternatively, we can congratulate ourselves on how little we pay attention to such rituals (certain kinds of Protestant love to congratulate themselves about that) and how wonderfully unlike the priests and the Levites (or the Catholics?) we are. Although, this interpretation does rather conflict with Moral 2, where we're supposed to be nice to people who aren't, you know, like us.
Well, so be it. There are lessons to be learned from identifying with the priest, or the Levite, or trying to be like the Samaritan. But maybe this is missing a more important point. You see:
We are not the priests. We're not the Levites. We're not even the Samaritans.
We are the man dying at the side of the road.
I think Jesus has laid a subtle trap for us in this parable. As soon as we've told ourselves not to be like the priests on the Levites, we can then move on to thinking that we can be the Samaritan. And we like to leave things there. We like to think that our actions, our decisions, the way we behave, are what count in the building of the Kingdom of God. We like to think that we can earn our salvation. But the good Samaritan is not us: he is Jesus. The same Jesus who washed the feet of his disciples, the same Jesus who told St Peter off for trying to wash His feet. The same Jesus who told us that we must let Him serve us. We are the dying man at the side of the road who must rely completely on Jesus to save us.
We tend, in the West in particular, to view independence as a very good thing. But as Christians, we cannot afford to live in this delusion. Everything we are, everything we have, is the gift and work of God. Even the good that we think we are doing is done only insofar as we dependend on God. It is He who works through us if we let go of our supposed independent selves and let Him rise up through us to live in us: so that, as St Paul says, it is no longer I live, but Christ who lives in me.
"My yoke is easy and my burden is light," says the Lord. So, shouldn't it be the easiest thing just to take up this yoke, just to stop working for our own salvation, just to let Jesus do the hard work for us? Shouldn't it be the easiest thing just to depend completely? Sadly not. Jesus' easy way, the easiest way, is also the hardest way, the Narrow gate. All the voices which encourage us from such a young age to stand up by ourselves - even the Girl Guides, who just removed God from their oath and replaced him with self-development - all the voices which discourage us from recognising our proper dependence on others, friends, families, neighbours, Church and ultimately God, are barriers to our salvation, hardening our hearts. Allowing the illusion of self-containment to slip can be a painful process. But truly, no man is an island.
We talk about the Eucharist as an "offering." And this is absolutely right and proper, as long as we always recognise that everything we have to offer ultimately comes from God; we give to him of his own. We offer him bread and wine which he has given us from wheat and vines. We offer the Father the body and blood of His Son which He has already, once-and-for-all given and shed for us. And because we, the Church, are ourselves the body of Christ, still in a strange and scattered way incarnate in this world, animated by the Holy Spirit, we become a part of the self-offering of Jesus to His Father. It is never my work: it is always our work and it is always Christ's work, bound in harmony by the Holy Spirit. In this Eucharist today, we are drawn into the spiralling vortex of Trinitarian love. Of ourselves, we have nothing to offer, nothing we can do. The only good is the good given us by God, and the only offering we can make is the offering that Christ makes: we become His own broken body lying at the roadside, which only He, the eternal priest, the Good Samaritan, can pick up and raise up to the Father.
Posted by Tom Plant