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Friday, September 9, 2022

Reflections on the parable of the Good Samaritan...

The Queen’s death, as does the birth and death of personages who are, by their stature, ‘larger than life,’ evokes public attention, scrutiny, grief and reflection. We pause, at a moment like this, and we pay attention, even if we are not in complete grasp of what it is that is happening, beyond the bare fact of the end of the life of a monarch, after nearly three-quarters of a century of her reign.

Queen’s, in the historic and traditional sense, are not a commodity, nor a rock star, nor a political legislator, but rather a somewhat ‘mythic’ and mystical figure, whose personal identity, while important, underlies her public persona. Every word, gesture, card, visit, public opening of hospital, factory, as well as each public disaster, if and when visited (think the burning of the apartment tower in London), are recorded for history by the encounter with the ‘crown’.

So, it is also, that people like the Governors General, and the Lieutenant’s General, representatives of Her Majesty, convey a hint, a glimmer, and a connection with and to the crown, as Her representatives in Canada, and our provinces. And yesterday, the former Governor General of Canada, David Johnston, was asked for his reflections on her passing. After the usual expressions of gratitude, and grief, and celebration, he launched into the Queen’s Christian faith, by way of the Parable of the Good Samaritan.

Detailing the Jew taken for dead in the ditch, and passed over by the priest and the Levite, while rescued by the Samaritan, a mortal enemy of the Jew, the former Governor General endorsed what he believed was the Queen’s adoption of the model of reaching out, not only to friends in difficulty, but also to one’s enemies, as the model guiding the Queen in her life and performance of her duties. And that ‘reading’ of the parable had been the long-standing and traditional interpretation of the famed biblical story from the New Testament, for centuries. Valid, honourable, somewhat challenging and clearly, worthy of monarchs and her subjects around the world. It exhorts each of us to consider whether and how we might regard those less fortunate among us, if we were to ‘look’ through the lens of this interpretation of the story. And for most of us in the west, the ‘ideal’ so embedded in the Good Samaritan story has been the beacon guiding the governments and the social and conventional wisdom for centuries. Indeed, whether and how governments have lived up to that ideal has, in part, been the benchmark by which those governments have been measured by their publics. Similarly, Christian churches too, have been held to a standard of ‘care’ that uses the metaphor of the Good Samaritan as both a teaching moment as well as a guiding principle of social justice ministry. For young people in church education programs, and their teachers, the lesson has been considered ‘integral’ to many if not most curricula. And, for that history and tradition, we can all be grateful. It does call us to reach out in compassion, care and hopefully empathy. In fact, the Greek word ‘agape’ (the fatherly love of God for humans, and the reciprocal love for God) has been one of the guiding beacons of Christian theology, based at least in part on this interpretation of the parable.

In the last decades of the twentieth century, a group of scholars, known by the name, The Jesus Seminar, studied the New Testament from the perspective of a variety of academic disciplines including linguistic, historic, systemic theology, anthropologic, and revisited the many stories and parable in the New Testament. One of their focuses was on the parable of The Good Samaritan, and one of their members, John Kloppenberg, who taught at Saint Michael’s College at the University of Toronto, brought some of their insights into his classes. Rather than hold to the historic interpretation of the parable, these scholars offered a very different ‘take’ on the story. For them, the figure of Christ was embodied, not so much by the Samaritan, but by the Jew taken for dead in the ditch. Passed over, rejected, abandoned, and left to die by those whose professed lives, the priest and the Levite (representing Old Testament prophets, a lesser class of priests, did chores at the temple), the Jew lying destitute in the ditch, for the Jesus Seminar, (and following them, for their students), the ‘revised’ version of the parable carries a far different message and theme.

If the Christian life is envisioned as a disciplined emulation of the life of Jesus Christ, then, it is not only through the love of one’s enemies (Samaritan for Jew) that exhorts us to consider. It is also to consider the place, the condition and the implications of the “taken for dead Jew”…the completely broken and abandoned one, that lies at the heart of the theology, when viewed from this perspective.

And the two perspectives, while not absolutely incompatible, require considerable adaptability both of mind and heart, from the pilgrim. Think for a moment, about how the official realm of our churches and our culture has attempted to incarnate the traditional interpretation, without considering the revised perspective. Think for a moment about how that traditional view of extending care by an enemy for a desperate person (family, town, nation) has been held up as an emblem of ethical and moral and spiritual heroism, evocative of the kind of love (agape) that we all aspire to express. And think about the ‘extrinsic’ and transactional features of that interpretation. And then, pause to reflect on the second vision of the parable, that expresses a very different model of spiritual “abandonment” and “rejection” and a form of death that lies in the ditch with the Jew…as the metaphor for Christ. In this view, one’s own life, ‘ditched’ by and in whatever manner that might be, determined by whomever and whatever circumstances that seemed beyond one’s control, is the subject of the perspective.

And if we are to parse at little further, this view of the Christian faith is less about “transacting” a kind, generous, empathic ‘good deed’ for someone in difficulty, than it is about ‘becoming’ that abandoned, rejected, ‘taken for dead’ posture of the Jew. And think for a moment about how that interpretation would radically shift our perceptions, attitudes and real comprehension of those whose lives have been ‘left for dead’ in the ditches of our towns and cities and neighbourhoods.

We hear phrases from indigenous peoples, about ‘walking a mile in another’s mocassins’ if we are to get to know the other. And such mantras are both helpful and also somewhat easily passed over. Too often, we hear people say, “I know just how you feel!” when they have no comprehension of the totality or the depth of the feelings of desperation of the person whom they are addressing. We may want to express support and through something like identification with the other, we are attempting to offer our support. And yet, what does it mean to “walk a mile in another’s mocassins’ if not actually to “be” (through the time-sensitive, deliberate, imaginative and poetic identity in the details of the other’s moment). And to “be” that other person is an act that reaches way beyond the act of giving care, of providing sustenance, of enacting a program that seeks to help….(even if it is also a hand-up and not a hand-out).

And herein lies the challenge for each of us, not merely to engage in a public act of generosity, kindness, compassion and agape, but to take the time, to breach the threshold of the door that separates our lives from the lives of those ‘taken for dead’ in the ditch, as an act of the imagination. And in the moments and the hours in which we engage in the discipline of seeing and feeling and hearing and weeping as we enter the space of the ‘taken for dead in the ditch’, our lives with or without our consciousness, or our wills or our consent, change.

The notion that we are “social” creatures has so many layers of meaning that we have barely begun to scratch the surface of our potential for relationship. We have, it would appear, fallen into the spectre of ‘giving, writing cheques, volunteering for a worthy cause, and for ‘transacting’ models of rescue that pervade our culture. And while many of those causes, agencies, and organizations, both for profit and not-for-profit, have honourable and worthy goals, they rely on a transactional exchange of time for service.

And what is too often missing is our deeper and inner selves, in and through the very demanding, challenging and even mountain-top (or valley bottom) encounter with the totality of being lost, abandoned, re-and de-jected, and we view this state as the ultimate one to be avoided and protected against at all costs. And, part of our resistance, denial and avoidance of ‘going there’ is our attitudes to death…the state and circumstance of Queen Elizabeth II, whose passing evokes tears and sadness, along with gratitude and leadership of a kind seldom seen these days.

It is not a ‘death-wish’ to identify with the Jew in the ditch. It is rather an opportunity to go where our culture, and even for some, their faith, does not expect or require them to consider ‘going’. And, it might be possible to transcend the level of violence, hatred, bigotry, contempt and derision that stalks both our public and our private lives, if we were open to seeing both interpretations of the parable of the Good Samaritan without regarding one as superior or inferior to the other.

After all, who among us can say with conviction that we know the absolutely correct version of the story? And who among us would not welcome an opportunity to reflect upon and to dialogue about two seemingly different versions of a story we have all been familiar with for decades, without any of us having to recede into the false safety and security of being absolutely ‘right’ in our views and in our theology.

Is both-and even among those concepts we might tolerate today?

One wonders how the former Governor General would respond to the juxtaposition of the two interpretations of the parable. 

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