What Is Life All About?

Posted: July 19, 2016 in Uncategorized

Pentecost 8C, 2016 Luke 10:25-37

What Is Life All About?

As background to our reading and a little glimpse of the context for today’s reading we recall that Jesus travelled quite a bit in the north. Towards the end of his life story he turned south again, making his way along the road from Jericho to Jerusalem. When we see the road in its context of the mountainous desert we can see that it was a dangerous route since much of it was through a rocky wilderness that sheltered many bands of thieves or robbers. The Romans even had a fortress on the road for that reason. To protect the travelers. To get an idea we see that the road rises some 3,300ft in 14 miles or 22 Kilometers. It is quite a climb from Jericho which was below sea level.

The road from Jericho to Jerusalem also has a significant historical message in the life of the Hebrew people in that it was the scene of various biblical events. From David’s escape from the clutches of his son Absalom, to the story of the “Good Samaritan” and even trips that Jesus made including one when he healed the blind man Bartimaeus. His healing in the text is at a place before the road climbs up the ridge between residential Jericho and municipal Jericho on the road to Jerusalem. It might also be interesting to know that the walk from Jericho to Jerusalem is an 8 to 9 hr walk. The stories tell us that Jesus was not alone as he traveled with companions and the curious, who were interested in hearing something of what this strange Jewish cynic-like sage had to say about the nature of human life and its prospects.

This Jericho to Jerusalem road is the scene of what has been said to be one of the most known and best loved stories in our biblical tradition. The story of the so-called ‘Good Samaritan’. And it is a great story for sure.  But herein is its problem also. Because it is so well known and so well loved it has been domesticated and we miss that it is indeed a parable… And we know parables to be subversive stories, and challenges to the status quo. They are stories which turn our ideas and values and worldview upside down.

Theologically speaking, for years and years the church’s interpretation turned this parable into an ‘example story’. Into a story of two so-called bad blokes and one good bloke. Now we no longer believe the story to be an example story. It is not a story about morality or about how to be nice. If the thrust of the story was about good blokes verses a bad bloke, or as an illustration of love of neighbour, or even a diatribe against heartless religious leaders, the offer of aid by a Jewish lay person would have been sufficient. One did not need a ‘Good Samaritan’ to give the story its impact.

Likewise, according to John Dominic Crossan: “If Jesus wanted to inculcate love of one’s enemies, it would have been radical enough to have a Jewish person stop and assist a wounded Samaritan…  Whereas the internal structure of our story and the historical setting of Jesus’ time agree that, the whole thrust of the story demands that one say what cannot be said, what in fact is a contradiction in terms: Good-Samaritan”  (Crossan 1992:62). This is what we might call an oxymoron. There could not be a Good Samaritan in non-Samaritan eyes. And that’s a major shock. Because it challenges the hearers’ – then and now – in their understanding of God and of whom God approves. The story’s challenge is that the Samaritan, who is both a lay person and an outsider, embodies the true interpretation of the Jewish tradition: to show compassion. Again a challenge in that such compassion is more than being nice to. It is an acceptance of difference, an acceptance and not just a tolerance.

Matthew Fox suggests: “Compassion is not pity…  It is not feeling sorry for someone.  Compassion is about feelings of togetherness.  And it is this awareness of kinship or togetherness that urges us to seek after justice and do works of mercy (Fox 979:2, 4). Again, the challenge is not about doing the right thing, showing care for; it is more than that. A ‘Good Samaritan’ says that.

John Donahue describes ‘compassion’ like this: He says that “Compassion is that divine quality which, when present in human beings, enables them to share deeply in the utterings and needs of others and enables them to move from one world to the other: from the world of helper to the one needing help; from the world of the innocent to that of the sinner”   (Donahue 1988:132).

Who is my neighbour? That’s the question we ask when we read this story and then many of us identify with the Samaritan. But it’s not as easy being a ‘good’ Samaritan as it seems at first sight! The stories told by our cultural storyteller – our televisions – tell us people continue to pass by on the other side.

David Galston eludes to this when he claims that when one stands in front of an artist’s great work and asks what does it mean? We are engaging in the very nature of art which is interpretation. The craft of the artist is not formula but rather vision and every vision, to be effective must engage others be it an individual or a community and that engagement is about the question of meaning. The vision only exists in so far as it is imagined by the beholder. The parable is the work of the poet Jesus. Jesus has placed his artistic vision into words that play out the imaginative game of existence and non-existence, fullness and emptiness, being and nothingness. This means that the poem is never really about the poem but mostly about the experience of the poem. The bringing to life of the images and feelings the poem invokes. Its truth is in the experience of those who read or hear it. And here is the great challenge for us today. A poem exists in a way that is lost in literalism but comes to life in imagination. It is the awakened imagination which is something to be lived as opposed to being seen as an object.

So here we have a mystic poet whose form of poetry was the artful and invocative parable, a product of his imagination. Parables set in his everyday world that was his life experience. For his poem to work it had to include common everyday events. Just as poems are really not about the poem so the Samaritan who cares for the one who fell among bandits is severely bland if it is only about how to be nice. Parables are much more than that. They are the way Jesus cast human life out on the horizon to behold, to wonder about, and to re-image. What does life mean? What liberties have human beings to think and act differently? In what ways do we get caught up in life and its struggles such that we forget it’s free? These are the sorts of questions raised by the parables, they are not moral advice, and just like good poems, the vision the parables cast against the horizon speaks even to their creator. I remember here Gordon Nicholson telling me that when he asked Max Gimblett what the meaning was of one of his paintings Max replied; ‘what do you think it means’. This I suggest is another way of saying; ‘I don’t know because its meaning is what you make it to be’. Even Jesus wondered about the meaning of the parables and then on top of all this we have the writers who have preserved the parables for us. They too had to interpret the parables, seeking a deeper meaning or a secret, if not a colourful explanation. Primarily the writers assumed the parables were allegories because of their need to find the so-called ‘hidden messages for believers’. For the writer or writers of Matthew the parables are about end times and how to get into or be kept out of the building. For Luke the parables are to inspire us to care for the poor. David Galston suggests that the writers have answered the question posed by the parables and in so doing have closed them off from us. We need to read them for ourselves in the light of their context.

Dominic Crossan suggested that Jesus proclaimed God in the parables, but the primitive church proclaimed Jesus as the parable of God. In other words when taken as allegory the parable is assumed to be a way of expressing truth in symbolic forms. As Crossan pointed out, the parables of Jesus effectively became symbols of the identity of Jesus and his divine instructions. An example might be in the Humpty Dumpty rhyme. Everybody associates Humpty Dumpty with an egg, probably out of the images of the great fall and how Humpty Dumpty couldn’t be put back together again, but who said Humpty Dumpty was an egg? While the rhyme might remind us of one there is in fact no egg in the rhyme and no reason to assume the rhyme concerned and egg. Our imagination places the egg there and in so doing we add to to story an extra layer about an egg. The non-existent egg becomes other speech for a cryptic moral about carelessness.

This is how allegory works. It places into a story a subject from the outside and then it interprets the story symbolically as an illustration of this new outside subject. In the Humpty Dumpty rhyme the egg is a strange but additional subject that appears for unknown reasons. In the parables of Jesus, God is the additional subject. God never appears in the parable but is assumed.

So what do we do with the good Samaritan parable? Maybe we listen to it again, but this time we can maybe begin with the idea that its overall task is to shake up the contextual assumptions, so it must contain some everyday events that are turned on their head. They invite a new radical way of looking at what human life is all about.

We need to discern what the added subject is and this might be the easily reached idea that it is God that is being alluded to. And then we might exclude the God image and read it as a poem about who our neighbour might be because that is what Jesus is most likely to be asking.

And by exclude the God image I mean do not do as Augustine did. His example is how not to read a parable. He was not a good biblical critic because for him the Samaritan parable dances with metaphysical meaning. Jerusalem represents the peace of heaven. Jericho represents our mortality. The beating of the traveler on the road to Jericho represents the brutal persuasions of sin. The Priest and the Levite are respectively the law and the prophets. The Samaritan is Christ, the inn is the church and the innkeeper is the Apostle Paul. Augustine even adds more; the binding wounds is the sign of the containment of sins and the Samaritan’s pack animal is the Body of Christ. What we have is that Augustine lives after the Council of Nicaea and with the assumption that Jesus Christ is fully divine and of one substance with the Father. Whatever Jesus is doing in his parables for Augustine, he is no artist talking about life. Since Jesus is God his words are signals of the divine drama of the creation, the fall into sin, and the salvation of humankind. Augustine has mistaken an assumption about metaphysics for the vision of Jesus.

Biblical scholar (the late) Robert Funk spent many years studying this parable. He asked a question that I would suggest is based on this new found starting place, reached after working through the historical criticism methodology: “Who in the audience of the writer wanted to let himself or herself be helped by a Samaritan? This he suggests is the primary challenge because the appearance of the Samaritan makes sense on no other basis”  (Funk 1996:176).

Funk then went on to suggest that had the victim in the ditch been a Samaritan and the hero an ordinary Judean, a different question would had to have been asked: who in the Judean audience wanted to play the role of hero to a Samaritan victim?

Let’s face it, the role of the victim is the inferior role. The role of the helper is the superior one. And who doesn’t want to be the hero? Who is my neighbour? That’s the supposed context of this story and the most common question asked by those who hear it. But there is another contextual question in this story. Another ‘word’ which must also be considered if this story is to be a parable rather than just an example story. And that can also be shaped into a question: whom will I allow to be my neighbour?

I suggest that it is here that we have the connection with the underlying reason for parables or poems, or the nature of engagement with human imagination. It is here that my title makes sense. Jesus a mystic poet paints the word picture that uses everyday common images and concepts to expose the possibility of another way of living life. What is life all about is the question the parables evoke. It may not be to exclude those who are different, in fact it is the one we most want to exclude who is the one we need to welcome most strongly.

Then comes the question of critique applied to this particular parable. What in this parable is the heart wrenching tragedy of life in poverty where there lies some comedy in the midst of debt? What is there in life that is brutal and honest in this parable? We have a Jewish person in the ditch in need of assistance. I am going to add that this is a Jerusalem Jew as opposed to a northern Samaritan Jew to add further complexity. Here we have this Samaritan, descendant from Israel the Northern Kingdom follower of the Torah who has it all wrong, the wrong denomination perhaps, maybe the liberal one, but definitely the one who is corrupt in terms of orthodox Judaism.

The question is “If we as this Jerusalem Jew were in the ditch in that condition, who is the last person we would want to be indebted to for the rest of our lives, especially if acknowledging the debt would cause us to be outcast and associated with that group by everyone in our current world?

Is there anyone or any group that we feel that way about today?  Would we rather die than face the fact that this person or these people are our neighbours? (McKenna 1994:149).

Our honest answer to that question, gets us close to the heart of this parable. And our answer just might really surprise us as well.

Notes: Crossan: J. D. 1992.  In Parables: The Challenge of the historical Jesus. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press. John R. Donahue. 1988.  The Gospel in Parable. Metaphor, Narrative, and Theology in the Synoptic Gospels. Philadelphia. Fortress Press. Matthew Fox. 1979.  A Spirituality Named Compassion, and the Healing of the Global Village, Humpty Dumpty and Us. New York. Harper & Row. Funk, R. W. 1996.  Honest to Jesus. Jesus for a New Millennium. New York. HarperSanFrancisco. Megan McKenna. 1994.  Parables. The Arrows of God. Maryknoll. Orbis Books.

David Galston 2016 God’s Human Future, The Struggle to Define Theology Today Polebridge Press

 

rexae@optusnet.com.au

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