The Beauty of Contrast and Continuity

Luke presents us with a real challenge when he shares with us Jesus’ parable about the dishonest steward (or manager) {See Luke 16:1-13}  If you find yourself asking questions about what Jesus says in this passage you are not alone. Here is the obvious question: How can Jesus commend the bad behavior of a corrupt steward ~ as a good example for people of faith? We have a reading translated from Greek, which was itself probably an earlier translation of Jesus’ words in Aramaic. Therefore, we have to try to put our head into the text, in order to understand it. So… how can ‘the children of this age’ provide a commendable example to ‘the children of light’? Two paintings by Raphael may be able to help us with this ~ paintings you may have seen before.

They are found in a remarkable room in the Vatican Museum, painted about the same time that St. Peter’s Basilica was being built next door. Visitors entering this room face the fresco in the lower image, which looks like the sanctuary of a church with an altar and the sacrament upon it. On either side of that altar, and above it, are depictions of famous saints and biblical figures, as well as the Holy Trinity. Then, turning around in that same Vatican room, one sees the fresco in the upper image. It is the famous School of Athens, depicting great figures from the classical world with Plato and Aristotle in the middle. Tour guides typically present these two paintings, which face each other, in terms of the contrast between them. They say things like this: “Here, on this wall, we have the best minds of the pagan world. But, on the opposite wall, we see great saints of the Bible and the Church.” Or, to use Jesus’ words, we see ‘the children of this age’ in the upper image, contrasted with ‘the children of light’ in the lower one.

Yet, it’s quite possible to look at these related paintings in two different ways. We may, at first, be disposed to see the contrast between them as tour guides typically do. But we might also be open to seeing the continuity between them, even if the content of the two paintings seems rather different. For example, those who notice continuity will observe that the two frescos are composed with the same elements: the same colors and textures; the same arch over each image; and, that the two spaces in which the figures walk or sit may be in the same building. Further, the perspective or vanishing point in each painting converges upon that of the other.

Finally, visitors entering this room walk in the same direction as Plato and Aristotle, and —with them— toward the altar on which the sacrament is displayed. As a result, visitors standing between the two paintings are at the equivalent of what would be ‘the crossing’ of a church, a church which looks remarkably like St. Peter’s, next door. And so, as Raphael designed it, Plato and Aristotle are in the same company as visitors to this room, who join them in approaching the altar in the fresco showing all the saints! Therefore, these two paintings provide a splendid illustration of the theme of continuity.

 

The images above are of two of Raphael’s paintings, traditionally titled The School of Athens, and The Disputation of the Holy Sacrament. This post is based on my homily for Sunday, September 22, 2019, which can be accessed by clicking hereOther homilies of mine may be accessed by clicking here. The Revised Common Lectionary, which specifies the readings for Sundays and other Holy Days, can be accessed by clicking here.

The Beauty of Repentance

 

We know that indulging in some bad things, can make us feel good. Yet, how is it that doing some good things, can make us feel bad? This question arises because we live in a culture where we often measure the goodness of something by whether or not it makes us feel good. This is why repentance is paradoxical. It is a good thing. But, it can make us feel bad, even if we feel better afterwards. Well, how can something that makes you feel bad, be good for you?

For who wants to repent? Because repentance and reluctance often go together. Repentance means acknowledging, and then acting on, something we wish wasn’t true about us, or of our actions. Self-criticism is implicit in repentance. Though it can lead to self-improvement, repentance often has a cost we don’t want to pay. As a result, acknowledging fault is not pleasant. And, it can diminish our self-image, even if it later strengthens our self-respect.

There are three steps to repentance: first, recognizing our fault; second, acknowledging our failure; and, third, turning away from our bad attitude or behavior. Repentance is therefore more than admitting a mistake. Even if it is difficult, admitting mistakes is not as serious as taking responsibility for sin. What distinguishes sin is how we damage relationships. For, through sin, we hurt our fellowship with God, and we hurt our relationships with each other. This is why repentance is so challenging. Even if admitting mistakes is unpleasant, doing so is a lot easier than admitting I have harmed my relationship with God and with other people.

With his parables about the lost sheep and the lost coin, Jesus in Luke not only commends repentance; he also tells us why. Even if repentance causes us to feel bad, Jesus points to its goal. He tells us that genuine repentance brings joy ~ joy to the angels. It’s another way of saying that our repentance brings joy to God. I like to think this is the infectious joy of heaven. Except that, we seem to be so well ‘inoculated’ against it! So, why isn’t the joy of heaven more infectious in our experience?

I think the answer follows from a second aspect of sin. Sin is not only an act ~ something we have done, or might do. Sin is also a condition ~ the condition that disposes us to do wrong things. This condition is reflected in wrong acts; and this condition causes self-deception, especially about the wrongness of what we have done. Sin therefore limits our readiness to bring joy to God. We know this. And yet, we’re not readily inclined to do something about it, nor do we have much confidence that we can.

Repentance is the antidote to the poisoning effect of sin. Therefore, it needs to be part of our spiritual health care, in a regular way, and not just once a year like a flu shot. Repentance as a spiritual practice needs to be an ongoing feature of how we live. Practice may make ‘perfect’ when it comes to art or sports, but not in ethics and spirituality. Yet, spiritual practice does build proficiency, and it does shape character. Repentance is therefore an important feature of healthy spiritual practice. Through repentance, we bring joy to heaven, and peace to our souls.

 

The image above is of James Tissot’s painting, The Lost Drachma. This post is based on my homily for Sunday, September 15, 2019, which can be accessed by clicking hereOther homilies of mine may be accessed by clicking here. The Revised Common Lectionary, which specifies the readings for Sundays and other Holy Days, can be accessed by clicking here.

Taking Up the Cross

 

Luke tells us that “large crowds were traveling with Jesus.” Doesn’t that sound hopeful, and a great way to describe the goal of our lives ~ to ‘travel with Jesus?’ Yet, turning to the crowds, Jesus says this: “Whoever comes to me and does not hate [family] and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” Paying attention to these words we can notice something important, but something that we might otherwise overlook. It is this ~ that traveling with Jesus is not necessarily the same thing as following him. Jesus’ strong words are coupled with others that are equally off-putting. For he says that “none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.” In other words, on our best days we may wonder about which of our things we might be willing to give up. Yet, Jesus tells us that we must give up everything! What are we to do with these starkly uncompromising words?

Our temptation when considering Jesus’ strong words is to take them figuratively, or to blunt them by abstraction. Yet, it’s helpful to remember something that St. Anthony of Egypt perceived, centuries ago, about those who came to join him where he lived in a desert cave. Observing the newcomers, he came to realize that those who manage to give up their possessions don’t always give up their attachment to them. So, as Anthony came to see, it’s not possessions that are our problem, but our attachment to them.

This insight, found in the spirituality of both the East and the West, involves the spiritual practice of non-attachment. It can help us deal with Jesus’ hard sayings about family, possessions and our vocation. A spiritual writer, John Shea, offers a helpful understanding of Jesus’ words here. He observes that “possessions are whatever we hold onto that competes with our communion with Jesus and {our} cooperation with his mission. They are substitute absolutes.” In speaking about more than just physical things, Shea says that “an essential step of discipleship is selling what we have that keeps us from integrating the mind and actions of Christ into our minds and actions.”

Here, taking note of Eugene Peterson’s translation of our Gospel may be helpful. This is how Peterson renders Jesus’ words: “Anyone who comes to me but refuses to let go of father, mother, spouse, children, brothers, sisters—yes, even one’s own self!—can’t be my disciple. Anyone who won’t shoulder his own cross and follow behind me can’t be my disciple.” Jesus is not urging us to engage in the counter-intuitive emotion of hate. Instead, he wants us to recognize how two objects of our affection can compete, and compete in such a way that one blots out the other. For it is possible for us to love our families and our present lives in such a way, and to such an extent, that these loves impede our ability to follow the Lord.

To follow Jesus is to be willing to shoulder the cross.

 

The image above is of James Tissot’s painting, Simon the Cyrenian Compelled to Carry the Cross with Jesus. This post is based on my homily for Sunday, September 8, 2019, which can be accessed by clicking hereOther homilies of mine may be accessed by clicking here. The Revised Common Lectionary, which specifies the readings for Sundays and other Holy Days, can be accessed by clicking here.

The Beauty of Signs and Symbols

 

Why would Luke have thought it important to tell us that the woman whom  Jesus encounters on the Sabbath, in a synagogue, had been crippled for eighteen years? Luke could as easily have said that she had suffered for decades or since her childhood. But no, he tells us that it had been eighteen years. And consider how Jesus meets and heals her on the sabbath. For as we may know, the sabbath falls on the seventh day. It represents the seventh day of Creation and the fulfillment of God’s wise and beautiful pattern for the cosmos. This helps us recognize the meaningful fact that eighteen involves multiples of six — three multiples of six, to be precise. This woman has suffered for a period of time that represents multiples of incompleteness, a triple amount of falling short of wholeness, of not-yet-experiencing God’s hopes for her and the world. And Jesus brings a completeness for which the whole Creation has been groaning.

Yet, consider the effect upon us of our modern, advertising-shaped, culture. For you might suspect that the symbolic reading of this passage that I have just offered involves reading something into the text, something that is not necessarily there. Since, as we are widely encouraged to believe, symbols are merely signs, that bear no intrinsic connection with what they point to. If so, then all signs  —whether they are names or numbers— are potentially arbitrary and idiosyncratic. Here, we must move forward in faith, and be willing to entertain another possibility. The alternative possibility is that we will find more in this text – ‘a meaning’ that really is there, to be gleaned, savored, and incorporated in our lives. Its meaning has to do with blessed rest, and when we rest in a real way.

Let’s come at this from another direction. Ask most American Christians these days when ‘the sabbath’ is, and a common answer will be ‘Sunday.’ If we assume this is true, then our sabbath is different from the biblical sabbath, which raises a larger question. Is the connection between the idea of the sabbath, and a particular day of the week, essentially arbitrary? As long as we have some kind of sabbath, does it really matter when? But then, consider what we lose in the process. We lose our connection with biblical faith, with the sabbath that Jesus observed, and with the idea that the sabbath fulfills all that has come before. We take a break on the seventh day, on Saturday (if we can), for a reason ~ a holy reason. We do it so we might better appreciate how God fulfills divine purposes through grace and Providence. And so, God’s sabbath helps us remember that our future is shaped as much by God as it is by our own works and efforts.

 

The image above is of James Tissot’s painting, The Woman With an Infirmity of Eighteen Years. This post is based on my homily for Sunday, August 25, 2019, where you will find more extensive reflection on the distinction between signs and symbols, and which can be accessed by clicking hereOther homilies of mine may be accessed by clicking here. The Revised Common Lectionary, which specifies the readings for Sundays and other Holy Days, can be accessed by clicking here.

Fire and Water

 

Jesus (in Luke) tells us this: “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!” For me, his words evoke pictures of forest fires, gas explosions, and what happened to our poor neighbor’s house down the street ~ ravaging flames and intense heat reducing things to ashes. By talking about casting fire on the earth, is this what Jesus had in mind? Did he come to burn and destroy? Or, has he come to ignite and light up what he touches? Since his next words refer to a Baptism that has yet to happen, we can tell that Jesus was not using words in an ordinary way.

Jesus’ talk of fire in connection with his vocation recalls an earlier prediction about the Messiah in Luke’s Gospel. John the Baptist told the crowds who had come out to see him, “I baptize you with water; but… he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to… gather the wheat into his granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” There – in just two sentences – we have both positive and negative images put side by side: fire as the sign of the Holy Spirit, as on the Day of Pentecost; but also fire as the unquenchable force that burns up everything useless, until it is nothing.

Now, as we observe every Ash Wednesday, fire starts with what is good and useful and reduces it to an ashen nothing. This fits our natural experience. Yet, for practicing Christians, the pattern is liturgically reversed. Starting as an ash-covered nothing on a particular Wednesday, you and I journey through the Paschal flame and the fire of Pentecost, into a season of Spirit-kindled life. Despite their obvious differences, the ravaging fire and the building-up fire belong together. We talk of things being engulfed by flames, or being overwhelmed by fire. We use those same words to speak of what water can do, of what floods can do. Jesus has come to flood the earth with the baptizing fire of the Holy Spirit. His fire can consume and destroy all that is opposed to God’s love. But the flames of his love are also like the fire that clears the forest floor for new growth, and the heat which releases pinecone seeds for a new generation of trees.

“…and how I wish it were already kindled!” Jesus expresses frustration because we so often treat the power of the Holy Spirit like we do the power of fire. Reducing both to small quantities, we make them harmless. Candles allow small bits of flame to lighten our tables; short prayers allow brief moments of grace to lighten our days. But tip the candle over so the fire catches the curtains, and suddenly we have a truly fearful situation. Perhaps we are intuitively aware of this, of how encountering the unleashed Spirit of God flowing through this world is equally powerful ~ an agent of change for which we are not fully prepared.

 

The image above is of James Tissot’s painting, Jesus Discourses With His Disciples. This post is based on my homily for Sunday, August 18, 2019, which can be accessed by clicking hereOther homilies of mine may be accessed by clicking here. The Revised Common Lectionary, which specifies the readings for Sundays and other Holy Days, can be accessed by clicking here.

 

The Beauty of Discernment

 

Someone in the crowd said to Jesus, ‘Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me’.” Luke is so subtle here. This un-named man, who appears to want to remain anonymous, is perhaps a generic stand-in for all fallen human beings. For he is us ~ not some unnamed ‘other!’ Nevertheless, and as a sign of the same sin, this man wants a particular judgement tailored to his own personal circumstances. Yet, Jesus, as he so often does when teaching, responds with generic principles that apply to everyone and to every circumstance.

This matches my own experience. When, through prayer I ask God to solve a particular problem, I often find the Spirit leading me back to deep and abiding principles, just as Jesus did with the unnamed man. By this, God prompts us to engage in a searching process of discernment. This helps us understand what our questions are really about, so we can appreciate what what we are really asking for. The discernment that God encourages within us leads us to self-awareness and greater self-perception.

A man asks Jesus to solve his financial problems by making his brother share the family inheritance. And Jesus says to him, and to everyone else in the crowd including the disciples, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed…” Those are words that apply to all of us, not just to the anonymous question-asker hiding in the crowd who wants his particular problem solved. Characteristically, Jesus then tells a story to illustrate his point.

James Tissot has left us with an evocative and cautionary painting illustrating Jesus’ parable about ‘the man who hoards.’ Concerning the danger of greed, Tissot’s painting focus’ on the spiritual warning that Jesus provides. The greedy man in the story is commonly referred to as the rich fool. As this troubled man sits among his many large sacks of grain and other valuables, he ponders how to hang on to his accumulating wealth. Having more than he needs, he considers replacing his present storage barns with larger ones. In the process, his avarice takes hold of him, gravely endangering his soul. Tissot captures the spiritual seriousness of the moment by employing a symbol representing the mortal threat at the heart of the story. Unseen behind the greedy man, the power of death is symbolized by the large figure unleashing a sword.

As the disciples and others begin to perceive from their Master’s sayings and stories, Jesus’ vocation as Messiah lifts him above having merely a local role as a teacher and guide for a particular community. For Jesus’ teaching applies to all communities at all times, not just to this or that community set within a single cultural context. So, when asked to settle the unnamed man’s case concerning inheritance, Jesus’ reply should not surprise us: “”Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?”

 

The image above is of James Tissot’s painting, The Man Who Hoards. This post is based on my homily for Sunday, August 4, 2019, which can be accessed by clicking hereOther homilies of mine may be accessed by clicking here. The Revised Common Lectionary, which specifies the readings for Sundays and other Holy Days, can be accessed by clicking here.

 

 

Seeing His Glory

 

(From a funeral homily preached today, on the Feast of the Transfiguration)

Martin, after death, is not closer to the Lord than he was before ~ even though he, himself, may now feel closer. This is at least in part because he now sees the Lord in a way that we do not. Yet, after Baptism, God is in us, and we are in him ~ always. And then, at death, this bud of truth comes to full flower. For, through death, our departed loved ones come to experience the Lord’s nearness in an especially profound way… and, in a way they have never really glimpsed before. We can imagine their joy at this moment. Suddenly, they are overcome by that same sense of startling nearness that our ancestor Jacob had, upon waking from his famous dream. “Surely,” he exclaimed, “the Lord is in this place — and I did not know it!” And then he said, “how awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” On Friday, July 26, this may have been Martin’s sudden and blessed realization.

Martin saw himself, in his life and work as a physician, as a tool in God’s hands. Martin’s self-perception about his vocation fits well with themes in John‘s Gospel. John boldly tells us that “the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” The disciples knew from their own experience the power of these words, as this feast day of Jesus’ Transfiguration reminds us. Their experience was confirmed again at the Last Supper, when Jesus told them how he was the way, and the truth, and the life.

Jesus then said this: “If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him… Whoever has seen me has seen the Father… [And] very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these…”

That Martin perceived his vocation as a physician to be a form of ministry fits well with Jesus’ words in John. For as the Word became flesh in Jesus, so too —through his gift of himself to us— the Word continues to become flesh in us. The Word becomes flesh in our lives and work, as well as in our relationships with each other. As this happens, the Word takes what at first may seem frail and weak, and builds it up into an expression of God’s own shining glory.

In this moment, Martin now knows these things better than we do. He knows how Jesus is the Way, and the Truth, and the Life. And Martin now sees, in a way that we cannot, how Jesus is the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end, and the one who makes all things new. As the Lord attests through the words of Revelation, the dwelling place of God is now among people ~ even among those who do not readily perceive God’s nearness to us. We can journey forward, believing that —for God’s faithful people— life is changed, not ended. We are God’s faithful people. And, just like Martin, our lives have been changed by God’s Holy Spirit. Having been changed, we, too, are now ready to see his glory, and enter into eternity.

For Jesus says to us, “I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.”

 

The image above is of James Tissot’s painting, Jesus Goes Up Alone Onto a Mountain to Pray. This post is based on my homily for the funeral of Martin Landis, which can be accessed by clicking here.  Other homilies of mine may be accessed by clicking here. The Revised Common Lectionary, which specifies the readings for Sundays and other Holy Days, can be accessed by clicking here.

The Beauty of Responding to God

 

Luke in chapter 12 tells us that “Jesus was praying in a certain place.” The disciples surely noticed that Jesus often prayed in private. Corporate worship is public, and it engages a community in various forms of prayer and praise. But, for the disciples, Jesus modeled a form of prayer that is typically private. Luke tells us that Jesus would often “withdraw to deserted places and pray.” Mark tells us about a time when Jesus got up very early, long before daylight, to pray in a lonely place by himself. Luke also tells us how Jesus went out to a mountain and spent the whole night in prayer before calling the twelve to join him. These stories tell us that, for Jesus, prayer was a way to feed himself spiritually. And through it, he re-grounded himself in mission.

And so, having set his face toward Jerusalem, Jesus is praying by himself. Perhaps his words are like his later prayer on the cross: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” In other words, in both living and in dying, Jesus was in the habit of saying to the Father, ‘I put my whole being into your hands.’

How fitting, then, that a disciple boldly says, “Lord, teach us to pray!” Well, who do we typically ask, to teach us things we want to learn? Of course, we ask someone who knows about the subject. Indeed, we are likely to ask someone who not only knows about the matter, but who actually lives it. On occasion, Jesus may have prayed like other rabbis. Yet the disciples noticed that he also prayed differently and, probably, more sincerely and more deeply. Luke, among the Gospels, is most clear that Jesus embodied and modeled a life of prayer, not just the occasional practice of it. Here, it’s helpful to remember what The Book of Common Prayer Catechism teaches us ~ that “prayer is responding to God.” The kind of prayer that Jesus lived and modeled was at least this, a genuine and intentional process of responding to God.

What a wonderful thing for them to ask, ‘O Lord, please teach us to pray!’ For prayer is something at which all of us are just beginners. Jesus honors their request by teaching them the Lord’s Prayer. The contemporary form in our Prayer Book is based on how Luke shares it. Jesus teaches us to speak to God directly, as Father. In this prayer, we speak with Jesus, and through Jesus, as he shares with us his own relationship with the Father. Therefore, his Father becomes “our” Father. Jesus underscores the personal nature of our new relationship with the Father, by saying, “Father, hallowed be your name.” As Moses learned in the wilderness, the holiness of God’s name is directly connected with the holiness of God’s being. Through the prayer Jesus teaches us, we begin to live into a new personal relationship with God.

 

The image above is of Stanley Spencer’s painting, Christ in the Wilderness: Driven by the Spirit. This post is based on my homily for Sunday, July 28, 2019, which can be accessed by clicking hereOther homilies of mine may be accessed by clicking here. The Revised Common Lectionary, which specifies the readings for Sundays and other Holy Days, can be accessed by clicking here.

Being and Doing

 

As a preacher I have a periodic challenge ~ one that arises every time the Mary and Martha story is featured in the Sunday lectionary. Being married to a Martha, how do I explain why Jesus’ encounter with the two sisters does not really mean what the story seems to be saying? As if Jesus’ point was that ‘Mary’s who are busy praying’ are more noble than ‘Martha’s who are busying serving.’

To accept that common way of hearing the story overlooks several important aspects of the event. For we should remember at least two things about it ~ that Martha is mentioned first, before Mary; and, that Martha offers hospitality to the Lord. Therefore, and most appropriately, the Church has a feast day for Mary and Martha, commemorating them together with their brother Lazarus. This tells us something important – that serving and prayer are not an either/or. Both Mary and Martha surely served. And we know that Martha’s words of faith —spoken to Jesus when her brother Lazarus died— reveal a deep and prayerful spiritual perception. This insight is reflected in the painting of the two sisters by Jan Vermeer. Notice how the artist portrays both sisters attending to the Lord in an equally reverent way.

This ‘both—and’ perception of the relation between work and prayer is not unique to Mary and Martha. St Benedict’s Rule, and the Benedictine tradition in Anglicanism, teach us that prayer is holy work, and that work can be a form of prayer. Benedict tells us that the tools in the garden shed are to be treated with the same respect as the communion chalices in the sacristy. For both are made for holy work. This is significant because of our culture’s tendency to see things in parts rather than as whole. Perceiving how Martha and Mary’s roles intertwine and complement one another is to see how they are part of the wholeness of their family with Lazarus. Discerning how a monk does holy work when he is praying with his brothers in church, helps us also see how he can also be praying when he does his holy work in the monastery kitchen or garden.

This understanding provides the horizon for our spiritual maturity, especially as we come to live together as a community of disciples. Discipleship involves our being and our doing. In the moral life, we know that doing shapes being. What we do shapes who we are and who we become, just as who we are is then reflected in our doing. Too often, we assume this is practically true in our spiritual growth – as if, by pursuing certain techniques, practices or disciplines, we can shape our own spiritual progress. Yet, it is Christ Jesus who shapes our being. He re-shapes our being from its bent form to its God-intended mature, whole, and complete shape. As Paul helps us see in Colossians, when the fullness of God in Christ Jesus comes to inhabit all of our being {our hearts and minds, and souls and bodies}, the fullness of God in Christ Jesus inhabits our doing, as well. This is true for us as individuals, and it is true for us as a community.

And so we come back to the community within that house at Bethany, where Jesus loved to go for refreshment. Nurtured by his presence with them, Mary and Martha came to exemplify the unity of being and doing — and especially how changed being leads to changed doing. Centering ourselves on our new life in Christ Jesus, we become icons of his transforming presence. Through us —through what we do, but even more through how our being is changed by him— people see more and more of God.

 

The image above is of Jan Vermeer’s painting, Christ in the House of Martha and Mary. This post is based on my homily for Sunday, July 21, 2019, which can be accessed by clicking hereOther homilies of mine may be accessed by clicking here. The Revised Common Lectionary, which specifies the readings for Sundays and other Holy Days, can be accessed by clicking here.

On Being a Neighbor

 

Luke records how a self-justifying lawyer seeks to test Jesus. When he asks Jesus to tell him who his neighbor is, Jesus offers one of the most familiar stories in the New Testament. His story about the good Samaritan is shaped by the dramatic contrast between the priest, the Levite, and the Samaritan.

Another contrast within the same passage is rather subtle. This is the contrast between the lawyer’s question about who his neighbor is, and Jesus’ recasting of the same question. For even though the two forms of the question sound remarkably alike, there is a significant difference between them. So similar, that we might not notice how subtly Jesus re-phrases the lawyer’s question. Here’s how we can observe the difference: The lawyer, after receiving Jesus’ affirmation regarding his summary of the law, still wants to engage him. So he asks Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Naturally, we hear Jesus’ ensuing story as shaped by the lawyer’s question. As if Jesus wants to show the lawyer whom we should recognize, and regard, as our neighbor.

But notice how Jesus inverts the question! The man asks, “Who is my neighbor?” But Jesus asks, “Who proved to be neighborly, or, who acted like a neighbor?” In other words, Jesus’ story is not an illustration of how we recognize who is our neighbor. Jesus’ story is about how acting like a neighbor toward other people helps them become our neighbor.

Like the lawyer, when we look at folks wondering who is, or who might be our neighbor, inevitably, we pursue the question with some criteria in mind. And that’s the rub! We might pursue the question by assuming that a neighbor is someone who lives nearby; or perhaps someone who shares my community values; or maybe someone whose kids go to the same school that my kids do. It puts us in the position of making distinctions among folks based on their attributes. And it’s always possible that we misperceive another person’s identity. We might blindly overlook his or her genuine status as our neighbor.  In each case, our effort will involve trying to gain greater precision in our discernment about who does, or does not, qualify as our neighbor.

By contrast, suppose I go through each day trying to live out a different approach. I will remind myself that I can choose to act neighborly to everyone I meet, not just to some of them. Neighbor-status is therefore something I enable by my approach to another person, and not by my evaluation of his or her qualifications. This is what Jesus was getting at in his story. His re-phrasing of the lawyer’s question establishes a distinction with a clear and significant difference. Charity, in its basic biblical meaning of God-like love, is something we practice and extend to others. It is therefore not something evoked by qualities we apprehend in another person. Being a neighbor is an entrée into a relationship, a relationship that we offer to other people, rather than something we recognize in them. This applies as much to folks in our community and church, as it does to people everywhere.

 

The image above is Sadao Watanabe’s woodcut, The Good Samaritan. This post is based on my homily for Sunday, July 14, 2019, which can be accessed by clicking here.  Other homilies of mine may be accessed by clicking here. The Revised Common Lectionary, which specifies the readings for Sundays and other Holy Days, can be accessed by clicking here.