Sadao Watanabe

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.

The Beauty of Coming to Ourselves

 

In his novel, The Last Gentleman, Walker Percy offers an interesting observation, prompted by the experience of hurricanes. It recurs as a theme in his later writing. Here is how one observer captures it:

At one point, Will (the main character) recalls a date with a girl… The date is a disaster until the two are caught in a hurricane. “Though science taught that good environments were better than bad environments, it appeared to him that the opposite was the case. Take hurricanes, for example, certainly a bad environment if ever there was one. It was his impression that not just he but other people felt better in hurricanes,” Percy writes. The hurricane, it turns out, saved the day: “The hurricane blew away the sad, noxious particles which befoul the sorrowful old Eastern sky and Midge no longer felt obliged to keep her face stiff. They were able to talk. It was best of all when the hurricane’s eye came with its so-called ominous stillness. It was not ominous. Everything was yellow and still and charged up with value…”

In [another book, Percy] asks, “Why do people often feel so bad in good environments, that they prefer bad environments? . . . Why is a man apt to feel bad in a good environment, say suburban Short Hills, New Jersey, on an ordinary Wednesday afternoon? Why is the same man apt to feel good in a very bad environment, say an old hotel on Key Largo during a hurricane?”

This has come to be called Walker Percy’s ‘hurricane theory.’ In a moment of crisis, ‘we come to ourselves,’ and discover our connection with others. Percy’s theory helps me address a lingering question, prompted by Mark’s story about a storm on the Sea of Galilee: why did Jesus go to sleep in the boat? I love the way that Sadao Watanabe so beautifully portrays the scene. Notice how he depicts Jesus’ arm, casually resting upon the edge of the boat, with his eyes peacefully closed, while the disciples look about in alarm.

Jesus —in this image— seems to know what they have not discovered: that he rests in the Father’s hands, as do they. And so, when he says, “Peace! Be still,” he may also be speaking to them, as he clearly is to the storm. In this storm, for at least a moment, they come to themselves.

 

This post is adapted from my homily for Sunday, June 24, 2018, which can be accessed by clicking here. The image of Jesus and the Disciples in the Boat is by Sadao Watanabe (1981). The observation about Percy’s ‘Hurricane Theory,’ is by Brett Yates, as quoted by Michael Potemra.

The Beauty of Shepherding

Sadao Watanabe, Good Shepherd

 

We live in a highly visual culture, where information is largely communicated through images. As a result, we often think with mental pictures. But are the images we commonly associate with biblical texts actually faithful to Scripture? Our most familiar image of the Good Shepherd may come from Tiffany windows showing Jesus carrying a lamb. Lushly colored, like much of late 19th century art, and romantic in expression, Tiffany windows remain popular and continue to be influential today. And yet, the Tiffany approach to the Good Shepherd may have more to do with the Luke parable about the person who goes in search of the one lost sheep than John’s presentation of Jesus’ words, where he identifies himself as the Good Shepherd of the flock.

Japanese Christian woodblock artist Sadao Watanabe made several prints of the Good Shepherd. This one is beautifully simple and typical of his hand-made cards. Looking over his life’s work, we can see significant parallels between his prints and historical European art. In particular, his portrayal of biblical people is influenced by medieval Christian stained glass and manuscript illustrations, as well as by Eastern Christian iconography. In this print, we see how an Japanese artist shares our Western tendency to see the Good Shepherd in terms of our Lord’s relationship with us as individuals.

Like familiar Tiffany images, Watanabe portrays the Good Shepherd who carries a single lamb. Less familiar are other elements of his print. The artist depicts a large vine laden with grapes, which represent at least two ideas. The promised land toward which God led Israel was filled with vineyards bearing abundant fruit. And in New Testament, the fruit of the vine gains eucharistic significance through our Lord’s cup at the Last Supper. Surrounding the shepherd figure, we see flowers, likely representing the passion flower, symbolic of our Lord’s saving death. Behind the main figure are large and small bands of white against a dark background. Though the symbolism here is not immediately clear, the artist may have had in mind the words of Psalm, 23, and the valley of the shadow through which the Lord safely leads us.

These distinctive aspects of Watanabe’s Good Shepherd do not necessarily set it apart from features of Tiffany Good Shepherd windows. But notice this subtle aspect of Watanabe’s print, which reflects the influence of Christian medieval art. Whereas Tiffany images of Jesus expressively portray his presumed personality and character, Watanabe’s Shepherd resembles traditional iconographic images, where the focus is more on the Lord’s action, and less on his personality. Along with the blank intensity of the eyes, the most strongly communicative aspect of the Jesus figure is his hands, and not his facial expression. Watanabe focuses on what the Good Shepherd does; and what the Good Shepherd does is devote himself to the sheep.

 

Sadao Watanabe, The Good Shepherd, 1968. See John 10:11-18; compare Luke 15:3ff. Click here for a link to my Sunday homily on the theme of the Good Shepherd, and on historical and artistic reflection which it has inspired.