03 October 2011

The Parable of the Good Neighbour

The Good Samaritan ... a stained glass window in Saint Mark’s Church, Armagh (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Patrick Comerford

Reading: Luke 10: 25-37

The Lord be with you:
And also with you.

The last time I introduced a reflection at a staff meeting, it was Saint Dominic’s Day in the calendar of many Anglican Provinces, and I spoke a little about Saint Dominic and Dominican spirituality.

So, I wonder what’s happening when I find that my turn falls again today, and today is the eve of Saint Francis’s Day. Francis probably the most popular figure from monastic life in the Anglican tradition – he is probably better known than Saint Benedict and Benedictine spirituality.

My secondary education was a Franciscan education. Both my brother and I went to school at the Franciscan College in Gormanston, Co Meath, and we had a number of cousins who went to school there too.

Stained glass windows in the chapel of Gormanston College, Co Meath (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Franciscans first introduced me to their values through the Third Order, inviting us to work with a variety of projects in Drogheda. I continue to hold deep gratitude in my heart for teachers like Father Louis Brennan, who was my inspiring English teacher, and the late Father Frank O’Leary (Father Solanus), who was Rector of Gormanston in my days, and who later was closely identified with the life and work of the Simon Community in Dublin – bringing Franciscan values of lifestyle, prayer, spirituality and love into the harsh realities of city life in Dublin.

The site of the former Friary in John Street, Lichfield … John Comberford left a small legacy to the Franciscan Friary in Lichfield in 1414 (Photograph © Patrick Comerford)

Later on, at an early stage in my working life, when I was working with the Lichfield Mercury and the Wexford People, I lived close to the site of the Franciscan Friary in Lichfield and then in High Street in Wexford, near the Franciscan Friary where cousins of my grandfather and other members of his extended family had been baptised many years before.

Then, in the past four years, I have been studying Orthodox spirituality and patristics in Cambridge, living in at Sidney Sussex College, which stands on the site of the mediaeval Greyfriars, the Franciscan house in Cambridge, and attending the early morning Eucharist in Saint Bene’t’s Church, once run by Anglican Franciscan friars.

The cloisters in Cloister Court, Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge ... on the site of mediaeval Greyfriars, the Franciscan house in Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

The values inherent in Franciscan spirituality and the work of people like Frank O’Leary with the Simon Community are easy to associate mentally with the Gospel reading for Holy Communion/The Eucharist in the Church of Ireland lectionary today.

This story is read almost universally as the Parable of the Good Samaritan. We could easily think of the Good Samaritan as a Good Franciscan.

But who is at the centre of this story?

Who is the subject of the story?

If you were among the first people who were listening to this parable as it was first taught by Jesus, who would you first identify with as the story began to unfold?

Let us read the story once again.

Luke 10: 25-37

25 Καὶ ἰδοὺ νομικός τις ἀνέστη ἐκπειράζων αὐτὸν λέγων, Διδάσκαλε, τί ποιήσας ζωὴν αἰώνιον κληρονομήσω; 26 ὁ δὲ εἶπεν πρὸς αὐτόν, Ἐν τῷ νόμῳ τί γέγραπται; πῶς ἀναγινώσκεις; 27 ὁ δὲ ἀποκριθεὶς εἶπεν, Ἀγαπήσεις κύριον τὸν θεόν σου ἐξ ὅλης [τῆς] καρδίας σου καὶ ἐν ὅλῃ τῇ ψυχῇ σου καὶ ἐν ὅλῃ τῇ ἰσχύϊ σου καὶ ἐν ὅλῃ τῇ διανοίᾳ σου, καὶ τὸν πλησίον σου ὡς σεαυτόν. 28 εἶπεν δὲ αὐτῷ, Ὀρθῶς ἀπεκρίθης: τοῦτο ποίει καὶ ζήσῃ.

29 ὁ δὲ θέλων δικαιῶσαι ἑαυτὸν εἶπεν πρὸς τὸν Ἰησοῦν, Καὶ τίς ἐστίν μου πλησίον; 30 ὑπολαβὼν ὁ Ἰησοῦς εἶπεν, Ἄνθρωπός τις κατέβαινεν ἀπὸ Ἰερουσαλὴμ εἰς Ἰεριχὼ καὶ λῃσταῖς περιέπεσεν, οἳ καὶ ἐκδύσαντες αὐτὸν καὶ πληγὰς ἐπιθέντες ἀπῆλθον ἀφέντες ἡμιθανῆ. 31 κατὰ συγκυρίαν δὲ ἱερεύς τις κατέβαινεν ἐν τῇ ὁδῷ ἐκείνῃ, καὶ ἰδὼν αὐτὸν ἀντιπαρῆλθεν: 32 ὁμοίως δὲ καὶ Λευίτης [γενόμενος] κατὰ τὸν τόπον ἐλθὼν καὶ ἰδὼν ἀντιπαρῆλθεν. 33 Σαμαρίτης δέ τις ὁδεύων ἦλθεν κατ' αὐτὸν καὶ ἰδὼν ἐσπλαγχνίσθη, 34 καὶ προσελθὼν κατέδησεν τὰ τραύματα αὐτοῦ ἐπιχέων ἔλαιον καὶ οἶνον, ἐπιβιβάσας δὲ αὐτὸν ἐπὶ τὸ ἴδιον κτῆνος ἤγαγεν αὐτὸν εἰς πανδοχεῖον καὶ ἐπεμελήθη αὐτοῦ. 35 καὶ ἐπὶ τὴν αὔριον ἐκβαλὼν ἔδωκεν δύο δηνάρια τῷ πανδοχεῖ καὶ εἶπεν, Ἐπιμελήθητι αὐτοῦ, καὶ ὅ τι ἂν προσδαπανήσῃς ἐγὼ ἐν τῷ ἐπανέρχεσθαί με ἀποδώσω σοι. 36 τίς τούτων τῶν τριῶν πλησίον δοκεῖ σοι γεγονέναι τοῦ ἐμπεσόντος εἰς τοὺς λῃστάς; 37 ὁ δὲ εἶπεν, Ὁ ποιήσας τὸ ἔλεος μετ' αὐτοῦ. εἶπεν δὲ αὐτῷ ὁ Ἰησοῦς, Πορεύου καὶ σὺ ποίει ὁμοίως.

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,’ he said, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ He said to him, ‘What is written in the law? What do you read there?’ He answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.’ And he said to him, ‘You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.’

But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbour?’ Jesus replied, ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while travelling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.” Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’


The Good Samaritan ... a modern icon


Normally, we think we should identify with the Samaritan in this story.

But the first listeners would have identified with the man who was on the road from Jericho to Jerusalem. Already, as [the Revd Dr] Maurice [Elliott] reminded us in his sermon last Wednesday (Luke 9: 57-62), Christ and the disciples have set out on the road to Jerusalem (see Luke 9: 51).

Their journey to Jerusalem is going to take them through Jericho (see Luke 19: 1) and through Bethany (see Luke 19; 29), so they are aware of the dangers they face ahead – not the Cost of Discipleship, but the dangerous cost of travelling that road, where so often travellers and pilgrims have been mugged. The road between Jerusalem and Jericho was fraught with danger.

Everyone listening would have identified with the poor man who had been mugged, from the beginning of the story. How many pious Jews would know someone who had been mugged on this road, a close friend, a member of their own family, maybe it even happened once to themselves.

And they would have known that a priest passing by would have had to walk on the other side of the road (verse 31).

After all, this man had been left “half dead” (verse 30). If a priest touched a corpse, he became ritually unclean. He would have become ritually unclean. He could no longer provide the service in the Temple that was the whole purpose of being on that road. Even if the man is half dead, the priest would have contaminated by touching his blood. And what if the man died in the process?

In general, a Cohen (כהן), a descendant of Aaron the High Priest, may not come in contact with any dead body, may not enter a building where a dead body of a Jew lays, and outdoors is forbidden to come within four cubits of a Jewish corpse or a Jewish grave. A Cohen is commanded (Leviticus 21: 1-2) to be in a state of purity and avoid ritual defilement by a corpse, which is ritually unclean. Cohanim (כהנים) did not take part in a burial unless it is one of their closest relatives.

Ritual impurity was also brought about by contact with a significant amount of blood. So, everyone listening would have realised the priest was behaving properly, impeccably. He had a higher duty, he had no right to contaminate himself wilfully, or to deprive the Temple of his service and his family of their source of income.

So too with the Levite. Should he find himself contaminated ritually by contact with blood or a dead body, he could not officiate at the morning service, offer the blessing at the conclusion of the service – as a direct spokesperson for God – or called upon God in prayer in the Temple; he could longer serve in his role, assisting the Temple priests, serving as a guardian of the Tabernacle, sacrificing the Temple offerings, or performing the sacrificial slaughterings. As a Levite, he had no rights to property or land, so if he became contaminated he would lose his income, there would be no food on the table for his children and his family.

Better let the poor man – dead or alive – to wait for a neighbour who would take care of him. And that would have been the expectation of everyone who listened to this story.

But when the Samaritan arrives, those who listening would be aghast. Was he going to add to the victim’s distress? Mug him again? Root for his wallet or his credit card or his mobile phone?

The sting in the tail is not that Jesus is saying the Priest or Levite should have contaminated himself. No at all. The sting in the tail is that the mugged man should accept the Samaritan’s mercy and ministrations, accept him as a good neighbor.

By and large, we cannot choose our neighbours. The estate agent and the people selling the house naturally tell us the neighbours are wonderful. They are never going to say we are moving into a house where people on one side or the other are people we could not accept. We have to wait to find out ourselves … when it’s too late.

We cannot choose our neighbours. But we can decide whether or not to accept them.

And so this parable, instead of being called the Parable of the Good Samaritan, as it is in headings in many Bibles, including the NRSV, might be better called the Parable of the Good Neighbour or the Parable of the Accepting Neighbour.

Closing Prayer:

The Lord be with you.
And also with you.

Let us pray:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy.
O, Divine Master,
grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love;
for it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.Amen.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This reflection was shared at the opening of a faculty meeting on 3 October 2011.


Unknown said...

Yours is a wonderful blog I have been reading for a number of years.

Can you help answer this though:

"And who is my neighbour?" is the question to which Jesus answers by telling the Samaritan story.

At the end of the story is this text: "Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’

So Jesus is telling people both (a) to show mercy to people, as the Samaritan did, and (b) to love people who, neighbour-like, show mercy to people.

However, this parable is often interpreted as an exhortation to love all. Jesus doesn't ask us to love all though, only those who show mercy. Which begs the question about the treatment of those who do not show mercy to others.

Just a point to ponder.

Kate Dunkin said...

Thank you for sharing this post with us Patrick! I have recently been doing research on franciscan values because my teacher had mentioned the philosophy to me. That's how I came across your blog and it was a very interesting read. After some research I realize that I need to use these beliefs more in my day to day life.