Saturday, July 09, 2016

Samaritans and Salamanders

 Luke 10:25-37

            I’ve often remarked at what a different role the Bible plays in the lives of people today from the place it had in the culture in which I grew up. 

            Stop right there.  Just so your mind doesn’t wander off track here, wondering if you’re going to have to endure a lament about the poor Bible not being read and obeyed any more, let me disabuse you of that fear right now.  No, I am not for spending any of your time or mine, in or out of church, bemoaning the loss of the Bible or anything else in the supposedly good old days. 

            Even though sunset has come to the day, earlier my ministry, when I could say “please join me in saying the 23rd Psalm,” and have 90% of my audience know what I was talking about and be able to say it with me, a couple of biblical phrases still hang on.  One is the term “Good Samaritan.”  I haven’t taken a poll to see how many people recognize it, but my sense is that, somewhat like the popular title of another of Jesus’ parables, “The Prodigal Son,” the words “Good Samaritan” still have some use in English speech.

            Be aware that “Good Samaritan” is a phrase that nowhere appears in the biblical text.  It most likely appeared in some edition of the Bible as an editorial title at the top of the page or passage.  If you know a modicum about first century Jews, you know that they generally despised Samaritans as a religiously conservative and ethnically impure group that pious Jews avoided at all costs, to the point of taking the long way around Samaria to get from Judea to Galilee, for example, rather than choosing the shortcut.  So the descriptor “Good” attached to Samaritan was at least in part a nod to the attitude that all the rest of the Samaritans were, to put it kindly, not so good.

            As Jessie Weston argues in From Ritual to Romance, things that start off with a degree of, let’s say, religious significance have a way of devolving over time into the stuff of romance—and ultimately degenerate into entertainment rather than retaining their original power.  A similar process over the centuries has made “good Samaritan” less of a radical figure making a radical point (by Jesus) and more of a kindly soul who stops to help people who are in a fix, especially strangers.  That is not such a bad thing; but I want to suggest that we not go there quite so quickly, nor stay there quite so long. 

            Luke’s story is set within an acrimonious confrontation—one of many, progressively tense—between Jesus and the religious elite of his day.  This time a lawyer, who is a religious figure versed in Torah, the Law of Moses, not a secular attorney, is interesting in tripping Jesus up.  “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”  It doesn’t sound all that tricky, does it?  Jesus returns the question with a question.  “What is in the Law?  What do you read there?”  And the lawyer answers with the Shema, which we know as “the Summary of the Law,” the heart of it.  But Jesus’ agreement doesn’t go very far with him.  He has to justify himself, so he asks another question, “And who is my neighbor?”  That is the question that the parable purports to answer.  But notice that the tables turn as Jesus’ reaches the climax of his story.  The question that the story answers is not “who is my neighbor” but “who does the neighborly thing?”  And the answer, which in the world of Twitter might be #neversaytheirname, is, of course, the Samaritan. 
The lawyer can’t bring himself to utter the name, so he says, “the one who showed mercy.”  So he is doubly stung, the lawyer is.  First, he has failed to ball Jesus up.  Second, he is forced to admit the obvious.  He must be like the despised Samaritan in order to fulfill the Law he so professionally loves. 

            Don’t you just love it?  The smart aleck gets his comeuppance.  Jesus proves his wit and wisdom.  Oh, how we love to vilify the villain!  But before this parable became Sunday morning entertainment, remember that it was a piece of radical sociology.  Jesus specialized in crossing boundaries and obliterating them.  Not a few of his heroes were in fact Samaritans, tax collectors, women, widows, children, lepers, prostitutes, and other ragtag and bobtail people generally outside the Law and the borders of respectability. They were heroes not because they were morally superior but because the boundaries had been drawn all wrong to begin with.  Outside/inside, a division with which human beings are historically and transculturally enchanted, is a concept is turned on its head in the kingdom of God.  Those who think they are righteous and have the certificate to prove it turn out not to be.  And those who have no claim at all on things like righteousness (which means living in right relationship to God and others), or mercy, or grace, are those who are invited to sit at the welcome table despite their table manners. 

            Rather than become stuck in a game of vilifying the villain, let’s see what happens when we take the principle of the Good Samaritan and see where it might lead us today. 

            The Samaritan is a model neighbor precisely because he is alert, aware, and willing to embrace the defenseless.  The story without belaboring details surely suggests that he is willing to risk being beaten or perhaps killed himself simply by stopping to see what the matter was.  He is resourceful, pouring on oil and wine.  He is liberal in giving his time to one who has absolutely no claim on it.  He is generous in paying a stranger’s bill.  He is merciful.  He gets nothing out of the deal, except perhaps the satisfaction of helping.  Remember, too, that he is not a historical person, but rather a credible character in a story told to make a point.  One might surmise that, as a despised Samaritan in a country where he is subject to an attitude that might be called “Samaritan Lives Don’t Matter” he might have suffered just enough ridicule or violence or sorrow or debasement or some form of pain to have discovered that all pain is one, and that somehow he himself, not an unknown Jew, is in fact lying there half dead in the ditch. 

            So we get the point.  “Go and do likewise.”  But I want to suggest that what the Bible is really about is not just giving us a moral readjustment, let alone permission to congratulate ourselves for doing a bit of social action here and there.  Once we see what the Samaritan is really about—openness, courage, oneness with those in despair—biblical faith—I’d rather personify it and call it Jesus—pushes us to take the next step and the next and the next.  And I’m convinced that the essence of neighborliness neither exists in nor stops at pausing to help someone stranded on the highway, although I’ve been happy enough on a number of occasions to have someone stop and help me when I’d otherwise have been totally stranded. 

            Neighborliness may start with Mr. Rogers (of blessed memory), but it goes way beyond his nice little neighborhood. 
It begins to rearrange us into patterns of connectedness not only with people in need, but people very much unlike us, people who are abhorrent to us.  And it doesn’t stop with people.  Neighborliness opens our eyes to see our link to animals, to plants, to rocks and dirt and fire and water and air and fruit.  Yes, to practice even the most basic care and openness for the defenseless is a part of a large project of reimagining the entirety of creation, including our place in the scheme of things.  And, believe me, none of this is any more way-out than the notion of modeling behavior after a fictitious Samaritan was for our smart-alecky lawyer. 

            I’ve recently read an amazing book called Braiding Sweetgrass.  Its author, Robin Wall Kemmerer, is a Native American, a biologist, and a challenging thinker.  She presents a compelling case for an alternative view of life on the planet that stands in stark contrast to our market-driven, ego-minded, dominion-over-all-other-species approach that does not seem to be working too well for the good of the earth or its inhabitants.  She has me thinking.  Of course, I suppose, the hardnosed skeptics among us, not to mention the convinced capitalists, would make quick hamburger of Kemmerer’s Native American views of thankfulness for the gifts of nature, for the intelligence of plants, for the interrelatedness of all animal life, indeed all life, including human life.  All worked up over gun violence and rampant killings and economic injustice and its parent, white superiority, we might find it hard to believe that being neighborly actually means something as mundane as caring about frogs and salamanders.  But in a poignant passage, Kemmerer describes how a bunch of college students in a herpetology class are out on a rainy night in the country, endeavoring to save salamanders trying to cross a road to make it on to the next part of a life cycle before automobiles squash them.  She writes:

Salamanders are so very much the “other,” cold, slimy creatures verging on repulsive to the warm-blooded Homo sapiens. Their startling otherness makes it all the more remarkable that we were here tonight in their defense. Amphibians offer few of the warm fuzzy feelings that fuel our protection of charismatic mammals that look back at us with Bambi’s grateful eyes. They bring us face to face with our innate xenophobia, sometimes directed at other species and sometimes directed at our own, whether in this hollow or in deserts halfway around the globe. Being with salamanders gives honor to otherness, offers an antidote to the poison of xenophobia. Each time we rescue slippery, spotted beings we attest to their right to be, to live in the sovereign territory of their own lives.[1]

Neighbors are not just the dying man left bleeding on the worst roadside in the country.  Nor are they only first responders who risk their lives in the line of duty to protect the vulnerable.  Neighbors are salamanders, both animal and human, who look as if they cannot matter much to God or anyone else.  Neighbors are students and teachers and old people and children who are soaking wet on a spring night out trying to save little creatures that are as connected as we to the Author and Giver of their lives and ours.  Love does not start nor end with us and the people like us.  That, I think, is where the Word of God is leading us, even in a culture that barely knows what it means any more when it calls someone “a Good Samaritan.”

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2016

[1] Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants  (Milkweed Editions: Kindle Edition, 2013), p. 358.

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