Monday, July 15, 2013

Close Encounter

 Luke 10:25-37

            I first heard of him when I was studying The Law.  Rumors floated that when he was a child he was a prodigy.  They said he had come into the middle of a gathering of learned lawyers and teachers when he didn’t even have a beard, and had stunned them with his insights and intelligence.  People would have forgotten about it had he not turned up running around the countryside, saying outrageous things, subverting our national traditions, embarrassing people who have poured money and years into their professional legal careers.  “Isn’t this the guy who’s always been the know-it-all?”  people sometimes wonder.  “That’s him; that’s the one,” the old folks say.  He is an agitator, a rabble-rouser.  It is clear that his agenda is either to incite a riot or cause his followers to.  That is why he had come straight into the capital, as any fool could plainly see. 

            We grew up not far from each other.  My parents knew some of his cousins.   They said that family members really were afraid of him.  Said he was touched in the head, out of his gourd, just plain weird.  Long before he got to be really popular, some of the local leaders approached me, concerned about the political risks he was posing in some of his rallies.  They argued that he was on track to attack the religious establishment with his radical ideas of giving money to the unemployed, flouting the very laws that everyone knows hold civilization together, empowering the underclasses, including illegal aliens.  They put it to me.  Was I willing to follow him around, tail him, pay attention to who he talked with and who he was close to?  They wanted to be sure that when the moment came they would have enough evidence to convict him should it come to that. 

            So that is how I came to be there on that day.  He had been giving one his favorite speeches.  He had organized some of the people to campaign in places where he was planning on coming and speaking.  Groups of them had gone out—I know because I was there when he dispatched them—and came back all bubbly about the support they had discovered.  To my thinking, it was no surprise.  People are always ready to go nuts about a religious populist, and that is pretty much what he was.  So I heard the reports.  I waited for his reaction, got up close so I could be sure to get it all.  He surprised me.  He mounted the little platform off to one side, seemed to get himself a bit worked up, and then delivered the speech that seemed to set his base on fire but did nothing for most of the others, including me.  It was about how the ones who think they know something know nothing, and the ones who think they are powerful are really powerless, and the ones who are helpless have everything and the ones who can see are really blind.  

            It made me sick.

            He turned to some of his leadership circle and told them that they really were lucky to be a part of everything that was happening, because generation after generation had wanted it all to come about but nobody, but nobody, had seen what they were seeing or hearing what they heard.

            And that is when something like a fiend seized me.  The words were coming out of my mouth as fast as the color was flushing my cheeks. “Teacher,” I said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” To my knowledge he had never seen me, never paid any attention to me, knew nothing about me.  But he looked straight into me with his piercing eyes, smiled a little—or smirked, it seemed to me—and just stood looking.

            “What is in the Law?”  he asked.  Did he know I was a lawyer?  “How do you read the Law on that?” 

            I cleared my throat and answered with the Shema.  “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is One.  And 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 neighbor as yourself.”  

            He lowered his voice and said, “That is the right answer.  Do that and you will live.” 

            Understand this now, I’m telling you.  There was nothing about any of this that I did not know.  The only thing that surprised me is that he actually agreed with me.  That threw me, it did.  But just having heard him in effect indict the entire tradition of Israel with his malarkey about how nobody knows the Father except the Son or the Son except the Father and blah blah blah, I set him up.  I asked him who my neighbor was.  I expected him to tell me that my neighbor was one of the whores that went around with him, hanging on his every word.  Or one of the poor who he seemed always to favor.  Or maybe one of the sinners that clung to him like flies eating honey.  But he didn’t say anything like that.  He told a story.

            A certain man, his story went, was going from Jerusalem to Jericho.  And on the way he fell in the hands of thieves who robbed him and beat him and went away, leaving him half dead.  Now a priest by chance was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.

            Stop right there.  Of course the priest passed by on the other side.  Priests don’t have contact with corpses.  But I listened to see what was coming.

            Likewise, he said, a Levite, when he came to the place, saw him and passed by on the other side.

            But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity.

            Do you have any idea of what the mere mention of a Samaritan did to me?  You have in your life people that don’t even deserve to live, let alone assume the place of modeling behavior.  Take your miserable ethnic minorities, your lice-infested addicts, your stinking street alcoholics, your moral cripples, your urine-soaked beggars, your dope pushers, child abusers, even the members of your Congress that you loathe and despise because they oppose everything you stand for.  Roll them up into one miserable excuse for a human being, and that doesn’t begin to match what in a Samaritan makes me want to vomit. 

            So I listened, my stomach turning.  What was a Samaritan doing on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho in the first place, I wondered.  The story went on.  The Samaritan went to the half-dead man, 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.’

            I admit it.  All of this stunned me.  I was beginning to catch on that this was a fiction, not a true story.  No real Samaritan would have done such a thing for a Jew. So when he asked me which of the three men in the story proved neighbor to the man who was robbed, I did not want to answer, because I knew what answer he wanted.  I kept my mouth shut.  By this time everybody within a hundred yards had gravitated towards him, listening to what he was telling.  If there was one there must have been ten dozen pairs of eyes, all of them now fixed on me.  I had no choice.  “The one who showed him mercy,” I said.

            He looked at me.  I thought for a second he probably knew me.  His jaw shifted slightly to the right, a characteristic he has when he is about to say something thoughtfully.  He pursed his lips, nodded slightly, then walked straight towards me.  He stretched out his arm and I drew back, thinking he was maybe going to punch me.  He bent over, motioning for me to get close enough to hear him.  Then he spoke in a tone slightly above a whisper.  “Go and do likewise.”  He put his hand on my hand.  When I looked up his eyes were twinkling.

            I can’t quite describe what I felt.  Was it relief?  It felt a little like relief. I sort of want to say I felt something like—like attraction to him, but I wouldn’t go quite that far.  I can say that I felt something escaping from me.  I halfway expected him to ask me my name, or what I thought about what he’d just said.  But he and I just stood there for a bit until a wave of bodies passed between him and me, and within a few seconds I couldn’t see him.  He was off to somewhere else and I was soon there by myself.

            What happened after that is hard to say because, to tell you the truth, it is still going on.  I keep remembering his walking up to me, his arm reaching out to me.  It’s kind of funny—and a little embarrassing—that I thought he might be going to punch me.  He would have had every right to, certainly if he had known what I was up to.  I was his enemy.  His enemy!  I don’t know what he did and didn’t know, but if he had had any idea of what I was up to or why I was there or who I was working for, well, I don’t imagine that even somebody as peace-loving as he’s supposed to be would have passed up the chance to humiliate me at the least, or maybe expose me, or, as I had momentarily imagined, simply haul off and land me one right in the face. 

            So am I the one befriended by an enemy who treats me as a neighbor?   Was he all along the Despised Samaritan, reaching out to me though I would have stuck a dagger straight into his heart and twisted it?  Why did he look at me as if he knew me, understood me, even liked me?  Maybe I am the man of wounds, battered though I don’t feel it, blind though I see, half-dead though with my spirit at full mast, waving like a curtain in the breeze, hoping to God that somebody will come by and look on me and love me and heal me.

            But that is not what he said.  “Go and do likewise,” were his words.  He did not see me as half-dead or entirely dead.  He seemed to think that I could do it, that I could be a neighbor.  Why else would have he have told me to go and be one? 

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2013