When Antony, Nicolas and I were students at the College, one element of the week remains firmly in my mind: on Friday afternoons we went hospital visiting. A troop of us would pile into the Bedford van and drive to Pinderfields and, duly dispersed between the wards, seek to bring comfort and counsel to those we met. Often, it included visiting Hilary on one of his many stays there, and meeting John Munns the Charge Nurse who did so much to encourage and give hope to his patients. And, significantly, I remember two important things: first, my regular sense of gloom as Friday afternoon approached; and my vain hopes that something would come up and make it impossible for me to go. I felt ill-equipped for this kind of visiting, nervous about meeting people, and pretty sure I could be making better use of my time. And then I remember the feeling as we drove home: a strange sense of fulfilment, of tranquillity. Having been dragged unwillingly to do good (and having no idea whether I had done any good or not), good was done to me and I came back invigorated and encouraged.
Immediately, then, we recognise the force of the refrain in Jesus’ story: he passed by on the other side. But, importantly, we recognise that our inclination to avoid the challenge precedes any real idea of what the challenge is: all too easily we just resist.
Jesus evidently had a very shrewd grasp of human nature, of those tendencies that lead us towards the light or away from it. And he might have told this story in a way that sought to recognise this characteristic and help us overcome it. Had the victim been a poor Samaritan, then a lawyer who was able to overcome his natural disinclination to get involved would have made the point. And it would have been a powerful point. For being able to accept that the divine Law doesn’t stop with the insider, with the ‘approved’ victim, but potentially embraces the whole of creation – that would, surely, be a very effective piece of teaching. But Jesus is not content with even that kind of achievement. In the version of the story he throws back to the lawyer who seems to have provoked him, Jesus seems to say, If you are going to be so difficult, then try and get your head around this! And goes on to tell the story with an anonymous victim – was he Jewish, a foreigner, a criminal himself, – we don=t know. What we do know is that the one who does not pass by on the other side was a Samaritan. Of course, for many Jews that constituted another dilemma: to accept help from a Samaritan had the potential to be as bad as getting beaten up by a gang of thieves.
At this point it is impossible to go on talking about this very, very familiar story without allowing it to address some of our current crises. If Jesus central point is about the urgency of overcoming our natural inclinations to “pass by on the other side” and to act for good, what hope do we see in the escalating disaster that is the Middle East? Or what hope do we see in the craven posturing of those who would be our Prime Minister at a moment of immense significance for the well-being of
democracy and the flourishing of fruitful neighbourliness? Let us try not to speak more of others than we must, but we must acknowledge the way in which present fears and abuses of power are stripping so many good and decent people of any sense of useful agency – seemingly actively encouraging them to cross over and pass by on the other side. The Mattins reading from Deuteronomy helps in the necessary business of right orientation: in speaking of the ‘commandment that is ‘not too hard for you, nor too far away’ and of the word ‘that is in your mouth and in your heart’ we are drawn again into the recognition of prevenient grace. This is not going to be about some super-human struggle, but rather about being in tune with the fabric of creation.
And here, perhaps, is a clue that helps us move forward. If, as a result of participating in today’s liturgy, hearing the word of the Lord, we are encouraged to become better neighbours to those around us, then the reminder that no-one can actually take away our agency is important. We can be severely constrained, we can feel as though we have no freedom to act, but nothing can finally so distort our sovereign individuality as to take away the essential freedom to choose. Paul, writing to the Colossians reminds of the most powerful and basic way in which we continually rediscover our freedom: through the expression of thanks. There is nothing like gratitude, thanksgiving, for recovering the stance towards our brothers and sisters and the whole creation that assures us of our continuing freedom to choose, and nudges us towards the choice of doing good for the other.
Part of the Christian witness in our generation lies in confident persistence: steadily going on trying to do good, to see when the actions of a concerned neighbour are needed, and offering them without undue faffing or fuss. And the freedom to do that is, somewhat paradoxically, rooted in habitual gratitude and thanksgiving.
For those who would shift the story of the Good Samaritan from a mildly guilt-inducing, oft-repeated tale to a positive stimulus for reform there is, then, nothing more potent than participation in the Eucharist of the Lord. It is as we give thanks to the Father that we are made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power Because it is in him that we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins, we begin to have the courage to act in freedom for the good of others B which in turn elicits further thanksgiving B and so the cycle goes on until we are made one with the giver of all, to his praise and glory…
Peter Allan CR