On Being a Bad Samaritan And a Good Person

Good_SamaritanMany of us instinctively think that knowing is something we have in our heads, something we can recite, like a catechism. This is the sort of knowing that the lawyer demonstrates when he recites, correctly, the two great commandments when Jesus encourages him to answer his own question as to what he must do to inherit eternal life. (Lk. 10: 27) But then the lawyer shows a certain ignorance, a missing piece. He doesn’t know who or what his neighbor is. Jesus answers this question by telling a story that pinpoints exactly the missing piece in the lawyer’s cognition.

The key phrase in this familiar story that shows what the lawyer lacks is that the Samaritan was “moved with pity.” The Greek word is one that twists the mouth all out of shape: splagchnizomai (pronounced splangkhnizomai). Literally, this word means his entrails were stirred up at the sight. Here is a visceral response that didn’t need the benefit of the catechetical verse from scripture to be activated.

The response of the Samaritan, then, was instinctive, a bonding with the victim who had been severely injured. We are naturally wired for this sort of solidarity, but René Girard has demonstrated that this natural solidarity often takes the form of bonding with other people at the expense of those who are excluded from this bond. Paul Dumouchel, in his analysis of this process in The Ambivalence of Scarcity, argues that the social bonds in early humanity required not only self-sacrificial nurturing of others in the group, but also the obligation to kill all those outside the group, who were considered enemies. The natural response to a person in trouble is hedged in with limitations. One’s entrails are not stirred by the plight of just anybody, but only the plights of those who are within the group.

It is this bonding based on exclusion that Jesus thrusts into the face of his listeners by telling us that a priest and a Levite both passed the victim by but then a Samaritan came to his aid. Since the victim might have been dead, both the priest and Levite would have been rendered ritually unclean by touching a corpse. Ritual purity, like all kinds of purity, requires exclusion. One is pure only if something or someone is defined as “impure” so that the “impurity” can be purged from the social fabric. This kind of bonding by exclusion becomes so instinctive that it trumps bonding through sympathy with someone outside the group. The lawyer’s question came naturally to him because it was natural for him to place boundaries around who was a neighbor and who wasn’t.

The ethnicity of the victim in the parable is not given but Jesus’ listeners would have assumed that he was a Jew like them, most likely a Galilean. Samaria came between Judea and Galilee. This was a problem because all Jews hated all Samaritans and vice versa. When Jesus went through Samaria with his disciples, they were refused hospitality at a village they came to. The reason this Jew from Galilee would have been on the notoriously dangerous road from Jerusalem to Jericho, was because he would have traveled along the Jordon River to avoid going through Samaria on his way to Jerusalem. So, the traveler, in trying to avoid Samaritans, ended up encountering a Samaritan who helped him and undoubtedly saved his life!

What Jesus is doing in this parable, then, is shock us out of our tendency to bond through exclusion and bring us back in touch with the deeper natural bonding through compassion for whichever victim we pass by. For a Jew of the time to help a Samaritan in similar circumstances would have been unthinkable. Such a person would have been a bad Jew—like Jesus. Likewise, the “Good Samaritan” was actually a bad Samaritan in the eyes of other Samaritans and all Samaritans were bad in the eyes of the Jews. In his novel A Boy’s Life, Michael McCammon presents us with a similar situation that brings this parable home for many white Americans. A violently racist white man in a small town in Alabama tried to blow up a museum of Black culture but ended up in a life-threatening situation, caught in his own trap. This racist was then rescued by a black man. The cognitive dissonance experienced by the man who had hated blacks so viscerally all his life was highly dramatic. In the broader context of the novel, the eleven-year-old protagonist Corey, a white boy, consistently showed a visceral sympathy for victims that extended to saving a black boy from drowning during a flood.

Jesus knew better than most liberals like me that we don’t overcome prejudice by trying to be more logical about the problem. Our bonding through exclusion short-circuits rational thinking as the lawyer, the priest and the Levite demonstrate in much the same way as priests, ministers and social workers demonstrate today. What is needed is knowledge through our deepest natural bonds of sympathy with the other that has no boundaries. Then, we need not ask: Who is our neighbor? because, as Kierkegaard tells us in Works of Love, the person nearest us, no matter who he or she is, is our neighbor.

Salvation as Communal Healing

anointingJesusFeetWe have a tendency to think of salvation as a personal matter. To some extent it is, but the way salvation is presented in scripture, it is never personal in an individualistic sense. In the case of the famous story of “The Sinful Woman,” we easily focus on the woman whose dramatic action is enough to grab our attention. However, her act is a public drama. Moreover, in very few words, Luke paints the social context of the woman’s behavior. She is a “sinful woman.” We are not told the nature of her sinfulness, so that is not relevant to what we should learn from the story. Simon, Jesus’ host at the dinner, assumes that Jesus should have known that the woman was a sinner and he should not have allowed her to anoint and dry his feet with her hair, actions that further proved the woman’s sinfulness in Simon’s mind. Simon may have been expecting Jesus to have supernatural discernment, but he may have simply expected Jesus to know who had a bad reputation and who didn’t.  In any case, it is a social judgment that has labeled this woman as sinful. That is, this woman shows all the signs of being the community scapegoat who helps everybody else feel good about themselves.

Jesus’ brief parable of the two debaters can be understood as presenting salvation in a social context. The two debtors gives us, in miniature, an image of society where everybody is in debt in the sense of being sinful, even if the sinfulness of each person is not equal. We can see this indebtedness on a horizontal level as each person has wronged somebody else. In a religious culture, such as the Jewish one, the notion of everybody being indebted to God would, of course, also come to mind. The problem with Jesus’ parable is that if we see ourselves as parts of a society full of moral debt, then scapegoating one particular sinner ceases to be viable.

Simon’s grudging answer to Jesus’ question that the one who owed more would love more suggests that Simon is beginning to see the implication of the parable and it is making him uncomfortable. Jesus’ proclamation that the woman’s sins are forgiven leads to muttering and outrage from Simon and his other guests. If the moral debt of even one person is forgiven, then how can the community have a scapegoat? Forgiving the scapegoat was totally unforgiveable! The important thing is that it was not just the woman as an individual who was offered forgiveness, but everybody in the social system. The catch was, and is for us today, that we have to renounce the “comfort” that a social scapegoat gives us before our communities can be healed. As with so many of his parables, this story in Luke leaves us hanging. Will Simon and his friends accept forgiveness, or will they remain outraged by it, thinking that they don’t need it. The same question faces us as well.

Gethsemane

crossRedVeil1Jesus’ prayer in the garden of Gethsemane may well have been the loneliest moment of all for Jesus. His disciples were not able to stay awake with him. Much worse, his disciples still seem not to have understood anything of what Jesus had tried to teach them. At what he knew would be his last meal with his disciples, a meal when he had poured himself into the bread and wine to give his life to his disciples and all others who would follow him, his disciples fought yet again about who was the greatest. (Lk. 22:24–26) As he had done many times before, he told his disciples that the one who would be first would be the one who served, but he must have realized his words had had the same effect as before.

Jesus was alone with his heavenly Abba, but he was having difficulty believing that the path leading to the cross was going to accomplish anything. Jesus prayed that the cup he knew he must drink be taken away from him. Many think Jesus was shrinking from the pain of crucifixion. He probably was, but his anguish went much deeper. Jeffrey B. Gibson, in his book The Temptations of Jesus in Early Christianity, suggests that Jesus was tempted to opt for the restoration of Israel by dominance. It was the same temptation he suffered when he called Peter “Satan” at Caesarea Phillippi, and the same temptation he suffered in the desert right after his baptism. As he prayed in the garden, it appeared to Jesus that his whole ministry had come to nothing and that “the path of suffering will really be effective in achieving the task to which he has been commissioned.Like us, Jesus felt the pull of the mimetic spiral of violence. It was hard enough that the pull of violence was strong throughout his entire social ambience. It must have been doubly hard that his disciples were still within that social pull of violence and were pulling Jesus in that direction as well. Worst of all, the full wrath of humanity’s rejection of God from the beginning of time had fallen upon Jesus and there seemed to be no way for that human wrath to be quenched. That Jesus accepted the cup anyway shows a profound trust in his heavenly Abba at a time when his Abba’s will was inscrutable to him. It seemed impossible to believe that the heavenly Abba loved Jesus, his Son, and loved all of the people Jesus had come to save, all of whom had turned against him. Impossible, yes, but with God, even these thing s were possible.

How Is the Gospel Veiled?

 

transfigurationWe celebrate the Transfiguration of Jesus at the end of Epiphany to prepare ourselves for Lent. This is a joyous feast where the Light of Mount Tabor should inspire us for the days of penance and then entering into the Paschal Mystery of Christ. However, there is a discordant element in the reading from St. Paul that I want to focus on. He, too, writes of the inspiring light of the Transfiguration, but he also writes about the veil over Moses’ face. This refers to the story in Exodus where Moses put a veil over his face when he came down from Mount Sinai with the tablets of the Law because his face shone too brightly for his fellow Israelites to look upon. (Ex. 34: 29–34) Paul goes on to say that the Jews remain veiled when they hear the words of the Law. In light of Holocaust, this verse causes much uneasiness, all the more so as it has been used to justify anti-Semitic attitudes and behaviors.

Unfortunately, the lectionary stops short of the two verses that are of upmost importance for putting the veil in perspective. The reading concludes with 2 Cor. 4:2 where Paul says: “We have renounced the shameful things that one hides; we refuse to practice cunning or to falsify God’s word; but by the open statement of the truth we commend ourselves to the conscience of everyone in the sight of God.” At this point, Paul is no longer talking about the Jews and the Law; he is talking about the right conduct expected of any follower of Christ. The next two verses bring back the image of the veil: “And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” What is crucial is that the veil is not cast over the minds of Jews reading the Law; the veil is cast over all who are unbelievers. Moreover, it is “the god of this world” that has cast the veil. This is a veil cast over everybody.

Is the same veil cast over the Jews? Is this veil cast over those of who follow Christ? The answers are Yes and Maybe in the sense of Probably.

The longer answer to the first question is answered in Galatians 5:6: “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love.” Circumcision was and is the prime cultural marker for Jewish males. In Paul’s time, uncircumcision was the cultural marker for the Gentiles. Paul is saying that, in Christ, neither of these markers matter. That means that no cultural markers count for anything in Christ. That is to say, any cultural marker is a veil. There is only one veil that covers the Gospel and that one veil is trusting in ones’ own cultural markers instead of trusting fully in Christ. If any of us claim that anyone of another culture is under a veil, we have put a veil over ourselves. (Paul was Jewish, so he was engaging in a self-critique when he wrote of the veil over his fellow Jews.)

This goes a long way to the longer answer to the second question. All of us are trained from birth to affirm our culture and family. We also derive identity from political parties, churches, schools of thought, social sets, and much else. That in itself does not constitute a veil, but if these ways by which we define ourselves take precedence over Christ, they veil us from the Gospel. Such identifications are the specialty of “the god of this world.” If we accuse other people of being veiled, we only put the veil over our own faces and so fail to see the Glory of God revealed on Mount Tabor. So let us examine ourselves for anything that casts a veil over Christ and cast it off so that we cast ourselves onto the mercy of Christ’s Glory.

What Really Makes Us Unclean?

AndrewPreaching1Jesus pleaded for understanding when he threw out the words: “There is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” (Mark 7: 15) He has just been debating with the Pharisees and lawyers about what is clean and unclean. He and his disciples had been accused of being unclean because they were unwashed, something that would make them unclean in today’s polite society as well. However, Jesus may not necessarily have been unwashed by our standards. The Jewish Law as understood by the Pharisees required a specific way of washing right up to the elbow and no other way of washing counted.

In a follow-up discussion with his disciples, Jesus shifted to the intake of food and said the food we take in does not defile us or make us unclean, but actions and attitudes that come out from the human heart can defile us. Mark adds that with these words, Jesus had declared all foods clean. Jesus is suggesting that certain foods had been scapegoated when they were declared unclean, with the foods being blamed for uncleanness regardless of what is in the human heart. Perhaps rejecting some foods as unclean is no big deal but Jesus is calling attention to our tendency to consider other people unclean, polluting.

With our mimetic resonance with the desires of other people, we ingest the desires of others just as we ingest food. If we experience desires that make us uncomfortable in any way, including those that should, we blame other people for arousing the desires in us and we protect ourselves by expelling them. Jesus is telling us that just as foods do not make us unclean, other people do not make us unclean either. It is what we do with the desires of other people that make us clean or unclean. We can indeed be corrupted by bad company but if we spew out the envy and slander and pride we ingested from others back at them, or, more likely, at others with fewer defenses, then we ourselves are bad company threatening to corrupt others.

This gives us another angle on Jesus’ famous warning that if we judge, we will be judged, because when we judge, we see the speck in the eye of the other but don’t see the log in our own. (Mt. 7: 1-5) We think that any envy, deceit or licentiousness we experience in ourselves comes from the other, and maybe we do catch these traits from another, like catching a virus. But a virus caught from another only hurts us if our own bodies react in destructive ways to make us sick. Likewise, the envy, deceit and licentiousness of another only make us sick if allow them to flare up inside of us. If we then expel them in the direction of others, they become the victims of what has come out of us. Even when defiling desires really are coming out of other people, our own defiling desires in response only magnify the impurity in the social atmosphere. That is, the uncleanness is neither in ourselves nor in the other. Defilement occurs only in relationships built upon projecting and expelling the perceived defilement of others.

If we should pull the logs out of our own eyes rather than judge others, then a strange alchemy can take place where what we take in from others becomes pure, or at least becomes a lot less impure than it was, and the social atmosphere becomes better. When the social atmosphere gets better, we can all breathe in the Holy Spirit.

mimetic scarcity (2)

outsideSupper1The loosening of family and tribal bonds was a second and much longer term strategy for diffusing violence resulting from mimetic rivalry. (See mimetic scarcity 1 for context.) Up to the present day it has been effective enough to be considered a good thing. But it has its disadvantages. It has led to what Norman Geres, a writer cited by Paul Dumouchel, calls “a contract of indifference.” This contract has released from obligations for violence, such as the vendettas that have scarred many social groups. That is good. But this contract as also released us from obligations to care for the misfortunes of other people. That is, we are no longer our brother’s keeper. As an instinctive reaction to violence, the various effects were never planned out and they are still not easily visible. Most seriously, the contract of indifference is deleterious to social conscience. We don’t easily see a connection between our individual actions and their social consequences. To take one example: polluting the environment just doesn’t seem to get on the radar of those who use technology at a level that does just that. It supports an individualist spirituality where saving one’s own soul is the main thing and broader social issues are off the radar.

It is the scarcity created by this “solution” that forms the founding dynamic of capitalism. The basic argument, as I understand it, is that the scarcity gives humans an incentive to try and overcome the scarcity by increasing production so that there will be more material goods than there were. This works in the sense that more material goods are produced that can be consumed by people. But scarcity is not overcome because the increase of production increases desires for goods and when this leads to more increased production, desires increase still more. Material goods never catch up with desire. Mimetic desire, where we desire things because other people desire them, further intensifies this frenzy because whole inventories of perfectly wearable shoes disappear if only a few designs are in fashion. This is how this “peaceful” solution to violence leads directly to the quiet, hidden, sacrifice of many people on the hidden altars of indifference. Indifference is just as contagious as mimetic violence. The ennui of modern humanity analyzed by legions of philosophers and social commentators witnesses to the extent of this contagion.

If Paul Dumouchel is right in suggesting that creating scarcity has roots in early humanity, created scarcity has become much more prominent in modern times. I will make only a brief historical detour to consider the Jewish tradition. The prophets exposed the truth of collective violence much more deeply and clearly than other cultures, thus attenuating the efficacy of sacrificial religion. (“I desire steadfast love, not sacrifice” Hos. 6:6) Did this prophetic exposure increase use of the solution of scarcity to limit violence? The countless oracles against oppression of the poor suggest that scarcity was alive and well in early Jewish society. Perhaps the surrounding cultures, still grounded in sacrificial religion, still had stronger social bonds for caring for each other’s’ needs. Maybe. An historical study of this matter would be welcome.

In pleading for the poor and oppressed, the Jewish prophets were clearly aware of the problems created by scarcity and loosening social bonds and so were trying to increase the scope of “family.” That is, far from loosening ties, we are to strengthen them and extend them. By inviting all of us into being siblings of him, Jesus also encouraged us to be brothers and sisters of one another: the whole church, all of humanity is family. Jesus is most explicit in this teaching in Matthew 25 where “the least of these” are all part of Jesus’ family and therefore ours as well. It is this sense of family that motivated St. Paul to take up a collection in his various churches so as to give famine relief to the brothers and sisters in Jerusalem.

This is a hard saying. First the Jewish prophets and then Jesus, by his death as a result of collective violence, throws a monkey wrench into the first “solution” to violence. But before he died, Jesus, along with the prophets who preceded him, threw another monkey wrench into this second solution. We are given an ascetical double whammy. We have to renounce the solidarity that leads to mimetic strife and then to collective violence, but not only must we retain these same ties, we must strengthen and extend them when it comes to providing for others. That is, the borders that made providing for family tenable have been exploded. Not only that, but if these are “solutions” to violence resulting from intensified mimetic rivalry, and both have been exploded, then we have to discipline ourselves to renounce that rivalry. In analyzing the land enclosures in England, Dumouchel noted the mimetic rivalry of the lairds that caused them to desire better productivity of their lands that brought on scarcity without reducing any material goods in their environments. Make no mistake. I am not suggesting we have to renounce capitalism. We have to exchange goods and services somehow. But renouncing mimetic strife will change the social complexion of capitalism as it changes everything else.

One of the reasons this social demand for social solidarity seems so onerous is because we tend to hear it through the filter of “the contract of indifference.” That is, we think the entire burden falls on each of us individually. We forget even before we hear it that we are invited into a family, a family that is the Body of Christ. We do not have to take responsibility for others, each on our own little lonesome. That would be rugged individualism all over again. Instead, we are encouraged to take responsibility as members of a Body. Jesus reaches out to everyone through each and every one of us. Our personal responsibilities are collective responsibilities.

The Sin Against the Holy Spirit

???????????????????????????????????????????The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant takes us to the heart of the question of forgiveness in Matthew’s Gospel. A dialogue between Jesus and Peter sets the stage and gives us a sense of direction for interpreting the parable. When Peter asks if he should forgive someone who offends him seven times, he seems to think he is putting a high ceiling on the matter. Forgiving somebody seven times seems an awful lot but Jesus breaks his bubble by saying that he has to forgive an offender seventy-seven times, or seventy times seven, in some manuscripts. Taking the higher number, one might think that counting up to 491 offenses legitimizes taking revenge after the magic number is passed, but that obviously misses the point. Jesus’ reply is an allusion to Lamech’s savage song where he boasts that if Cain is avenged seven times, then he is avenged seventy-seven times. The working of revenge cycles indicates that the revenge is infinite. Jesus’ counters the infinite revenge cycle by making forgiveness just as infinite.

Then Jesus launches into the parable of the unforgiving debtor. After being forgiven outright a large sum of money owed to the master, the forgiven servant refuses to forgive a much smaller sum by a fellow servant. Having just been forgiven a large debt, the servant hardly has the excuse of being desperate for money. The point of the parable is clear enough: if you don’t forgive, you won’t be forgiven. But there is a small hitch here. The “forgiving” master suddenly becomes unforgiving. The forgiving Father in Heaven is not forgiving either, at least for this offense. Not forgiving is the unforgivable sin.

Elsewhere in Matthew, Jesus says that every sin and blasphemy can be forgiven with the exception of “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit” which is the one thing that cannot be forgiven (Mt. 12:31). It seems odd that God’s hands should ever be tied in any circumstances in forgiving anybody for anything, so what gives? Saying that unforgiving people cannot be forgiven suggests that withholding forgiveness would be the sin of the Holy Spirit. In Jesus’ final discourse, he promises that when he leaves, he will send the Advocate to guide them in all truth. An Advocate is a lawyer for the defense. So the Advocate Jesus sends is the defender of all who are accused. The Advocate “will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment” (Jn. 16:8). Of course, the world runs by the fuel of accusation and revenge. If we bring Jesus’ words about the Advocate to his words in Matthew, it appears that sinning against the Holy Spirit by not forgiving others cuts us off from our Advocate who would plead our case.

In the parable, the unforgiving servant is handed over to be tortured until he has paid his entire debt. The servant had been invited to a new way of living based on forgiveness and rejected it. Living without forgiveness, which is tantamount to living by vengeance, is torture. It isn’t God who is unforgiving; it is the servant. If refusing the way of forgiveness is the sin against the Holy Spirit, then we do not need to worry about what thing we might do wrong that brings us to eternal damnation. Forgiveness is a process and so is vengeance. Clinging to vengeance in the face of God’s forgiveness tortures us with our vengeance for as long as we are imprisoned in it. All the while, the Advocate continues to defend us, hoping that we will allow the Advocate to prove us wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment. Ultimately, Jesus and the Heavenly Father forgive us our unforgiveness in the hope that we will accept this free gift. Likewise, St. Paul says that Christ is at the right hand of God interceding for us (Rom 8:34). Just ahead of the parable, Jesus has told the Parable of the Lost Sheep for whose sake the shepherd left the ninety-nine to seek out the lost. Surely God searches out each one of who tortured by vengeasnce. Then, immediately before this the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant, Jesus has instructed his disciples about seeking reconciliation and treating delinquent members like Gentiles and tax collectors. Judging by the parable that follows that we have examined, the way to treat Gentiles and tax collectors and all other people is to forgive them. Truly accepting this free gift of forgiveness entails passing this free gift on to others. We are all thrown into the same world together. The question is whether we will be tied up in vengeance or bound by forgiveness.