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Friday, July 12, 2013

The God Samaritan (C15O)

Your friends are supposed to make you feel good about yourself, but there’s always some do-gooder in the crowd whose role in life is to expose you for who you really are. The do-gooder du jour is Les Selage, my friend in Florida, who in wrote this in a posting in an email group to which we both belong:
I hear a lot about welcoming all, and that's such a good good thing. But are we really praying that all will be welcome or that everyone else change their habits to align with ours? I'm really comfortable welcoming same sex couples and the divorced and remarried....even the homeless and poor. I'm less good welcoming people who hate music at Mass, or don't like me, or get offended by a lack of panty-hose on an EMHoC. 

So there it is, along with today’s Scriptures, pointing the accusing finger at me as I’m listening to the gospel and thinking of Greg Brown singing Iris Dement’s haunting gospel song “He Reached Down” at a concert I saw him give. I do try to do my part. Sometimes maybe I play it safe, maybe too often, but I don’t feel like the priest or Levite in the story until someone starts playing with who the Samaritan is. I don’t ignore (all) the panhandlers, I try to keep my eyes open to human need and respond to it as I can, as long as the Samaritan is someone who is, well, not a Samaritan. To me, everyone I help, in whatever oblique way, is a potential friend. But once you play the Samaritan card, that the person who helps you is your enemy, whose generosity exposes my prejudice for what it is, well, I’m not as righteous as I thought.

Characteristic of the Jewish-Samaritan rivalry in first century Palestine, a hatred which had its origins probably in the division of the kingdom and was exacerbated by syncretism during the Babylonian captivity, the exclusion of Samaritans from the rebuilding of the Temple by Nehemiah, and the surrender of Samaria to Hasmoneans John Hyrcanus and Antiochus Epiphanes, were, for instance, occasional desecrations of each others’ holy places (with human bones, for instance) and the throwing of garbage and animal feces into each other’s living areas. In an essay on the website, April O’Flaherty writes that “So intense was the antipathy between the two groups that Samaritans refused to even provide overnight shelter for the weary pilgrims. They would rather hurl epithets and rocks at one another than share a meal or part of land with their ‘enemies.’” We’re all familiar with this kind of prejudice in one form or another, urban whites and blacks, or Chinese, or Hispanic, blue voters and red voters, capitalists and communists, Israeli and Palestinian, Orange and Provos, Serbs and Bosnians, Jews and Muslims and Christians. You can’t miss it, and some of it is as ugly - or worse - as this tiff at which we get a glimpse in the gospel.

Along comes Les with her painfully insightful little zinger, quoted above. So who’s your Samaritan? I’m having a hard time with some priests these days. A lot of bishops I could leave in a ditch. John Boehner and Mitch McConnell. Catholics with one-issue orthodoxy. People who bash Hillary Clinton or the Obamas for their looks, or tell lies about them, and who ignore the facts. People who bash Michael Moore because he doesn’t look like Tom Cruise.  OK, that’s probably enough Samaritans. (And believe me, I'm not so narcissistic as to think I'm not the Samaritan for a lot of other people.) Today, in fact, there are only 40-50 families of real Samaritans left, so my list outnumbers the real thing. That’s vaguely disturbing.

And so, here comes Les again, reminding me that if I can’t love these people, these folks who had me on Lisinopril, if I can’t spend my life binding their wounds and slowing down to help them then, well, I’m just a noisy boom, or clanging cymbal, and all my pretty words are just words, and not symbols of anything of substance.

There is something in this story that suggests to me that the Samaritan is God, and it’s me in the ditch. I don’t want to have anything to do, really, with this Lover who loves me in a way that keeps offering me a complete change of heart. Maybe it’s the bending over to help the guy on the ground that reminds me of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet, which in turn is a visible manifestation of the invisible reality of the paschal mystery, God reaching down from heaven to take the form of a slave. This isn’t rocket science, we hear the book of Deuteronomy tell us, but rather,

No, (my command) is something very near to you,
already in your mouths and in your hearts;
you have only to carry it out. (Dt. 30:14)

Somehow, it’s supposedly already in there, the invitation to turn and the courage to do it. Or maybe I have it backwards; in a way, this is even more upsetting and jarring: maybe it’s God in the ditch, the God whose power is complete self-gift, and I’m the Samaritan, God’s sworn enemy, and it’s my job somehow to jump over my own loathing and minister to his wounds. Or I’m the priest and the Levite, too, sometimes. But once in a while, or once and for all, at some moment I can’t see yet, the cry of the Wounded One from the ditch is a song I’ve heard before, and its woe is strength upon which I might even draw the strength to bend down myself, and make things better. 

I don’t know. I’m still back there grousing at the priest, and the bishops, Republicans, well, it’s a long f*cking line, isn’t it?

After all that, I can’t help but think of one of my favorite Greg Brown songs, “Lord, I Have Made You a Place in My Heart,” which explores the love-hate between the God-Samaritan and me, between who I might be and who I am, so well that I think Greg has been intercepting my emails. I leave it with you as your meditation on the Samaritan and you. I hope you can figure this thing out. Maybe we can help each other some day on the Jericho road.

"Lord, I Have Made You a Place in My Heart"

by Greg Brown

© 1994 Brown-Feldman Music

Oh Lord, I have made you a place in my heart

among the rags and the bones and the dirt.

There's piles of lies, the love gone from her eyes,

and old moving boxes full of hurt.

Pull up a chair by the trouble and care.

I got whiskey, you're welcome to some.

Oh Lord, I have made you a place in my heart,

but I don't reckon you're gonna come.

I've tried to fix up the place, I know it's a disgrace,

you get used to it after a while -

with the flood and the drought and old pals hanging out

with their IOU's and their smiles.

bare naked women keep coming in

and they dance like you wouldn't believe.

Oh Lord, I have made you a place in my heart,

so take a good look - and then leave.

Oh Lord, why does the Fall get colder each year?

Lord, why can't I learn to love?

Lord, if you made me, it's easy to see

that you all make mistakes up above.

But if I open the door, you will know I'm poor

and my secrets are all that I own.

Oh Lord, I have made you a place in my heart

and I hope that you leave it alone.