Leaving Jerusalem and Good-bye to Jericho

Jesus did not teach superficial nonsense. The New Testament does not present us with a blow by blow, verbatim summary of his teaching but the teaching of the very early church is neither puerile nor easy. It takes a lifetime to get it and if you approach it in the way you deal with everything else, you’ll not get it at all.

A recent comment on this website hits a vital nail on the head when the writer observes that it is dangerous to commit one’s thoughts to paper or its cyber equivalent, the web. To publish this type of stuff is foolhardy and risky at best. It is very foolish and it is relatively risky. It is definitely arrogant and grandiose and there has to be something wrong with the person who does it because the very act of committing a thought to something as publicly permanent as the web is to set oneself up for a fall or ridicule. Inevitably one’s mind changes and I know that there is much available on this website which I have produced which makes me cringe. As I look back at the material I have made public and which is still accessible going back over the last six years I can see how what seemed clear then is now much more of a muddle and there is much whichI have written, said and preached with which I do not agree anymore but I do not regret it because it is part of the journey. It is all a process. None of it is correct or if it is I am not sufficiently skilled to recognise what is and what is not.

I can walk along the shore in the morning and observe the sun rise. I can climb a mountain. I can cycle in the silence of the evening. I may engage in a meditation practice. I may be silent for a considerable period of time, simply sitting still and not thinking. And yet I cannot express in words what any of that means or meant or what I felt in terms of truth or oneness or unity, humanity or divinity.

That is the challenge of all preaching and communication. We are always engaged in the attempt to convey and communicate the impossible. We do it all of the time. It is our mistake to imagine that there is a single perception of reality. That blue sky may appear a completely different shade or colour to you. I do not know what you see. Your blue may be my red but if it is consistent we simply go ahead with our assumptions.

When it comes to God then this is multiplied and magnified many times over.

Preaching on a Sunday in a church is, for the person who does it, a tremendous privilege except when it is nightmare because of some complete block or absence of ideas. It is a privilege because the act of talking to a captive audience for that length of time is therapeutic. If no-one has done it already then a PhD on the congregation as listening therapist would be very interesting.

It is a privilege also because it forces the person who is doing the talking to spend a lot of the previous week committing thoughts to paper. This, on this particular Sunday, is where I stand on this passage of scripture and on these particular questions.

At school more than one teacher told us that it is impossible to read a serious book properly without a pencil and paper to hand. This is sometimes, I will now accept, true. What is definitely true is that it is impossible to know what you think about anything until you see it written down. This is especially true when it comes to looking at the Bible. The simple discipline of writing something down, even if it is a statement as short as, ‘The Good Samaritan is complex,’ will force you into actually thinking seriously and not simply allowing things to float around in an airy fairy way.

The arrogance and risk of committing to paper can be grandiose and it is risky because it is when you see what you have written and reflect on it it is like hearing your own voice recorded. It is horrible. That moment of genius and insight now looks banal and puerile, illogical and facile. But that is the process. That is why it is not arrogant when you do it privately. It is not arrogant when you do it and share it with friends or those in your church or family or group. You have made a statement which tells you and tells others that you have risked coming to a preliminary conclusion. If it then looks obvious and stupid then you have learned how little you know and how little you have understood and that in itself will teach you all about you. If you are committed to the discipline of discipleship then you will return to the text and you will take another look. The reason you have done this is because you put yourself in the position where you had to put pen to paper. You had to commit. You had to respond to whatever it is that you are dealing with and in this instance it is the Parable of the Good Samaritan which, at the last workshop and in the pervious post we described tentatively as Koan.

The first thing you have to do if you wish to understand this is to think about it. Actually thinking involves committing to something. Some people came to me with comments and observations. Others, including those who are not part of this workshop community have engaged using the web itself and I encourage this and welcome it.

A reasonable thing to have written on your piece of paper might have been ‘The Parable of the Good Samaritan is not Koan’. Then your next task is to write down why you think that is.

Almost inevitably you are going to find that whatever you have written will not be your final answer. If it is not Koan what is it? If it is or even if it is not Koan then what does it mean? How can we deal with its tensions? What difference does it make to me?

It is definitely premature of me to describe any parable as Koan because I am certainly not knowledgable about Zen or anything to do with it.

But whether or not that is true, the act of reading this parable, hearing it in a different way, writing down what you think about it and looking at your conclusions will lead you to recognise something and that is very likely to be that you do not understand it.

What I mean by this parable being a Koan is simply that it is not a straightforward presentation of a simple explanation. This is very complex and very difficult and extremely simple at the same time. But, and here is the difficulty, the simplicity will emerge and the meaning will come when the normal ways of looking at things have gone, when you have exhausted every other means of discovery and uncovering the meaning.

In a sentence I am saying this: When we understand the Parable of the Good Samaritan as Koan we are submitting to both the idea and the discipline of interpreting it in a completely different way to the way in which we might look at or interpret anything else.

We are agreeing that we are not going to find the answer for which we are looking if we simply approach this in the way we’d come up to any other problem, challenge or puzzle.

The point of the Koan is not that it is clever or complex. It is almost inevitably going to prove to be blindingly simple once we get it but it is blindingly impossible until we do. It cannot be explained because it is asking the question which life at its deepest casts up. It will break through all of our systems, explanations and beliefs. It will expose our knowledge and expertise as ignorance and misunderstanding because to get this each of has to get it individually and our definition of expertise assumes that the expert is the person who knows and can repeat what others have told her or him. The Parable of the Good Samaritan demands that you think about it and that I deal with it and do not stop until the light of its simple truth illuminates everything.

We are looking here at a different kind of knowing. The other sort of expertise and knowledge is not worthless, far from it. It is a discipline which is tragically lacking in the modern church. The church and individual Christians within it suffers because people are not reading, studying, disciplining themselves. People are more likely to go the the gym than the library and to the drinks cabinet in preference to the gym or the library. Our minds are dull. Our recreational drugs of choice dull our minds. Our expectations are low. The results are predictable. The purpose of what we are doing here is to address this and to redress this hopeless and depressing imbalance.

At the last workshop I encouraged and invited everyone to open their new Testaments and to expose themselves to all four of the gospels simply by reading them.

I am aware that people approach the written word in different ways. Sone of you read quickly. A lot of us read slowly and to read all four gospels in three weeks might have been a tall order. However, the slow reader and even the dyslexic to take that to its extreme can be at an advantage because the very act of having to read and look at every word invites us to see and to perceive from different and new angles and standpoints.

This is precisely what I think the Parable of the Good Samaritan is asking us to do. I received very few responses from anyone in this group after the presentation at the last workshop and after posting the revised version of the presentation on the web.

There is, and we need to know this, no wrong response. It is probable that the person who really gets it will simply remain silent or else repeat the parable because the parable contains the meaning. It conveys it. In its tensions and irresolvable difficulties, it holds it all.

The Parable of the Good Samaritan presents us with an impossible tension. You are either the priest and Levite or you are the Samaritan. You are the priest or the levite who follows him or you are the one whose thinking is different. But if you are in the story at all you are never out of the tension of it all because of the dilemma in the lawyer’s question, Jesus’ answer and Jesus’ story.

You are right and you are wrong. In order to be correct you have to act and think in error. In order to be righteous, you have to be unrighteous and so on. Wherever you go and whatever you do you find yourself in this tension, contradiction, paradox.

You have two options at this stage which will take you in the wrong direction and at least one which may take you towards an answer. The first erroneous move is to walk away and to say that you cannot do anything with this. Most people don’t even get to this point because they fall into the other trap which is even worse. What they do is to go for an obvious answer. With this Parable it is to say, usually, that this is about putting faith into action instead of words.

That is what we learned in Sunday School and there is a world of a difference between the child-like faith of the young person who is stretching his intellect and straining the imagination and really thinking about things and still accepting truth in a way which tiptoes through the logistical and theological tensions which completely ties up and the adult who is simply not thinking and has not been encouraged to do any theological thinking since they were ten.

This parable is inviting us into a profoundly adult faith but as Jesus taught we will only understand the kingdom if we enter it as a child would so there is tension and paradox and contradiction all around.

So we have eliminated two possible pitfalls. We do not walk away from the parable. We do not skip over it with an over simplified, simplistic explanation which ignores everything which is actually here in front of us.

We have to listen to the question which precipitated, provoked the story. We have to listen to the whole of the answer which is here in Luke’s Gospel. We have to look at the Priest, the Levite, the Samaritan, the man in the road, the road itself, the inn keeper about whom we have no detail at all.

We have to do a lot of disentangling of questions and answers. We have to do a of of listening. We have to engage in a great deal of very slow reading.

We have to read the rest of the Bible. We have to sit in silence because when we realise we have nothing to say we cannot do anything but do that. This is the point of the Koan. You stop talking. You stop thinking because neither way is the way to the answer. You live with it. You hold it. You come back to it. You come out from it.

This is where we leave the Good Samaritan as Koan but we do not leave it. Think about it. Write down what you think. Post in response to this. Yu may find that the meaning of this parable emerges as you look at other material but do not look for harmony or agreement or systematic explanation. Engage with the tension. If it seems too simple and easy and obvious then it probably is. The New Testament writers were not communicating the superficial and obvious and neither was Jesus teaching it.

One thought on “Leaving Jerusalem and Good-bye to Jericho

  1. I enjoyed reading your piece Neil. My Mum would have hated it! My mum used to berate me and my Dad for engaging in too much “head stuff” (as she called it) – meaning of life debates – at the Sunday dinner table. She lamented the fact that she was the only normal person in our household. She had a point.
    In my life I have oscillated between seeking the innocence of the simple and the illumination of the heavy. I end up disliking myself for adopting either stance – I suppose because both are inadequate as a “stance”.
    I quite like the Hindu notion of different ways to achieve Realisation (of God) – Devotion, Work, Knowledge – and Yoga/Meditation as the fourth. Maybe some of us can take the biggest strides by a simplistic “way” of selfless devotion, and perhaps a humble acceptance of religious texts and rules at face value, without getting into too much “head stuff”. Others maybe gain more ground through doing stuff – charitable works, selfless duty, the bravery of action. Others again maybe progress through head stuff. Through study and deep thought and attempted understandings and wisdoms. To attempt the whole lot is indeed a challenge. The tension you describe. A simple and humble loving soul who also rigorously squares up to the intellectual challenges – a busy “doer” who also is a still and reflective contemplative. I used to be a fan of St John Of The Cross – “Dark Night Of The Soul” his greatest hit. He seems to have made a good stab at simultaneously doing all three ways so perhaps it can be done.
    And then theres this other thing. This immediate, transparent, lawless energised “Zen” thing, adopting none of the prescribed “Ways”, but somehow achieving them all through being a clear channel for the “Best” (for love?) at any given moment. Is this what we hope might click in when we are driven into a corner by the inherent tensions of the other somewhat competing “Ways”, and are forced to surrender…… If so then when might this happen. I’m 61 now. Is a lifetime long enough?

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