The Good Samaritan Koan

This is a slightly revised version of an address I gave at a recent workshop.

The Parable of the Good Samaritan illustrates how Jesus’ teaching works and how if affects and changes us and the work it demands of us, in us and from us.

There are no answers here, only a struggle to find the correct questions. In order to understand the Parable we have to understand that it is not providing us with quick answers to over simple questions. Jesus’ teaching is not intended to provide neat and watertight explanations. The glib answer is almost always only that. It is premature and usually without weight or meaning. It serves our own need to be correct. Jesus’ parables present us with questions which, if we take them seriously, will have us ponder them for the rest of our lives. The answer when it does come may well in fact be a different kind of question.

There is a misconception in the minds of many of us and that is that Jesus changes the world. It may in fact be true that Jesus changes the world. It is undoubtedly true that the effect Jesus’ teaching has had on individuals and communities has indeed transformed communities and the lives of many people. But the truth is that Jesus’ teaching changes us. It may open us up in some sublime and profound and subtle way to how God changes and transforms the world and to divine activity we had hitherto failed to notice but Jesus’ teaching changes us. That is its first call on us. That is its primary or initial purpose.

I do not know the mind of God and do not pretend to understand how God works but the overall impression which we pick up from the New Testament and the gospels in particular is that the way in which things work is that we listen to the teaching, we put that into practice in our own lives and that things begin from there. Jesus’ teaching does not do the work for us. It demands that we work, that we change, that we do and think differently. It doesn’t do the work for us. It calls us into very serious work which we have to do ourselves.

And it is a very serious mistake to think that we don’t have to do anything. If, that is the thinking we bring with us to Jesus’ teaching then we will fall into the trap which has dogged the church for centuries and that is the false belief that we do not have to do any work. The average church congregation includes people who are frustrated because they are making progress in their understanding and at the same time people who are making no progress at all. This is not because some people are cleverer than others, more intellectually able than others but simply because some people have recognised that you have to do the work and others have not.

It is a mistake, however, to imagine that all of Jesus’ teaching is equal. Some of it seems obvious but it may not be. Some of it is accessible but we have to be cautious because if it seems too simple it may be that we are really missing the point of what Jesus is really saying. But in the average audience at any talk and in the typical church congregation there are those with different intellectual abilities, a huge variety of life-experience, vastly different abilities to use the imagination and to think outside of the obvious and predictable. It is unlikely that Jesus and the compilers of the New Testament expected that everyone would get everything equally quickly or even at all. In the experience of many church leaders and teachers, what makes the difference is not intellectual capacity or intelligence quota but perseverance. The person who holds onto a difficult question and keeps Jesus’ teaching in mind will come to moments and points of profound realisation and revelation.

The person who wishes to understand Jesus’ teaching should begin with a summary such as we have in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew) or the Sermon on the Plain (Luke) of the core teaching of the early church.

There instructions to Jesus’ disciples, turn the other cheek, etc., are the core teaching and the fundamental practice prescribed for the would-be disciple. This is the central discipline of discipleship. This is the basic teaching and this is the route to repentance which does not mean turning from sin so much as seeing the whole picture, everything as it really is.

These essential commandments, instructions, are like the scales an aspiring musician learns. They are not the tune, they are not the melody, it is not a symphony. They are the foundation. As a beginning student of Jesus the disciple’s attempt at practising Jesus’ teaching will probably be the spiritual equivalent of the sound made by the child who has had his first violin lesson and it will be as close to music as the sound of your child practising her recorder at home. However it is practice which transforms. Genius is not genius so much as determined and relentless practice.

If you want an insight into the effect of practice and the myth of talent, then I suggest you purchase and read, Bounce: The Myth of Talent and the Power of Practice by Matthew Syed. The link is below.

Syed’s book is not about religious or spiritual teaching but it does debunk the idea that some people are born able to do something. The difference between two people, most other factors being equal, is simply that one person has put in the work and another has not.

If we have done nothing, read nothing, thought about nothing, considered nothing, invested nothing, then we are where we started and that is OK but now we need to recognise that and dig in and get on because our lives depend on it.

I am not interested in the New Testament simply because it is interesting. I do find it fascinating because I am interested in the language, literature, comparative religious history, culture and theology of the New Testament. But there is another reason and in the end I am interested in it because at a level I cannot explain but it is in the very ground and depth of my being I know and yet cannot explain how I know that there is truth here and it is the meaning of our existence. I am not suggesting that this truth is not there in the Qur’an or the Buddhist Sutras, Shastras or Abhidharma, the Vedas and the Upanishads of Hinduism or the Sikh Adi Granth (Guru Granth Sahib). I am simply saying that at a level beyond cognition or intellect I believe that there is ultimate, universal truth in what I read in the New Testament.

It is this truth which Jesus taught. And it is here, not in the words themselves. This is not an invitation to fundamentalism. In fact it is an escape from it. But here is the truth.

And I can’t and nobody can explain it or do it for you. You have to do the work yourselves. And you have to take and make every opportunity to do this work yourself. You cannot simply turn up at church or meditation or whatever it is you do every week or fortnight and expect that somewhere something is going to happen. It will happen if and when you put the thought, time, work, in yourselves.

In actual fact you may have a near death experience or some illness or crisis and that may be the opening up for you of revelation and truth. Nobody can legislate for, plan or predict that. But in the ordinary outworking of things you are going to have to put in the work if you want anything to happen. And, paradoxically, you will probably have to let go of any desire to see any results and any inner expectation or demand that anything will happen at all.

There is a very big expectation in the churches that spiritual experience comes and happens when you want it to and that Jesus, the Holy Spirit, God will just make things happen for you. It comes if you pray enough, ask sufficiently loudly, believe strongly and have sufficient people pray for you. This is not what Jesus teaches in the gospels.

I have no doubt that the sudden, dramatic, conversion or epiphany, moment of revelation, can and does happen. In fact, I think that when it does happen, conversion, realisation, epiphany, revelation, awakening, is often an immediate, sudden event but the picture we have primarily of Jesus but also of his followers and definitely of those who journeyed and waited for years in the Old Testament for a revelation of God is that people had to work at their spiritual lives.

Take Jesus as your example. You do not need me to spell it out but you have the baptism and then the wilderness for forty days and nights. You have a man who had nowhere to lay his head. Who spent time not only teaching but also in solitude alone on his own and alone with his disciples. You have a man who confronted religious authority. You have, in the end, a man who was crucified after being beaten.

That is a tough journey. And if you read the gospels and Paul and other people’s reflection on that journey then you realise that the crucifixion and death was an important part of the revelation of who jesus was and in fact defines and explains who he became.

You have the coming together of the divine and pre-existant Christ, logos, and Jesus, as we noted in the third introductory workshop.

What I am going to do is to take one of the most well known parables and illustrate how it can be read and I think how it should be read. You will go away with no answers but I hope you will recognise that it is the no answer which gives you the question which is not only going to be your homework but it in fact fundamental to the work of discipleship and spiritual awakening.

The text of the parable is this. Please resist the temptation to stop listening or paying attention as you read it. Please try to hang onto every word. Please concentrate on this as if you have never heard it before. Please hear it as you have never heard it before. Please recognise that in this parable is the answer to everything and the question which comes out of everything.

Luke 10:25-37

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “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 neighbour as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbour?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and 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.’ Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

Stephen Covey said this.

Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.

That is correct and it is the mindset of the church and it is the programme to which we are used and with which we are familiar because we are used to preaching and preaching at its best and perhaps its worst is a kind of call and response. There is the reading aloud of scripture and then there is the response which is the explanation and often the resolution or so its seems of the tensions and questions in the text of the day.

We’ll say that this is what Jesus said or did and this is what that means.

In a Bible Study it is even more obvious. Here is a text and now what does everyone think it means and the person who is most valuable is the person who speaks providing they know when to stop and providing they aren’t one of the crazies. In actual fact the proper and pertinent response to a parable and to most reading of scripture is silence and this is what jesus is deliberately doing with, for instance, the Parable of the Good Samaritan.

If you go home and re-read the gospels and I think you should then you will find that the same is actually true of a great many instances of Jesus’ teaching.

In essence what we have here is a koan.

Koan means an enigmatic question, a riddle. The only way you can answer the question is to have the realisation or awakening or moment of understanding. If you look at a koan and indeed if you look at the Parable of the Good Samaritan in the same way as you look at everything and anything else then you will make no sense of it. You might as well forget it. On the other hand, the answer may be in the very ordinariness of it. There is a very brief and perhaps useful introduction to the idea of the koan in this Huffington Post article.

If you would like a way into thinking about this way of teaching and an opportunity to explore the idea of the koan and how it works then the, albeit fictional story, Night Boat based on the real life character Hakuin, one of the most influential Zen Buddhist teachers, is definitely worth reading. It will help you understand how Jesus’ teaching may have been intended to work.

A non fiction work which is highly recommended is The Book of Mu: Essential Writings on Zen’s Most Important Koan.

If you want a flavour of what is being spoken about, then you may wish to check out this video.

I have stressed often that Jesus is an eastern teacher. His teaching has come to us through a very western medium (the Roman Catholic and Reformed churches). This is significant and we therefore have to do a bit of imaginative and creative thinking in order to avoid the pitfalls and traps into which we so easily fall.

I am ready to be corrected but it is my understanding that the Zen student, disciple, will  be given a koan. He or she will not think about it for an hour or a week but perhaps for years but he or she will be asked repeatedly for the answer. Eventually the Master will see that she or he has got it. But it is not in the head but somewhere else that ‘gets it’.

There is koan right at the heart of the Parable of the Good Samaritan.

It is this.

The question which is the greatest commandment in the whole of the law. The law is the sum of what you have to do. The law is God’s will for you and your behaviour.

You have to obey it.

Jesus and the lawyer, the teacher, the expert in the law, agree that the greatest commandments are to love God and love your neighbour.

But the lawyer,the legal teacher, expert, comes back and asks, ‘Who is my neighbour?’

Jesus tells a story. But, and you know this, the ones who obey the law are the priest and the Levite who pass by the injured man. It is not that they ignore him. Far from it. They pay very real attention to him. He could be dead. He is covered in blood. He could be a foreigner. They are not permitted to touch any of the above.

The law prevents them from doing this. So they do the correct thing in terms of the law and they pass by.

The Samaritan who has a similar set of rules has an experience which is described much more vividly in Greek and it is in our sanitised English translations.

The expression used refers to the bowels, to an uncontrolled and uncontrollable action of the body. He is overcome. Everything else goes out of the window. All he has is pity, empathy is a much better translation of the sense of what we have here, and he deals with the man and hands over two days’ income to the innkeeper.

And Jesus says, who was a neighbour to the man and the law expert answers that it was the one who showed him mercy.

That is fine and correct and it is all well and good. And most sermons try to explain this but there is no answer and there is no explanation because Jesus and the lawyer agree that to obey the law you have to break it.

Two men, the priest and the levite are absolutely right and completely wrong.

The third man the Samaritan is completely wrong and breaks the law and is absolutely correct.

Whatever way you went you were wrong. Whichever way you went you were right.

You could not be right whatever you did and yet on way was absolutely correct even although it was wrong.

That is the koan.

The whole story is the enigmatic question, the riddle.

Your job, our job, our homework, our spiritual work, is to go away and to reflect on this, to work at it, to work with it, to fight it, until we understand it.

What is Jesus saying?

What is the question?

What does it mean?

What is the answer?

11 thoughts on “The Good Samaritan Koan

  1. The more I progress as a Follower of The Way, the more empathy I have with the early gnostic Christians. They may have come up with some quite bizzare theology but at least they understood that there was deeper meaning and significance tucked away in the teachings of Jesus. They understood the concept of the treasure hidden in the field.

    • I agree with you but gnosticism is a very wide and all embracing term which is often used pejoratively. All Christianity is to some extent gnostic. All Christianity is, for that matter, heretical. I’d be interested to know how you would see and discern and define the hidden treasure in the Parable of the Good Samaritan and how a different way of looking at it leads to a new understanding of it.

  2. My thoughts after reading your essay Neil. I should mention to your readers that I am really just an interested onlooker to the Christian Faith, rather than an adherent . Someone once said “God is a verb” (rather than a noun). I interpret this notion as the idea of “God” manifesting through processes and actions rather than as a fixed Being existing independently of those processes. If you like, “God is love”. (This I guess is maybe contrary to the basic Christian view of a “Personal God” with whom one may have a relationship and who may intercede in ones life.)
    Taoism seems to talk about “The Way”, not as a dogma – not as a set of fixed rules to be followed, but as a way of openness to following the most congruent, truthful and beneficial course at each moment in time. Almost that there is a Best Way to Be which is most in tune with the positive and benevolent spirit that seems to lie at the heart of most religions, and perhaps the Natural World. Our aim perhaps is to be the best channel for that spirit. To achieve that “Best Way” would seem to be determined by an openness to Truth/Reality, unbound by dogma and even preconceived knowledge, yet informed presumably by a gained wisdom coupled with a humility of heart. A sort of Wise Humility. The developing of wisdom and of a purity of heart might perhaps be aided by engagement in Religious Activities and aspirations of various guises, but without being hide-bound by them. Hence, to study the Law might bring value, but to be bound by the law to be limiting. As you say Neil, there may be Truth in all of the great world religions, yet somehow the Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim (or whatever) Sage/Adept/Master, achieves a position of internalising and “realising” and hence “transcending” the dogma of those faiths, and being thus free to follow his heart and do the best thing at the right time – be it laughing at a joke, shouting at the TV, taking the dog for a walk, or indeed helping an injured Samaritan that one comes across.

    • I think that one of the biggest challenges and millstones for anyone seeking to understand and explain what might be described as Christianity is the term with which you have a problem and that is ‘God’. We have a difficulty with it too if for no other reason than that we all mean something different when we use it therefore two people who agree that they believe in God will almost inevitably set themselves up for disagreement.

      God in love which is a very radical New Testament claim needs to be unpacked but is a powerful and challenging starting point for discussion. The interventionist and indeed all powerful God is at the heart of a lot of bad theology and definitely not, I think, here in the Parable of the Good Samaritan. Jesus intervenes and tells a story to challenge what (from the mouth of the legal expert) sounds logical but is in fact cognitive dissonnance. The story becomes the story of what happens when religion goes wrong. The answer is not going to be this or that but something else and I think that this ‘something else’ will only work and make sense at a level which is deeper than or different to a straight-forward intellectually accessible or derived set of conclusions or understanding. In other words, once we get it or reach it we will perhaps never be able to explain it.

      I like and agree with the idea of the sage/adept/master going beyond the words, doctrine and dogma., to something deeper and altogether more profound. It is to this truth that Jesus seems to appeal and this is the truth that he is telling.

      There is nothing at all with which I disagree in what you are saying and what I am hoping to encourage in myself is a willingness to look at this parable and at the teaching of Jesus in a way which is different to the way in which I instinctively want to. The questions I ask will determine the answers I get and the conclusions I reach.

  3. Of course I still reserve the right to call upon a personal God whenever I am in a particularly tight spot………

    • That is the temptation for all of us, not to change our theological position but to lapse into a panic mode. Of course, we should listen to ourselves at that point because it is in the moment of intense danger and vulnerability that there can be epiphany and awakening. I do take your point though and recognise the sentiment and experience in myself!

  4. The idea of a koan, unsolvable riddle, or question to be continually considered, is that for most of us it goes against our type of upbringing. We are repeatedly told that there is always a right and a wrong way of thinking or behaving. We are brought up to see the world in a black or white format, meaning one way or the other. A major challenge for me was when, many years ago, a wise person asked me “Are there no grey areas in your life?” and left me to ponder that question for the rest of my life.
    Our, my nature tends to want to qualify our thinking or behaviour as correct and therefore to seek to support our action by reason and/or law, just as the lawyer was doing, initially, in the parable. The reasoning that by the letter of the law the priest and the Levite were correct, yet by the spirit of the law, mercy, the Samaritan was correct, is baffling to our western thinking.
    Could it be that we are to allow the spirit of the law, mercy, to overrule the letter of the law, judgement? A very, if not over-simplified way, of saying that the understanding or application of the law by the head, is to be allowed to be over-ruled by the compassion of the heart.

    • I agree that the answer is going to be found in the tension between the law and grace or the law and mercy. I also agree with your observation that the way in which we have been brought up and indeed the way in which our education has led us to need to come down on this side or that side of every argument makes looking at material such as this very difficult.

      I agree with you all the way but wonder if part of our problem is that despite the fact that we can see that we are trying to resolve this in the wrong way, that is precisely what we continue to try to do.

      If we go for law OR compassion of the heart, I wonder if what we are doing is to attempt to resolve the tension which, in a subtle way, is to come down on one side or the other. I am struggling to make sense of this while allowing the tension between this and that, law and mercy to remain. Is there a way in which we can do this? Are we looking in the wrong place as well as approaching in the wrong way? If we approach from a different angle we may enter the story in a different place and it is here that we may begin to see how Jesus entered/told the story and approached the question.

  5. This question came up, I think, largely in response to this post. It may have been a more general observation.

    It was sent as a direct message on Twitter and I hope that the person who got in touch does not object to me publishing it here because it may be of interest to others.

    The question was this:

    Have you read Jiddu Krishnamurti Neil? He speaks to the themes that you seem to be engaged with. He’s challenging, but tries to be honest and truthful…

    The answer, and I have slightly more room with which to play here than on Twitter, is that I have not read Krishnamurti extensively or in depth but I have read some of his material and I have to say that I like a lot of what I have seen. I first became aware of him in my late teens when I used to frequent a very left-wing bookshop in Edinburgh which, along with the predictable Marxist material on sale also included a remarkable number of books on Zen and a bit of Theosophy, hence my early encounter with Krishnamurti.

    For anyone who is not familiar with him, this is not a bad place to begin,

    The friend who contacted me included a link to this in particular,

    Your God Is Not God
    A man who believes in God can never find God. If you are open to reality, there can be no belief in reality. If you are open to the unknown, there can be no belief in it. After all, belief is a form of self-protection, and only a petty mind can believe in God. Look at the belief of the aviators during the war who said God was their companion as they were dropping bombs! So you believe in God when you kill, when you are exploiting people. You worship God and go on ruthlessly extorting money, supporting the army; yet you say you believe in mercy, compassion, kindliness. As long as belief exists, there can never be the unknown; you cannot think about the unknown, thought cannot measure it. The mind is the product of the past, it is the result of yesterday, and can such a mind be open to the unknown? It can only project an image, but that projection is not real; so your god is not God, it is an image of your own making, an image of your own gratification. There can be reality only when the mind understands the total process of itself and comes to an end. When the mind is completely empty-only then is it capable of receiving the unknown. The mind is not purged until it understands the content of relationship -its relationship with property, with people until it has established the right relationship with everything. Until it understands the whole process of conflict in relationship, the mind cannot be free. Only when the mind is wholly silent, completely inactive, not projecting, when it is not seeking and is utterly still -only then that which is eternal and timeless comes into being.
    J. Krishnamurti, The Book of Life

    I think that this is hugely helpful and will be so to those who are currently engaged in looking at the Parable of the Good Samaritan. Where it has led me in my thinking is back to that most fundamental of all Old Testament texts, the Decalogue in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5 and and in particular to the double injunction, Thou shalt have no other gods before me/Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image.

    Krishnamurti does to this what Jesus does with his parables and he challenges us to take it much deeper and beyond the tensions which immediately arise in our normal approach to religious thinking. God becomes the Koan. You believe in God and you miss the point. You deny God and you miss the point.

    I am immensely grateful for this input and it has really got me thinking about material at which I have not looked seriously for a long time. Thank you.

  6. Not wanting to turn this into a Krishnamurti fan page, he also said this…..
    “This extraordinary thing which man has sought
    Love is something that is new, fresh, alive. It has no yesterday and no tomorrow. It is beyond the turmoil of thought. It is only the innocent mind which knows what love is, and the innocent mind can live in the world which is not innocent. To find this extraordinary thing which man has sought endlessly through sacrifice, through worship, through relationship, through sex, through every form of pleasure and pain, is only possible when thought comes to understand itself and comes naturally to an end. Then love has no opposite, then love has no conflict.”

    On a more basic level in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Sundance, the fastest gun in the west, was applying for a guard job and was asked to demonstrate if he could shoot. He began to set himself up for his quick-draw, fluid style, but was told not to do all that clever stuff but just to point and shoot. – He missed the target. He then said “Can I move now?” and then became fluid and whipped out his gun and hit the target 3 or 4 times in the blink of an eye.
    Its always stuck with me that scene. Like following the rules straight-jacketed him, but when he was freed up (from his conscious thought) he could deliver. Could act.
    When I was a trainee social worker I was asked to conduct an interview displaying all the techniques designed to establish a good relationship with a client. Good, but not overwhelming eye contact, sitting at a slightly oblique angle, reflecting back, giving space, maintaining best body posture, noting the clients non-verbal language etc etc. The interview failed, whilst all my techniques were sound. Next session I was asked to just try relate to the person, without giving conscious attention to the techniques, and the session succeeded, with the techniques flowing instinctively, naturally.
    I think this is similar.

    To consciously apply the rules, the dogma, can make us stilted and wooden – detached. The essential “spirit” is missing. To engage without thinking can let the spirit flow – let Love have its Way – but can also be a mindless recipe for catastrophe. The innocence of the unthinking Mob. Hate flowing down those same open channels. There again is the Koan.

  7. I have been unsuccessfully wrestling with this particular Koan since we were asked to go away and wrestle with it. Mainly because I have been too distracted by what was going on around me! I have discovered recently through my intermittent readings of the gospels that Jesus has left behind many Koans for us to wrestle with.

    However, yesterday I was part of the Samaritan story. I was driving past a secondary school at lunchtime, looking out for my child, thinking I could give them a cheery wave, when in the car as I approached a T-junction, I noticed a young student obviously upset, hiding around a corner of houses, texting and looking anxiously around them. I was immediately concerned for this student and my heart was full of compassion for them. In that split moment I had to make a decision whether to stop and help, like the Samaritan, or pass by like the Priest and Levite. My car would have been in the way if I parked at the junction, so I turned left, ahead of me were double yellow lines, again not a suitable place to stop. I carried on driving, I didn’t want to break the law.

    More than 12 hours afterwards did I realise I was part of the Samaritan Story. I did the right thing by not breaking the laws of the road and yet I did the wrong thing by this student. It has made me wonder how many more times in split second decisions have I not followed Jesus’ teachings.

    The tension between law and mercy is greater than ever here and yet it has made me realise I need to be more in tune with Jesus’ teachings and the God within me.

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