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.
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?