Psalm 69: 14, 17, 30-31, 33-34, 36, 37
Within the ancient practice of lectio divina there is a sense, which can only come from the gift of faith, that there is such a deep unity to the revealed word of God that every word, every phrase, every verse, chapter, book, and the entirety of the two Testaments hold together in a coherent unity. Sometimes it takes a discerning mind and a great deal of grace to be able to see how certain readings might hang together – and this week’s readings seem to present no small challenge in this regard. I propose a meditation that ties together one possible thread that weaves throughout these readings – the multifaceted presence of the word of God.
Imagine, if you will, a simple cross, with the reading from Deuteronomy forming the ground or foundation, the reading from Colossians resting at the top, and the reading from Luke as the crossbar. The Word of God in Deuteronomy – represented on the literal level in the Jewish Torah – is not something that one needs to go up into heaven or cross the other side of the sea in order to obtain, but rather “the word is very near to you.” It is here, now, among us in our daily lives.
The Word of God in Colossians – represented here as the cosmic Christ in which “all things” were created, hold together, and are reconciled to God – is everywhere, from the lowest to the highest places. Christ permeates the entirety of creation, things visible and invisible, thrones, dominions, rulers, and powers. This might be called a mystical or metaphysical view of the Word’s presence.
Finally, the Word of God in Luke is represented not just in acts of kindness, but what is even more striking, in the most unexpected foreigner and enemy, within the living community of human beings, fractured as it is by division, prejudice, and hard-heartedness. There is an ancient tradition that goes back to Paul and the earliest interpreters of Scripture in the Church which recognizes two senses of Scripture – a literal and a spiritual sense. In addition, this spiritual sense can be further analyzed in terms of the allegorical, moral, and mystical aspects of the spiritual sense. On the literal level, we’ve all heard the story of the Good Samaritan many times, and it does not take any distinctively theological or religious insight to recognize that the Samaritan did what was right and good in helping the man. One need not be a Christian, or religious in any sense, to recognize this as a naturally good thing to do for another human being. Thus, this cannot be what we are searching for when we look for a deeper moral aspect of the spiritual sense of this story. So let’s dig a bit deeper.
The call to practice mercy to the wounded and vulnerable is found in the literal, plain level of the text, and remains an essential component of the teaching of this parable. But as we return to familiar stories like this throughout our lives, we may find that we become attuned to deeper levels of meaning. For example, the lawyer who first posed the question to Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” genuinely sought the answer, and he already knew it on the literal level – “love the Lord your God with all your heart…soul…strength…and mind” (Lk 10:27; Dt 6:5). Seeing this level of literal comprehension of the law, Jesus took him deeper into the spiritual sense of God’s Word by means of a parable.
Here Jesus uses a trope – represented in the figure of the Good Samaritain – to twist his listeners’ minds into a deeper moral sense. The more technical term for the moral sense in the medieval church is the “troplogical” sense. According to Henri deLubac, a “trope” is a “a figure, a mode, or a turn of phrase,” in which the figure becomes “a speech turned around toward us, i.e., toward our ways of behaving, or a speech turning around, pertaining to the mind’s way of behaving” (Medieval Exegesis, Vol. II, p. 129). So the Good Samaritan becomes a figure or a trope in this sense.
At this level, the real insight for the hearer is not the basic act of kindness itself, but the unexpected person from whom the action came – a Samaritan. For a first-century Jew, the Samaritans were the remnant of the northern kingdom of Israel who had split off from Judah and its Temple in the tenth century BCE (see 1 Kings 12), who had (in their minds) betrayed the remaining loyal tribes of Israel, and who had been destroyed in by Assyria eight centuries previously – talk about a long-standing grudge!
Thus, in this parable Jesus is challenging his hearers to see the presence of the Word or Spirit of God in this Samaritan! He is asking his listeners to suspend their usual prejudices and judgments and be open to the possibility that God’s Word is present in the most unexpected place of all, among those whom we believe could never be a part of our beloved community of concern. Indeed, he goes further – these rejected people may actually be the ones to show us mercy when we need it! It would be like us hearing a parable about the “Good terrorist,” or the “Good Democrat/Republican/NAROL or NRA activist ___________ (insert your most hated group of people here).” Now this spiritual understanding of the text builds upon basic, natural morality (i.e., be nice to half-dead people on the side of the road), but it also requires a more interior conversion, a deeper “turning” to possibilities that are only available to one who is open to the action of God’s grace. This is a distinctively Christian, theological understanding of these stories that is opened up by the moral aspect of the spiritual sense of Scripture.
The multifaceted Word of God is among us always – literally in the Scriptures, cosmically in the presence of Christ in all things, and in our communities, especially among the vulnerable (the man who was robbed and beaten) within those people where we least expect to find it (the Samaritan). Are we open to the challenges and opportunities for moral and spiritual growth presented in all of these levels of revelation?