The Lord, however, hurled a violent wind upon the sea, and in the furious tempest that arose the ship was on the point of breaking up. Then the mariners became frightened and each one cried to his god.
Jonah 1: 4-5
But a Samaritan traveler who came upon him was moved with compassion at the sight. He approached the victim, poured oil and wine over his wounds and bandaged them. Then he lifted him up on his own animal, took him to an inn, and cared for him.
Luke 10: 13-14
As a young adult, I used to identify myself, somewhat pridefully, as “religiously conservative but politically liberal.” I liked to think of myself, in those days, as non-judgmental and open to others, on the one hand, but quite assured, as Tevye on Fiddler on the Roof, of who God was and what God asked of us on the other. The certitude I felt in the “religious sphere” of life came from my trust that what I received from my Church’s teaching, in the way that I received and understood it, was the “truth” of things. What I did not realize was that my certitude and self-assurance was precisely what, in the words of Meister Eckhart, did not “let God be God” in me. As Eckhart says, our image of God “comes between you and the whole of God. As soon as the image comes in, God and all his divinity have to give way. But as the image goes out, God goes in.”
As we read today the beginning of the story of Jonah, we are told that as the storm threatens the ship that carries Jonah, “the mariners became frightened and each one cried to his god.” It is striking, at least for us contemporary readers, to hear that all those on the ship realize that they have different gods. It is striking, and challenging, because, at least in the United States, we are in the political sphere constantly proclaiming our belief in God as if the god of whom we spoke was the same god of all of us. Because we are, for the most part, monotheists we mistakenly believe that we are devoted to the same God. In truth, however, we are monotheists in theory but polytheists in practice.
Voltaire declared that “In the beginning God created humans in His own image, and humans have been trying to repay the favor ever since.” As a young person, I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I began to realize my “religious” arrogance as I experienced people close to me who did not believe, at least in my sense of the term, yet who were far better neighbors to others than I was. I began to wonder to what degree my so-called infallible beliefs served the call to love God and others with all my heart, and soul, and strength. The more I left my encapsulated religious world and truly encountered others, the more I began to experience my own “lights” were, in fact, rather dim. I perceived a depth and radiance in others, who saw things very differently, that pointed to truths far beyond my understanding. Slowly I began to understand that the God of which I was so certain was the creation of my own need for security and fear of the Mystery.
Eckhart writes: “O my dear one, what harm does it do you to allow God to be God in you? Go completely out of yourself for God’s love, and God comes completely out of himself for love of you. And when these two have gone out, what remains there is a simplified One.” In the Parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus teaches what it means to “go completely out of yourself.” The priest and the Levite see the man who has been attacked and robbed but they cannot go out of themselves. They cannot leave their many possessions behind. They fear that if they “go out of themselves” by forgetting themselves and the “demands” of their lives in order to be present to the person who needs them, they will lose themselves. They live in a world of scarcity, where their money, their time, their possessions, their energy, their ideas and their affections are limited and they must hold on to them. The Samaritan, however, is “moved with compassion at the sight” of the man in need. He is free, at that moment, of any concerns, possessions, ideas, doctrines that would inhibit his “going out” in response to the summons of the need and call before him. He doesn’t hesitate in order to ask if he has the time for this, or if he can afford it, or what engaging with this person may lead to for him. He is “moved with compassion” at the sight, and so he “approached the victim.”
By going out of himself, the Samaritan allows God to come out of God’s self for love of us. The Samaritan then, a member of a reviled sect, repeats, or better put, continues the action of Jesus in the world. God approaches us because Jesus goes out of himself, releases all that he would possess, even as God himself. God is always coming to us. What is required of us, if we are to know God and to allow God to come to birth in us, is to release every possession, including every idea of God. In that empty space, God’s will and “the will that belongs in the soul” are one will and one act.
Throughout the world there is vile and serious religious persecution. The freedom of Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Hindu’s and others is grievously under threat in various places. We deny freedom of thought, belief, and practice to others because we have created a god out of our own desires, needs, and fears that cannot bear reminders of its impoverishment. The God who transcends our own images and versions is not threatened by alternative perceptions. It is only our own small gods of our own limited understanding that are fragile enough to seek dominance over others. When, however, a dominant religious culture, like Christianity in the United States, claims to be under threat, there is concern that it seeks not freedom but dominance. As Pope Francis has pointed out, it is the task of the “Church,” to go out to those who are lost and wounded, as did the Good Samaritan, and Jesus himself. It is not to overpower or dominate the others or to force them into conformity with its own vision, it is to serve them. The call is to go out of ourselves, not to demand recognition by and rights from others.
God is not our image or definition of God. Every image we have, every certitude we declare stands between ourselves and God. The Good Samaritan is “moved with compassion” and as a result “approached the victim.” Throughout the world there are persons who live their lives in compassionate response to the appeal of those who appeal to them to approach. God is God in them as they go out of themselves in that way. That God is beyond definition and description and is not served by saying “Lord, Lord,” but rather by doing God’s will, responding to the appeal that is made to us (Matthew 7: 21). What we say about God is far less important than what we do. Each time, in small or larger ways, that we “go completely out of ourselves for God’s love” we are allowing God’s will to be done in and through us. We practice doing so by being awake. So often during a day, we are preoccupied with ourselves. When we leave ourselves and awaken to the call of the world before us, the Word comes to birth in us and so speaks and acts through us.
Where the creature stops, there God begins to be. Now God wants no more from you than that you should in creaturely fashion go out of yourself and let God be God in you. The smallest creaturely image that ever forms in you is as great as God is great. Why? Because it comes between you and the whole of God. As soon as the image comes in, God and all his divinity have to give way. But as the image goes out, God goes in. God want wants you to go out of yourself in creaturely fashion as much as if all his blessedness consisted in it. O my dear one, what harm does it do you to allow God to be God in you? Go completely out of yourself for God’s love, and God comes completely out of himself for love of you. And when these two have gone out, what remains there is a simplified One. In the One the Father brings his Son to birth in the innermost source. Then the Holy Spirit blossoms forth, and then there springs up in God a will that belongs to the soul. So long as the will remains untouched by all created things and by all creation, it is free.
Meister Eckhart,Sermon 5b