Now I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the Gospel preached by me is not of human origin. For I did not receive it from a human being, nor was I taught it, but it came through a revelation of Jesus Christ.
Gal. 1: 11-12
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: 33-4
Recently I was listening to a podcast of a dialogue between Christopher Hedges and Christopher Lydon that was part of the Cambridge Forum Series. At the heart of his argument, Hedges spoke of the fact that in contemporary America we are living out the idolatry of the self. He pointed out that in the tradition, idols first claim of the us the sacrifice of others, but finally they claim the sacrifice of our own lives. First of all, they would have us destroy the lives of others in their service, but ultimately the will then devour ourselves.
In the very familiar parable of “The Good Samaritan” the teacher asks Jesus who is his neighbor. Jesus’ response seems to be that he himself is to be a neighbor to all, as the despised Samaritan did. The “right” believers, the priest and the Levite, walk by the needy man on the other side. But the Samaritan, who is “moved with compassion at the sight” approaches the victim, and offers him “hands on” care. The Samaritan acts out of the depths of his humanity, a depth which is “moved with compassion.” The others are inhibited by rule, custom, belief, ideology, and so do not experience the truth of their “neighborliness” with the victim.
What is deepest and therefore most human in us is of divine origin. The two great commandments are inseparable because when we love God with all our heart, and soul, and mind, and strength we are neighbors. When we love our neighbor out of our “true selves,” we are loving God. The radical teaching of Jesus, a teaching that is often too much for any of its sectarian expressions, is universalist. When we are “moved with compassion” there is no distinction between Jew and Samaritan, believer and unbeliever, man or woman, Muslim or Christian. For what moves us is “not of human origin” but the love of God.
What Jesus is teaching is not primarily ethical, although it is obviously that to a degree, but rather ontological. The “Good Samaritan” is merely being and so living out the truth of who he is, one who is neighbor to the victim. The priest and the Levite are able to pass by the suffering victim, to ignore his existence, because the identities they have assumed through the influence of culture and society have blocked their access to the truth of our common life.
It has become now commonplace to speak of American politics as “tribal.” So tribal, so socially constituted, have we become that we seem to have become incapable of a shared sense of reality. We no longer pursue the real and the true together, but rather we seek the ratification of our tribal prejudices. The person is telling the truth when he or she supports my perspective. The priest and the Levite, in walking by on the other side, are rejecting the very existence of the need of the victim of the robbers. It is the Samaritan, whose marginalized experience would seem most likely to close him to the need of this person who is not of his tribe, who is open to receive the movement of compassion emerging within.
In a former time, we would speak of an asceticism that calls us to be “in the world but not of the world.” Although it has fallen out of favor, the teaching carries a deep truth. Much of how the world would constitute our identity is a distancing from the truth of who we really are. The designations the world would give us, the camps into which it seeks to divide us, are all constituents of the false self in us that closes us to the truth that we are all neighbors to each other. In truth, we are only truly ourselves in relationship to others. The world, in its many deformative manifestations is intent on separating us from each other, in asserting that our identity lies in distinction to and competition with each other. Thus, to be true requires a measure of detachment from that world.
Yet, that detachment from the world is not detachment from connection and communion with each other. It is precisely the opposite. Our true life in God is so much a common life that we cannot maintain it without relationship. We must be continually taught by others and in turn teach others. We must share deeply with others our truth if we are not to stray from it. St. John of the Cross says that we shall be “cold in the things of God” until we share these things with another. Spiritual friendship is the contrast to giving ourselves over to a collective. In true friendship and community, we together support what is true in each other. We share together “the things of God.” Our hearts are enkindled in this love, a love that resides and abides in the truth of our original callings. It is our shared life and affection that warms us to “the things of God.”
As in all of life, our relationships in the world are a matter for appraisal. We must constantly discern with whom and in what way we are to be together. There are people and places to avoid, but there are also relationships and ways of being together to be cultivated. There is truth to the aphorism that “we are known by the company we keep.” As I grow older, I experience more and more keenly how differently the presence of others affects me. There are those with whom I feel enlivened, awakened, and enriched. And there are other situations and conversations that leave me reduced, discouraged and depleted. We ourselves are responsible for the form our lives take and for what we allow to influence that form.
Many years ago a relief pitcher for the Boston Red Sox, Luis Tiant, said of the team’s fans, “They make me to do more than I can do.” There are those persons and situations that facilitate our being and becoming more and those that would diminish us. There are ways of being with others that open us up to the world in possibility and compassion, and there are ways that confirm our own prejudices, narrowness, and resentment. While we called to be a neighbor to all, we can only do so by deepening in friendship and love with those with whom we are able “to know the truth and practice it.”
How shall one alone stop being cold in the things of God? And if one prevails and overcomes the other (that is, if the devil prevails and overcomes anyone who may desire to remain alone in the things of God), two together will resist the devil. And these are the disciple and the master who come together to know the truth and practice it. Until consulting another, one will usually experience only tepidity and weakness in the truth, no matter how much may have been heard from God. This is so true that even after St. Paul had been preaching the Gospel, which he heard not from humans but from God [Gal 1:12] for a long time, he could not resist going and conferring about it with St Peter and the apostles: “ne forte in vanum currerem aut cucurrissem (lest he should run or might have run in vain) [Gal. 2:2]. He did not feel secure until he had received assurance from other people. This, then, seems remarkable, O Paul! Could not he who revealed the Gospel to you also give security from any error you might make in preaching its truth?
John of the Cross, The Ascent of Mount Carmel, II, 22, 12