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Windows of Redemption

13th Sunday after Trinity BCP

10 September 2006 11:00 | Fr. Roderick Leece

Many of you probably heard the parable of the Good Samaritan at such an early age that, like me, you might have grown up with a simplistic 'goodies and baddies' understanding of the text, which has a clear moral point. It is not so much that there are excuses for the behaviour of those who passed by without helping - the law of love should have ruled supreme. But there are reasons they walked on, and it is useful to consider some of the wider issues. The priest and the Levite's first task and duty were to honour God in the liturgy of Temple worship, wherein strict rules of ritual purity are required. To touch the body of a dying gentile, or even the corpse of a fellow Jew would make one impure. Thus they would have been debarred from taking part in the Temple ceremonials, without first undergoing ritual cleansing from any defilement incurred. Jews who were told this parable, would have not thought it in any way odd that these two characters walked on by.

The early church father Origen of Alexandria, whose 34th homily is on today's passage, and who contributed greatly to imaginative and sophisticated allegorising of much of scripture saw the whole Bible as containing 'three levels of meaning. These correspond to the threefold Pauline (and Platonic) division of a person into body, soul and spirit. The bodily level of Scripture, the bare letter, a literal reading is normally helpful as it serves to meet the needs of the more simple. The psychic level, corresponding to the soul, is for making progress in perfection…whilst the spiritual interpretation deals with 'unspeakable mysteries' so as to make humanity (quote) "a partaker of all the doctrines of the Spirit's counsel"'(Trigg, Origen, pp.120-21, 126)

Today's familiar story of the Good Samaritan has always been both popular and significant in artistic terms, and the images have flowed from the more mystical readings. Earliest illustrated manuscripts portray the injured traveller as almost invisible. The emphasis is on the Samaritan who is represented as Christ, with a halo and golden robe. Later on in the Romanesque period in Western Europe, the story is found on many wall paintings. They show the wounded victim, the passing priest and Levite, and the kindness of the Good Samaritan, emphasising the suffering of the victim. He looks at the viewer as if pleading. During the Gothic period, stained glass depicting the Good Samaritan story is important in cathedrals such as Chartres, Bourges, and Sens, and these highlight the redemptive power of Jesus Christ. The fabulous glass windows in these cathedrals surround scenes from the parable with depictions of the creation, the fall and the redemption of mankind…and the windows are deliberately arranged and organised, in order to stress the links. He who came down from earth to heaven and who suffered…was crucified…died and was buried…he who rose in triumph as conqueror of both sin and death is given the same face as the Samaritan. And so these glorious windows remind us of those once-popular allegorical interpretations of the story.

By the end of the 2nd century the understanding would have been something like this: Jerusalem was seen as paradise…Jericho represents the world (anyone who has been to the region will remember the journey of only 17 miles through wilderness and dropping to one of the lowest places on earth - 3300 feet lower than Jerusalem, and well below sea level). I'm sure I don't need to spell out the idea of humanity itself falling victim to sin and death on the journey from paradise to earth (the Fall) nor his inability to rescue himself. The priest in the story represents the law, and the Levite the prophets. The Old Testament if you like. Our Lord of course is regarded as the Samaritan…the Saviour…whilst unanimously in the various interpretations, the inn is seen as portraying the church. The point Origen makes is that if we love this neighbour (the Samaritan Saviour Christ), and do likewise, then we fulfil the whole law and commandments out of love for him.

Much later Saint Bernard too saw mankind as summed up in that certain man. Mankind…deeply wounded in its soul by its enemies and its own follies, and beyond mere human aid. And he adds more allegorical details, which I rather like, concerning the oil and wine. They are medicine…oil can become a balm, and wine an antiseptic. For him oil and wine represented the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Some of the gifts of the Spirit, like wisdom, understanding and piety, were, like the oil, easy to bear…soothing and restoring. But others were sharp (the action of wine on the wound causes smarting)…very painful though necessary…like the gifts of fortitude and fear of the Lord.

I enjoy these deeper parallels, though understand the need to resist any tendency to complicate this simple story with its clear message - what is required is straightforward and pretty obvious. The difficulty is the gap between what we actually do, and what we know deep in our hearts we ought to do. Which is not simply to help the stranger and those less fortunate than us, but to have compassion on, and bring succour even to our worst enemies…who were the very ones who turned out to be good neighbours.

By his wounds are we each of us healed…we are wounded in need of compassion in the depths of our soul and need the bandaging and soothing oil of God's love and grace. The point of this lifelong healing is that we may then do likewise and love our neighbours as ourselves. We who are left wounded and half-dead, and have been carried to the inn (into the Church), are cured so that we may have compassion on all others…bind up their wounds and pour on the balm of oil and wine.
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