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The Grammar of Mercy

Wednesday, July 06, 2016

Fifteenth Sunday of the Year. fr Fergus Kerr explores the grammar of mercy.  Grammar can mark a difference, sometimes. “What must I do to inherit eternal life? the devotee of the Law of Moses asks Jesus, hoping or perhaps just pretending to test his orthodoxy. Is there some one thing he could do, the Greek grammar implies: some single heroic act one might perform, some once-for-all sacrifice one might make, to secure eternal life?

To this question Jesus replies with a question of his own, testing his interlocutor’s knowledge of Scripture. He responds by quoting the two great commandments from the Pentateuch: “Love God” (Deut 6: 3) and “Love your neighbour as yourself(Lev 19, 18). Exactly so, Jesus agrees, commending him, then commanding him to go ahead and do so, doing so, however, not in some one-off act but, as the tense of the verb implies, in a continual and habitual way.

Fair enough. Yet, still testing Jesus, the man of the Law asks who counts as his neighbour? Historically, of course, it was a very real question at the time, for a Jew and in fact for nearly everyone else. In our own day also, as a matter of fact, all over the world, in every politically and socially divided society, the question remains. In times of crisis, who turns out to be your neighbour? The people next door? Your kith and kin? Your sort of people, as you might think? The people with whom you come together to worship God? How flexible and porous are the boundaries that separate us and people who are racially, religiously and culturally very different from us or even hostile? People with beliefs, histories, and priorities, which we find unintelligible, unacceptable, and even quite destructive? The Samaritans, inhabiting the land which Jesus and the disciples had to cross on their way south from Galilee to Jerusalem, hated and were hated by the majority of the Jewish people (though we hear of nothing comparable with modern-day ‘ethnic cleansing’).

To this question, Jesus replies with the famous parable, putting the man of the Law to the test: Attacked by brigands on the road down from Jerusalem to Jericho, an unidentified man was stripped naked, and left for dead. A Temple priest and a Levite (a cantor or some similar liturgical assistant) look but pass by on the other side, presumably having discharged their duties towards God and now on their way home, preferring not to risk their religious purity by incurring ritual contamination by contact with what looked like a dead body (Lev 5: 2-3). Devotion to God comes before helping the victim of injustice. And then comes the Samaritan …

“Which of these three”, Jesus asks, “proved neighbour?” — “The one who had mercy”, the expert in the Law of Moses concedes. “Go and do likewise”. Jesus tells him, and again, grammatically, this doing is not some noble one-off event, rather it’s a repeated and indeed lifelong way of behaving that Jesus requires. This, then, is the good Samaritan, contrasting with the villagers who rejected the request by Jesus for hospitality, presumably because, as Samaritans, they did not want to facilitate a pilgrimage to Jerusalem (Luke 9: 51-53). This rejection so angered some of the disciples that they wanted Jesus to call down fire from heaven and exterminate these people, but he rebuked them for even considering such a thing. On another occasion, when he healed ten lepers, the only one who returned to praise God was a Samaritan, as Jesus points out, challengingly and perhaps reproachfully (Lk 17: 16).

Jesus evidently had quite a complicated relationship with the Samaritans. In the Fourth Gospel he is actually accused of being a Samaritan and demon-possessed (John 8: 48): he denies having a demon, but says nothing about not being a Samaritan. Famously, of course, in one of the greatest episodes in the Fourth Gospel, Jesus asks a Samaritan woman for water from Jacob’s well, which leads to her beginning to identify who he might be (John 4: 4-42). He was never afraid of communicating with people with whom he did not agree.

There still are Samaritans in Israel. Centuries of isolation have reduced them to about 800, half of whom live in Nablus, near Mount Gerizim, where their annual religious ceremonies have become something of a tourist attraction. As in New Testament times, they continue to believe that the Jews altered the religion of the Israelites a long time ago, indeed during their exile in Babylon. For Samaritans the Law consists exclusively of the five books of Moses, in Old Hebrew, a language that everyone learns from childhood, though all speak Palestinian Arabic and Modern Hebrew fluently. The young men may serve in the Israeli military. While the community has a great deal in common with orthodox Judaism, the Samaritans prefer to stress the uniqueness and authenticity of their traditions. By orthodox standards they remain heretical.

Obviously, with the parable, the test that Jesus sets his fellow Jewish interlocutor is to realise that the one who loves as a neighbour is the heretical Samaritan, showing compassion in practical ways, apparently with no religious commitments or scruples one way or the other — in contrast spectacularly to the professional holy men from the Temple once again, as so often, the teaching of Jesus is that there is no loving God independently of showing mercy to the victims left abandoned by the side of the road. Furthermore, in rejecting the mutual hostility between his own people and the Samaritans, Jesus transcends all boundary expectations. It is not social definitions such as religion, or ethnicity, or as we might add today class and gender, that determines who is our neighbour — easy enough to say perhaps, certainly not always respected in our world today. The lesson of the parable of the Good Samaritan is as challenging as ever, even more so.

Readings: Deuteronomy 30:10-14|Colossians 1:15-20|Luke 10:25-37

The image above is from from St Salvators chapel in St Andrews.


Fergus Kerr O.P.

Fergus Kerr Fergus Kerr is a member of the Dominican community in Edinburgh, where he teaches theology. He is the editor of New Blackfriars, the theological and philosophical review of the English Dominicans.


mike commented on 08-Jul-2016 12:21 AM
A great treatment on the Samaritan gospel. I found it helpful as it brings in aspects relating to todays problems with "neighbors" thank you. mike
Tom Dawkes commented on 22-May-2017 07:22 PM
Coming late to this, but I really warm to the close reading of the text in Greek. Neither in Latin nor English is it easy to make the distinction between aorist (ti poisas) and present (poiei). Another tiny flag pointing up the loss to Latin Christianity of the break with the East, with reliance on the Vulgate alone.
Many thanks, Fr Fergus.

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