10 The Good Samaritan - November 12, 2006

Galatians 6:11-18

Luke 10:25-37


This Gospel of the Good Samaritan figures also in the prayers of Forgiveness Sunday, the Sunday that falls on the eve of Great Lent. That Sunday also commemorates Adam’s expulsion from Paradise. On that Sunday on the eve of Great Lent, we sing: “As the man who fell among thieves and was wounded, I too have fallen through my sins and my soul is wounded. To whom shall I flee for refuge, guilty that I am, if not to Thee, the merciful Physician of our souls? Pour on me, O God, the oil of Thy great mercy.”[1]

In the way that the Church’s lectionary is structured, this Gospel of the Good Samaritan is read often on the Sunday closest to the beginning of Advent, either just before or just after November 15. It is therefore very closely associated with the eve of the Nativity Fast. Its connection to the themes of the Sunday before Great Lent therefore gives to the Nativity Fast a Lenten quality.

Uncovering this connection between the story of the Good Samaritan and the Sunday on the eve of Great Lent shows us where we can turn to find an interpretation of the Good Samaritan story and therefore also an understanding of the meaning and purpose of the Nativity Fast that is according to the Spirit of Christ and his Church. We can turn to the Scripture readings and to the liturgical texts for the Sunday of Forgiveness and Adam’s Expulsion from Paradise as to the Church’s own commentary on this Gospel of the Good Samaritan and on the significance of the Nativity Fast during the Advent season that begins this Wednesday.

On the Sunday on the eve of Great Lent, we read from St Matthew’s Gospel[2] the promise of the Lord that “if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly father will forgive you yours; if you do not, neither will your heavenly father forgive you your trespasses.” This gives us the intention of the Church’s fasting seasons: it is to orient our hearts towards forgiving others that we may receive God’s forgiveness of us. St Matthew goes on to record the Lord’s instructions on how to conduct the fast in a spiritual manner: “Anoint your head and wash your face so that you do not appear to men to be fasting, but to your Father who is in the secret place [twi krufaiwi, your heart]. And your father who sees you in the secret place will reward you openly.” St Matthew’s ends with the Lord’s words on the goal of the fast: “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

We fast as an essential part of our repentance. Through the fast, we work to turn our heart around towards the treasure in heaven. We know that the treasure in heaven is the life of the Holy Spirit that is hidden with Christ in God.[3] We come to a deeper understanding of this treasure that the Church is helping us to attain through pondering the sacred texts before us now, those from this morning and those from the Sunday on the eve of Great Lent.

Reading this morning’s Gospel of the Good Samaritan side by side with the texts for the Sunday of Forgiveness or Adam’s Expulsion from Paradise, we see immediately that the man going down from Jerusalem to Jericho in this morning’s Gospel is Adam. Jerusalem is the Garden of Eden. He is going down from Jerusalem as Adam driven out of Paradise because in disobedience he had eaten the forbidden fruit, he had given his heart to the earthly treasure of the knowledge of good and evil rather than to the treasure growing from the Tree of Life or the Cross that carries the heavenly treasure, Christ, like a cluster of grapes full of life, as we learn from the hymns of the Elevation on Sept 14.[4] Jericho, to which the man this morning is going down, is therefore the world outside of the Garden where the fruit of good and evil grows. This fruit of good and evil is the treasure of this earthly life. It is a life that goes round and round in a never-ending cycle of good and evil, light and dark, sweet and bitter, life and death. The center round which the cycle orbits is the dust of the ground where the human heart returns in death and dissolution, because that’s where it was taken from. Where your heart is – whatever food you love to eat, whether the food of the earthly knowledge of good and evil or the fruit of Him who is the Wisdom and Power of God – that’s where your treasure will be also.

From the Lenten Triodion, we learn that the thieves in this morning’s Gospel are my many sins.[5] The chief thief, the root of my sin, is my greed by which I disobeyed God’s command.[6] The garments that the thieves stripped from me are the virtues[7] and the robe of the glory of immortality[8] with which God originally clothed me in the Garden, and which I exchanged for fig leaves after indulging my greed.[9]

Seeing the man lying on the ground half-dead after being beaten by the thieves and robbed of his divine clothing evokes the image of Adam weeping outside the gates of Paradise that are now closed to him: “I lament, I groan, I weep,” he cries in the Lenten Triodion, “as I look upon the cherubim with the sword of fire set to guard the gate of Eden against all transgressors. Woe is me! I cannot enter unless Thou, O Savior, dost grant me free approach.”[10]

As an image of Adam outside the gates of Paradise, the man in this morning’s Gospel story lying on the side of the road is a reflection of my own soul. In this mirror, I can see how the earthly treasures I have loved have drawn me out of Jerusalem, or the Garden of Eden centered on the Word of God on the Tree of Life, and into a world centered on the ground and governed by thieves and murderers. I see myself lying on the ground like a corpse that is naked bones, food for the worms and stench (as the funeral texts describe us); but the Lenten texts are already bestowing on me the grace of God’s compassion by telling me what I would otherwise not know in the darkness of my ignorance and separation from God: originally I was clothed in the beauty of the virtues; I was wearing a divine garment of immortality. I was clothed in a tent, a body, which was from heaven, a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.[11]

Transformed by the texts of the Church into a mirror, this story of the Good Samaritan reflects Christ coming as the Samaritan to me. From the hymns of Christmas: “Christ in strange wise[12] comes to his own.[13] He is clothed in compassion.[14] He comes to me on his own animal, as St Luke says, which the holy fathers of the Church identify as our humanity given to him by the Virgin Theotokos when he was conceived in her womb on Mar 25. It says in this morning’s Gospel that the Samaritan was journeying somewhere when he came upon the man lying by the road. In the mirror of these sacred texts, we can see that he is journeying to the cave of Bethlehem and also to the cave of Pascha, wearing the humanity given him by his Mother the Theotokos, riding the same animal he rides this morning, on Palm Sunday.

In the mystery of Christmas, “he shapes all things afresh, making them new once more and leading them back again to their first beauty.”[15] He shapes us afresh, he raises us from the ground where we are lying half-dead and into his holy resurrection in our baptism. He anoints us with the oil, which the Lenten Triodion calls his great mercy,[16] which is his Holy Spirit the Comforter, at our Chrismation. Then we are clothed in the Robe of Light.

If we would look up now into this mirror of these sacred texts, we will see that by his coming to us in the flesh in the mystery of Christmas, “the middle wall of partition of the ancient enmity is now laid low and destroyed, and the flaming sword [guarding the entrance into Eden] now gives way before all who approach.”[17]

Can you see now that the inn to which he is now taking us is the cave of Bethlehem? But also, that the cave of Bethlehem is the Garden of Eden, as indeed we are told in the hymns for Christmas? “Bethlehem has opened Eden. Come, let us take possession of the Paradise that is within the cave.”[18] In the Christmas of the Church, “a strange and most wonderful mystery do we see: the cave is heaven; the Virgin the throne of the cherubim; the manger a room, in which Christ, the God whom nothing can contain, is laid.”[19] In the true Spirit of Christmas, Christ’s Holy Spirit, we enter Eden again.

It is in this theological vision set before us by all these sacred texts from these two moments in the Church’s liturgical cycle that we are perhaps now able to understand more deeply what Christ means when he says: “Go and do likewise” at the end of the story of the Good Samaritan. He means, show compassion as he showed it to us; forgive others their trespasses that God may forgive us ours.” But precisely how do we attain to such a level of spiritual maturity that we can “go and do likewise” as Christ commands? We can find instruction on this by turning again to the sacred texts for this Sunday and for Forgiveness Sunday.

We saw in the Gospel of Matthew read on Forgiveness Sunday how the Lord tells us to fast in secret. The Church directs us in the Lenten Triodion on the Sunday on the eve of Great Lent: “If then we long to dwell in Paradise, let us abstain from all needless food; and if we desire to see God, let us like Moses fast for forty days.”[20] The Church is telling us that doing like Christ begins with fasting in order to turn our our hearts and minds on the treasure of heaven. And so fasting involves much more than just abstaining from needless food. As we hear from St Paul’s epistle to the Romans read on Forgiveness Sunday: “Let us cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armor of light. Let us walk properly, as in the day, not in revelry and drunkenness, not in lewdness and lust, not in strife and envy, but put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the flesh to fulfill its lusts.”[21] And in this morning’s epistle from Galatians, St Paul directs us to crucify the desires of our flesh to the Cross as did Christ. We crucify ourselves to the Cross of Christ as he did through the fast and the other ascetic disciplines of the Church: confession, mindful reading of holy Scripture, mindfully saying the prayers of the Church as our own prayers, prayers which include at their heart intercession, praying both for those who love us and those who hate us, and practicing the commandments of Christ.

This is deep theological irony: the Cross of Christ, the ascetic disciplines of the Church, is an instrument only of suffering and death to eyes ruled by love of earthly treasure. But it is revealed to us the faithful as the Tree of Life that was planted in the Garden of Eden, which carries Christ like a cluster of grapes full of life. To the eyes of the faithful, the Cross opens onto the treasure of heaven: the mystery of Christ in his holy resurrection. In crucifying our flesh to the Cross of Christ, we are joining ourselves to the Tree of Life and being raised into the life, the treasure, of heaven.

Pondering this theological vision of the Church now before us, we can approach the beginning of Advent with holy joy. We can take up the Cross of Advent, the Nativity Fast, more intentionally to make ourselves strangers to sin that we may receive him who dwells in the souls of the meek.[22] For we see that Christ has raised us up onto ‘his own animal.’ He has united us to his deified humanity through our baptism and Chrismation and granted us to be partakers of his most pure body and precious blood in Holy Eucharist. In the joy of this theological vision, we take up the Nativity Fast and, “raising our minds on high, we go in spirit to [the inn of] Bethlehem to look upon the great mystery in the cave. For Eden is opened once again, when from a pure Virgin God comes forth.[23] The middle wall of partition of the ancient enmity is now laid low and destroyed by the coming of Christ in the flesh, and the flaming sword now gives way before all who approach. So let us partake in faith of the life-giving tree in Eden, becoming once again a husbandman of immortal plants.[24]

[1] Lenten Triodion, p. 187.

[2] Mt 6:14-21

[3] Col 3:1-3

[4] Lenten Triodion, p. 179 and Festal Menaion, p. 153.

[5] Lenten Triodion, p. 187.

[6] Lenten Triodion, p. 179.

[7] Lenten Triodion, p. 187.

[8] Lenten Triodion, p. 178

[9] Gn 3:7

[10] Lenten Triodion, p. 177

[11] 2 Cor 5:1-2 (from yesterday’s epistle reading).

[12] i.e. as a Samaritan, strangers to the Jews.

[13] Festal Menaion, p. 213 [Christmas]

[14] Lenten Triodion, p. 178

[15] Festal Menaion, p. 212.

[16] Lenten Triodion, p. 187.

[17] Festal Menaion, p. 207.

[18] Festal Menaion, p. 278.

[19] Festal Menaion, p. 193. From the Theotokos’ Entry.

[20] Lenten Triodion,  p. 179.

[21] Rm 13:12-14

[22] Festal Menaion, p. 213.

[23] Festal Menaion, pp. 201-202.

[24] Festal Menaion, p. 207.