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This parable of the Good Samaritan is assigned always on a Sunday near the beginning of Advent. This year, that Sunday happens to be the first day of Advent. The parable is like the angels calling us with the shepherds to the Cave of Bethlehem to behold the beauty of Christmas; but, this parable of the Good Samaritan is also a theme of Great Lent. Stepping into the Cave of Bethlehem is like stepping into the narthex of the Church that opens onto the mystery of the LORD’s Cross as onto the nave, and all the way into the LORD’s Tomb as into the sanctuary of the LORD’s Sabbath Rest.
The external and visible forms of the Church’s worship make the invisible mysteries of the Spirit visible. By participating in them, we can lay hold of the invisible Spirit with our eyes, our ears, our hands, even our nose and our mouth; and thus, with our five senses, open our soul to receive the invisible Spirit of God, just as the Virgin, then the Cave, and then the Tomb received the Body of the Savior into their ‘heart’.
Our LORD gives this parable in answer to the lawyer’s question, who is my neighbor to whom I apply the two great commandments of the Law so that I may inherit eternal life? ‘To inherit’ in the OT refers to inheriting the Land promised by God to Abraham and his descendants. That the lawyer asks about inheriting eternal life shows he has discerned that the ‘Land of Israel’s Inheritance’ has a spiritual meaning (cf. Heb 9.15). If the Land God calls Israel to inherit is ‘eternal life,’ then it is a symbol of the Holy Spirit; for, He is Life and the Giver of Life (Jn 1.3). The lawyer’s question, then, is: what must I do to receive the Spirit of God and inherit eternal life? And, when he presses Jesus to explain, who is my neighbor, in order to ‘justify himself,’ I take this to mean that the lawyer sincerely wanted to know who his neighbor was so that he could set to work to ‘inherit eternal life;’ for, to live eternally is what it means to be justified—as Wisdom says, ‘Righteousness is immortal.’ (Wisd 1.15)
Thus, the LORD begins: “A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho.” This would put the man in the ‘plains of Moab’ near Jericho (Num 22.1). With this, the LORD has effectively recapitulated the whole history of Israel and all the sayings of the prophets.
The Moabites were descended from the incestuous union of Lot with his eldest daughter. This took place after Lot and his two daughters fled Sodom and Gomorrah to escape their fiery destruction because of the abominations of their sexual immorality. Lot’s daughters schemed to ply their father with wine so that he would lie with them, because, living in a cave with no one else around, they had no other man by whom they could conceive children to preserve the seed of their father. (Gn 19.32-37) The plains of Moab, near Jericho, then, are colored by this sordid history of sexual immorality that goes all the way back to Sodom and Gomorrah.
In these same plains of Moab near Jericho (Nu 25), in the days of Moses, as the children of Israel were making ready to enter and ‘inherit’ the Land, more than 24,000 of them, it says (Num 25.9), fell into whoredom with the ‘daughters of Moab.’ In Holy Scripture, harlotry is a symbol for idolatry, as it says here: ‘The people began to commit whoredom with the daughters of Moab. They called the people to the sacrifices of their gods; and the people ate and bowed down to their gods, and Israel joined himself to Baalpeor, and the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel.’ (Num 25.1-3) The essence of idolatry, following St Paul, is covetousness or greed (Col 3.5), the opposite of the ‘two great commandments’ of the Law.
The man who went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, then, is Israel, always provoking the LORD with the whoredom of her idolatry and falling away from the two great commandments in order to join herself in greed and self-love to her ‘lovers’, her idols. As Israel collectively, this man is both my ‘fellow Israelite,’ my ‘neighbor,’ and me individually. Pondering this, one is led to cry out with the prophet, Isaiah, when he saw the LORD high and lifted up: “Woe is me! I am a man of unclean lips dwelling among a people of unclean lips!’ (Isa 6.1ff.)
So, even before the LORD has gone past the opening sentence of his parable, he is teaching those who have ears to hear to say: ‘I am the first of all sinners.’ I am this man who went down from Jerusalem, away from God, to Jericho, into whoredom with the idols of my neighbors.
The parable continues: “Thieves fell upon this man.” These are the spirits that proceed from out of the idols I join myself to. For, like thieves, the spirits of idolatry fall upon us (cf. Eze 16.15ff), strip us of our clothing, our innocence, our peace, our joy. They scourge us with confusion, fear, anger, hatred, loneliness. They leave us half dead in despair and sorrow to the point of suicidal depression. For, ‘idols’ of wood, stone, and precious metals are but the visible form of the spirits of the air (cf. Eph 2.2) we call the passions: lust, gluttony, anger, pride and the rest. Following Isaiah, idolatry inflicts on us wounds, ‘traumas’ in Greek, from our head to our feet, leaving our soul traumatized with an ‘incurable wound’ of such a nature that it only compounds our misery. Drawing from Revelation, we want to die to escape our inner misery, but death flees from us. What is this if it isn’t to be left by the side of the road ‘half-dead’?
Here also, in the plains of Moab near Jericho, the last king of Judah, Zedekiah, met his end at the hands of the king of Babylon. Zedekiah had been made a puppet king by the King of Babylon, the visible manifestation of Zedekiah’s idolatry, for Babylon is the biblical image of a harlot, and so of idolatry. Hoping to escape Nebuchadnezzar, Zedekiah fled Jerusalem. He went down from Jerusalem to Jericho; and there, it says, he was seized by the Chaldean army, the ‘thieves’ of this morning’s Gospel. They bound him and slew his sons before his eyes. Then they put out his eyes and bound him and carried him off to Babylon (2 Kgs 25.1-7), a vivid image of the ‘incurable sore’ inflicted on the soul by idolatry.
The priest and the Levite in the parable this morning are the sacrificial cultus of the OT given to Moses on Mt Sinai as a ‘pattern’ of the heavenly worship (Ex 25.9). The OT cultus was holy, but it was only the shadow of the Really Real, the LORD Jesus Christ (cf. Heb 10.1). They did not pass by the man lying half-dead because they were indifferent to him; with the blood of bulls and goats, the OT cultus simply was unable to get to the fallen man to cure his heart of his incurable wounds (Heb 9.13, 10.4ff., Eph 2.1). The Samaritan is the LORD God incarnate, the New Covenant of whom the Old was but the shadow, whose blood, because it was the blood of God, does have the power to reach the human heart to cure it of the incurable wound inflicted on it by idolatry (Heb 9.11-15). The LORD comes as a Samaritan (cf. Jn 8.48), an ‘outsider’, clothed not with stone tablets of the law or with the blood of bulls and goats but in our own human nature, His donkey. He comes to us from His Cross. From the Blood of His own wounds, He pours out on us the wine and oil of the Church’s holy mysteries, and so by His wounds, our incurable wound is healed, and we are raised from death to life.
Spiritually, then, this spot at the side of the road in the plains of Moab near Jericho, where we fell to the thieves of our idolatry, is the Cave of Bethlehem. And, it so happens that it was here also that Barlaam was overpowered by the LORD’s Angel to prophecy the coming of ‘Christmas’: “I see Him but not now. I behold Him, but not nigh. There shall come a star out of Jacob, a Scepter shall rise out of Israel, and shall smite the corners of Moab.” (Num 24.17)
The Cave of Bethlehem opens onto the Tomb of the LORD’s Pascha, and so it opens onto our heart where we are traumatized, half-dead, from the incurable wounds of our idolatry. We make our way to the Cave of Bethlehem, and then to the Tomb by making our way inward to the place in our soul where we are traumatized, wounded, lying by the side of the road half dead. We ‘inherit’ eternal life as we receive the Holy Mysteries of the Church first with our five senses, and then in our heart to live and walk in them, and not in the spirits of the world that are active in the children of disobedience (Eph 2.2).
Is it not clear that it is from a heart that is receiving the Heavenly Spirit of the Church’s Holy Mysteries in repentance and joy that we ‘go and do likewise’? The glory of Christmas is the meaning of Pascha: “By His wounds we are healed!” By uniting ourselves to Christ in the likeness of His death, by participating with Him in His death through the taking up of our own cross to put to death all that is earthly in us in our union with Christ—this is the mystery of the ‘Inn’ and the Innkeepers—we become heirs of eternal life, and we are made able to go forth to pour out the oil and wine of Christ’s Holy Spirit, the ‘visceral’ compassion of God, on our neighbor, even on our enemies and on those who hate us. Glory to Jesus Christ! Amen!