One of the things I enjoy about Christmas are the occasional essays written over the years reflecting on how people understand, struggle with, celebrate, or simply tolerate this Yuletide season.  The following s a wonderful essay by EB White (author of the famous “Elements of Style” and the classic children’s novels “Charlotte’s Web” and “Stuart Little”) celebrating the wonder of Christmas as seen through the essays of a grammar fiend – who knew Christmas was a relative pronoun?

EB White on Christmas and Relative Pronouns

We had a Scrooge in our office a few minutes ago, a tall, parched man, beefing about Christmas and threatening to disembowel anyone who mentioned the word. He said his work had suffered and his life had been made unbearable by the demands and conventions of the season. He said he hated wise men, whether from the East or from the West, hated red ribbon, angels, Scotch Tape, greeting cards depicting the Adoration, mincemeat, dripping candles, distant and near relatives, fir balsam, silent night, small boy sopranos, shopping lists with check marks against some of the items, and the whole yuletide stratagem, not to mention the low-lying cloud of unwritten thank-you letters hanging just above the horizon. He was in a savage state. Before he left the office, though, we saw him transfigured, just Scrooge was transfigured. The difference was that whereas Scrooge was softened by visions, our visitor was softened by the sight of a small book standing on our desk – a copy of Fowler’s “Modern English Usage.”

“Greatest collection of essays and opinions ever assembled between covers,” he shouted, “including a truly masterful study of that and which.”

He seized the book and began thumbing through it for favorite passages, slowly stuffing a couple of small gift-wrapped parcels into the pocket of his great coat.

“Listen to this,” he said in a triumphant voice, “‘Avoidance of the obvious is very well, provided that it is not itself obvious, but, if it is, all is spoilt.’  Isn’t that beautiful?”

We agreed that it was a sound and valuable sentiment, perfectly expressed. He then began a sermon on that and which, taking as his text certain paragraphs from Fowler, and warming rapidly to his theme.

“Listen to this: ‘If writers would agree to regard that as the defining relative pronoun, and which as non-defining, there would be much gain both in lucidity and in ease. Some there are who follow this principle now; but it would be idle to pretend that it is the practice of either the most or of the best writers.’”

“It was the practice of St. Matthew,” we put in hastily, “Or at any rate, he practiced it in one of the most moving sentences ever constructed: ‘And lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was.’ You’ve got to admit the which in that sentence is where it ought to be, as well as every other word. Did you ever read a more satisfactory sentence than that in your whole life?” “It’s good,” said our friend, “It’s good because there isn’t a ten-dollar word in the whole thing. And Fowler has it pegged, too. Wait a minute. Here. ‘What is to be deprecated is the notion that one can improve one’s style by using stylish words.’ See what I mean about Fowler? But let’s get back to that and which. That’s the business that really fascinates me. Fowler devotes eight pages to it. I got so excited once I had the pages photostatted. Listen to this: ‘We find in fact that the antecedent of that is often personal.’ Now, that’s very instructive.”

“Very,” we said, “And if you want an example, take Matthew 2:1 ‘… there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews?’ Imagine how that simple clause could get loused up if someone wanted to change that to who!”

“Exactly,” he said, “That’s what I mean about Fowler. What was the sentence again about the star? Say it again.”

We repeated, “And lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was.”

“You see?” he said, happily. “This is the greatest damn book ever written.” And he left our office transfigured, a man in excellent spirits. Seeing him go off merry as a gig, we realized that Christmas is where the heart is. For some it is in a roll of red ribbon, for some it is in the eyes of a young child. For our visitor, we saw clearly, Christmas was in a relative pronoun. Wherever it is, it is quite a day.

– EB White, “Relative Pronouns” from Writings from The New Yorker 1927 – 1976, edited by Rebecca M. Dale (New York: HarperCollins, 1990).

In my classes this week I have reflecting on the parable of the Good Samaritan and have to admit being a bit taken aback that what I am offering as a reading of the text seems foreign to students.  As such, I thought I would put some of these thoughts out here in the Theology Kung Fu dojo and let you reflect on this reading.

This text beginning in verse 25 of Luke 10 comes after Jesus has thanked the Father for hiding “these things” from “the wise and the intelligent” (10:21), and now a “lawyer,” whom we would think is wise and intelligent, comes to test Jesus. Will he “get the picture” or will it be hidden from him? Just before the lawyer arrives, Jesus has blessed his disciples for seeing what they have seen and hearing what they have heard. In the parable, both the religious leaders and the Samaritan “see” the man in the ditch (vv. 31, 32, 33), but who really “sees” him?

This text should not be studied in isolation from what follows — the story of Mary and Martha (10:38-42).  An interesting contrast is presented with these two texts. The lawyer asks, “What must I do? (v. 25) and he is told twice to “continually do this” (vv. 28 & 37 — present tense in Greek — all poieo – the same word used by Jesus in the call to the Lord’s supper). This emphasis on “doing” could easily become the “busy-ness” of Martha, even though “poieo” is not used of her work, but more “religious” words for “service” or “ministry” — diakonia/diakoneo both used in v. 40 (“tasks” and “do work” in NRSV). This “doing-ness” is in contrast to the “continual listening” (imperfect in Greek) of Mary (v. 39). In both stories there are unexpected actions — a Samaritan who cares and helps a Jewish man; and a woman who sits as a disciple and listens and learns. The Samaritan is told to “go and do likewise,” while Mary is praised for not going and doing. The Samaritan shows us about loving our neighbor. Mary shows us about loving our Lord. Both are vital in living our lives Christianly.

In 10:25, Luke uses a more technical term for “lawyer” (nomikos, related to the word for “law” = nomos) rather than “scribe,” who were also considered experts in the law. Six of the nine times this word for lawyer is used in the NT they are in Luke. The only time it is used previous to our text, we are told: “But by refusing to be baptized by him [John], the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected God’s purpose for themselves” (7:30). The image of “lawyers” does not improve through the gospel (11:45, 46, 52; 14:3). The reader would already be a bit suspect of a “lawyer” coming to Jesus.

We are also told that he comes “to test” (ekpeirazo) Jesus. The only other time this word is used in Luke it is Jesus’ quote to the devil: “Do not put the Lord your God to the test” (4:12).  What is this lawyer doing to Jesus? If we take seriously the image of inheriting, we may think that the question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” is ridiculous. It is akin thinking that there is something I could do to inherit some of Bill Gates’ fortune — or even the fortunes of a less wealthy (but much older) person. An inheritance is usually determined by the giver, not the receiver.

Jesus responds to the lawyer’s question with two questions of his own. “In the law (nomos), what has been written? How do you read?” I have discussions with my students at SPU where it has been easy to agree on “what has been written,” but the interpretive question, “how do you read?” or “how do you interpret?” has caused great differences. In looking up the Greek word for read (anaginosko), the lexicons suggest that reading was always done aloud and generally publicly. Jesus does this in the synagogue at Nazareth (4:16). Jesus’ second question might mean “How do you understand it?” but it may also go further and imply, “How do you interpret the law to others?”

The lawyer answers with the twice-daily repeated shema from Dt 6:5 which is the core law of the Torah — except that he adds “mind” or “understanding” to the Hebrew text “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind”– and he includes a command from Lv 19:18 about loving one’s neighbor as one’s self. (See also the “great commandment” passages: Mk 12:28-34 and Mt 22:34-40 where the question is asked by a nomikos) According to most sources, these two commandments were not combined prior to the time of Christ.

Jesus first responds with a very mainline denominational answer, “You answered rightly (orthos from which we get ortho-doxy). The lawyer knows the right answer. He has “read” the Torah rightly.  Jesus then responds with a very unPresbyterian answer, “Keep on doing (here we have the use of poieo again, this time in the present tense = denoting continuous or repeated actions) this and you will live.” Does this imply that one can inherit eternal life by “doing” the law — by loving God and neighbor as one’s self? Do works count?

The short answer is “Yes, works count” — if one is trying to “justify one’s self,” which is what the lawyer is seeking to do. First of all, by asking what he might do to inherit eternal life, and secondly, by the comment in v. 29 and the question, “Who is my neighbor?”

Fuller NT scholar Joel Green in his commentary on The Gospel of Luke interprets the question this way:

Whereas Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Plain had eliminated the lines that might be drawn between one’s “friends” and one’s “enemies,” this legal expert hopes to reintroduce this distinction. He does so by inquiring “Who is my neighbor?” — not so much to determine to whom he must show love, but so as to calculate the identity of those to whom he need not show love. By the end of the story, Jesus has transformed the focus of the original question: in fact, Jesus’ apparent attempt to answer the lawyer’s question turns out to be a negation of that question’s premise. Neighbor love knows no boundaries. [p. 426]

Another way of phrasing the question posed by the lawyer is this:  Lawyer: “What is the limit of my responsibility?”  Jesus’ answer: “Think of the sufferer, put yourself in his place, consider, who needs help from me? Then you will see that love’s demand knows no limit.”  A sin of the lawyer is that he is only concerned about himself. What I do to get myself ahead religiously? This is in contrast to the (despised) Samaritan in the parable who expresses his concern for the other person.

In this text to take literally the meaning of “neighbor,” which in Greek (as well as Hebrew and English) has the basic of meaning of “to be near”.  “Neighbors” are those people who live next door — the nearest people in the “neighborhood.”  Looking then at the three responses to the man in the ditch, the Greek verb used of the first two is antiparerchomai, (vv. 31, 32) which literally has three parts:

erchomai = to go; par(a) = by; anti = on the other side

In contrast, the verb with the third man is proserchomai (v. 34) which literally has two parts:

erchomai = to go; pros = to

Also, drawing near to someone is not the sole definiation of neighbor.  Another form of erchomai is used of the robbers “falling upon” the traveler. Both the robbers and the Samartian “draw near” to this “certain person”.  What is different is how they draw near and for what reason.   Clearly, the answer to the question, “Who is the one who comes near (or is neighbor)?” It has to be the third person. The other two widened the distance between themselves and the man in the ditch. They would not come near to him. They would not be neighbor to him. The third comes near.

“KEEP DOING LIKEWISE” — Towards a Constellation of Hospitality

Probably the most common understanding of this text is that we are to act like the Samaritan in the text, rather than the priest or the Levite. He “sees” and “has compassion” (splagchnizomai) on the needy person in the ditch. He “cares” (epimelo – v. 34) for the man in the ditch. He also asks the innkeeper to “care” (epimelo – v. 35). The Samaritan doesn’t provide all of the direct aid to the needy man. He is also described by the lawyer as the one “doing mercy” (poieo to eleos). The verbs used with the Samaritan are worth emulating: to have compassion others; to come (near) to others; to care for others; to do mercy to others. It is not enough just to know what the Law says, one must also do it. To put it another way, it is not enough just to talk about “what one believes,” but “what difference does it make in my life that I believe.”

In addition, the description of the robbers’ work on the dead man indicate that there would be no identifying marks about his status, his occupation, his race. How would the lawyer (or the Samaritan) know if this half-dead man was a neighbor or not? He is a person who needs a neighbor.

Who will respond? Who will come near?

Note also that the Samaritan acts not to receive anything for himself (like self-justification). He responds to the needs of the man in the ditch and his actions cost him — time and money.

A question that needs to be asked, especially with this interpretive approach to the parable, is “Why a Samaritan?”

The idea of being a “Good Samaritan” is so common in our culture, that most people today don’t realize that “Good Samaritan” would have been an oxymoron to a first century Jew. Briefly stated, a Samaritan is someone from Samaria. During an ancient Israeli war, most of the Jews living up north in Samaria were killed or taken into exile. However, a few Jews, who were so unimportant that nobody wanted them, were left in Samaria. Since that time, these Jews had intermarried with other races. They were considered half-breeds by the “true” Jews. They had perverted the race. They had also perverted the religion. They looked to Mt. Gerizim as the place to worship God, not Jerusalem. They interpreted the Torah differently than the southern Jews. The animosity between the Jews and Samaritans were so great that some Jews would go miles out of their way to avoid walking on Samaritan territory. Previously in Luke 9, the Samaritans had refused to welcome Jesus — the “bad” Samaritans. Note that the lawyer never says “Samaritan.” He can’t call him a “good Samaritan” (a phrase that doesn’t occur in the text). Anyway, we are still left with the question, “Why a Samaritan?”

If Jesus were just trying to communicate that we should do acts of mercy to the needy, he could have talked about the first man and the second man who passed by and the third one who stopped and cared for the half-dead man in the ditch.

Knowing that they were a priest, Levite, and Samaritan is not necessary.

If Jesus were also making a gibe against clerics, we would expect the third man to be a layman — an ordinary Jew — in contrast to the professional clergy. It is likely that Jewish hearers would have anticipated the hero to be an ordinary Jew.  If Jesus were illustrating the need to love our enemies, then the man in the ditch would have been a Samaritan who is cared for by a loving Israelite.

One answer to the question: “Why a Samaritan?” is that Christians might be able to learn about showing mercy from people who don’t profess Christ.  Can we learn about “acting Christianly” from AA for example?

This approach highlights some of the Luke’s themes: Since the man in the ditch had been stripped of anything that might identify him by social class, or perhaps even nationality; he is helped simply because he is a person in need. There should be no distinctions about whom we are to help. In addition, the help involved the use of one’s resources. For Luke, wealth is not necessarily evil, it depends upon how it is used.

Another answer to the question: “Why a Samaritan?” and the biggest challenge in this text for me is that – in the end –  we are not to identify with the Samaritan as the only person Jesus is pointing to for the listener to emulate.   This is probably the biggest challenge to most readings of the parable I think needs to be reflected upon.  A Jew would find that so distasteful that he couldn’t identify with that person. He wouldn’t want to be like the Priest or Levite in the story, so that leaves the hearer with identifying with the man in the ditch as well as see the role that the innkeeper plays in creating a space where hospitality can and does take place.

When Jesus tells the Lawyer to “do likewise” at the end of the parable, he does not exclusively identify the Samaritan.  Rather, the Lawyer says that the one who exhibits mercy is the one we are to turn to.  To that end, we have a constellation of three – the Samaritan, the one in the ditch, and the innkeeper – to point to.  The Samaritan outreach, the one in the ditch who received care and allowed himself to be cared for, and the innkeeper who open a space for reconciliation and healing to forge in grace.  To point only to the Samaritan is to support the move of most Americans who see mercy coming in a one-to-one correspondence without the assistance and support of others.  Also, if we do not see that in some capacity we are also called to be willing – like the one in the ditch – to receive support from another person… perhaps even perhaps offering the face of salvation in a form that is from a racial, cultural dislocating place and will we be willing to receive help and healing from one that is not ‘one of us’.  Lastly, we need to see the role of the innkeeper – the one who opens space for this community building moment to take place – as vital for mercy and grace to awaken and be seen in the world.  At any given time, we are called to these three roles and all are part of discipleship in the world.

The parable can be summarized as follows: to enter the kingdom one must at times get into the ditch and be served by one’s mortal enemy – Grace comes to those who cannot resist, who have no other alternative than to accept it. To enter the parable’s World, to get into the ditch, is to be so low that grace is the only alternative. The point may be so simple as this: only those who need grace can receive grace.

Think back to Jesus’ most famous sermon – the Sermon on the Mount of Matthew 5 – 7 and the Sermon on the Plain earlier in Luke chapter 6.  Jesus makes a list of all those who are blessed – Markarios – in the Kingdom of God.  Those who are hungry, those who weep, those who are poor.  What ultimately makes them blessed is that they know they need someone other than themselves to live.  They are in need – therefore they can allow someone into their lives at a deep and profound level.  This is what Jesus is pushing the lawyer with by putting the view of the Kingdom from the ditch.

A Jew who was excessively proud of his blood line and a chauvinist about his tradition would not permit a Samaritan to touch him, much less minister to him. In going from Galilee to Judea, he would cross and recross the Jordan to avoid going through Samaria. The parable therefore forces upon its hearers the question: who among you will permit himself or herself to be served by a Samaritan? Who among you is ready to open your home as the Innkeeper to allow reconciliation to happen for others? In a general way it can be implied that only those who have nothing to lose by so doing can afford to do so. But note that the victim in the ditch is given only a passive role in the story. Permission to be served by the Samaritan is thus inability to resist. Put differently, all who are truly victims, truly disinherited, have no choice but to give themselves up to mercy. The despised half-breed has become the instrument of grace: as listeners, we should choke on the irony.

The parable of the Good Samaritan may be reduced to two propositions:

– In the Kingdom of God mercy comes only to those who have no right to expect it and who cannot resist it when it comes.

– Mercy always comes from the quarter from which one does not and cannot expect it.

One might attempt to reduce these two sentences to one:

In the kingdom… mercy is always a surprise.

The problems with the lawyer is that he couldn’t see God as possibily coming in the form of that whom he perceives to be his enemy, or that he was so weak as to need saving, or would even be called to offer hospitality to those who would be beyond saving. He hadn’t recognized the depth of his own sinfulness. (He wants to justify himself and probably had a bit of pride that comes along with that.) He was too strong and healthy. He assumes that he has the ability to do something to inherit eternal life. He assumes that he can do something to justify himself. He is not helpless in the ditch. He doesn’t need God’s grace.

When the lawyer realizes that “the one who had mercy on him” is the true neighbor – Jesus tells him to “Go and do – pioete – likewise”.   Don’t merely live your life as a checklist of the Law, rather – live your life as poetry – with passion and depth and humility as the unique, unrepeatable miracles you are.  This challenge, to live with a view from the ditch – that although we have been battered and bruised in this life there is One who offers compassion – but are we ready to accept all that this entails?

Jesus will draw this together as he challenges his disciples, on the night that He was sentenced to death, to remember him by “doing – poiete – this in remembrance of Him.”

I am currently working on an article in response to Charles Taliaferro and Stewart Goertz’s article last year in Christian Scholars Review entitled “The Prospect of Christian Materialism” (volume XXXVII, number 3, Spring 2008) which is a chapter in a book I am completing entitled “The Kenotic Self”.

In the article Taliaferro and Goertz assert that ‘most, if not all, orthodox Christian theologians of the early church were anthropological dualists… [and] God has allowed dualism to dominate Christian anthropology for two millennia’  Hence, it is relevant to make clear that while contemporary Christian materialists advocate going materialistic, we support remaining dualistic.’

Well… I disagree on a number of fronts with their assertion and am arguing in my article for what I am terming a return to ‘dynamic incarnationalism’ in light of the Gospel accounts and testimony of the Church.  To assert dualism as a ‘fundamental’ category of Christian theology seems pretty spurious to me. What I am terming ‘dynamic incarnationalism’ builds on the dialectical materialism found in post-Marxist critique yet still acknowledges the mystical Divine amidst imminence.  This builds on Žižek’s dialectical materialism which is essentially a Marxist commentary (from Engels’ Dialectics of Human Nature and Marx’s Das Kaptial through to  Feuerbach’s Essence of Christianity) framed by Hegel’s continually reforming dialectic. The problem with materialism for many Christians is a view that it creates a hegemonic essentialism that it purports to free us from – shifting one form of hubris for yet another.  That said, by acknowledging the dynamic nature of materialism and the multi-valiant nature of imminent existence (read: the nature of the Church as the body of Christ), we can expand and deepen the material life without leaving behind the spiritual.   In dynamic incarnationalism we can see truth as Heidegger did – a work/poiete ( Luke 22:19) of  aletheia – something worked out in the midst of  immanent human history passing through various dynamic phases, which includes moment of error or apophatic negativity that provide counterpoints as essential component of truth.  As Marx’s dialectical materialism argues and is deepened in Foucault’s critique against Hegel’s Geist-centric idealism,  our real life existence/Existenz is not actualized in a transcendent spiritualism (whether it is an idealized Geist or a temporally localized Zeitgeist) in exclusive polarity to the material existence; rather the Spirit (paraclete) is immersed and bound fully within the material – a radical ‘Emmanuelism’ if you will.

As a Presbyterian and therefore Reformed by tradition, I realize that this puts me at odds with the recent trend of Neo-Calvinist views that argues for a radically transcendent God as “wholly other” to the created order.  In my article I dialogue with Žižek in concert  with the Gospel of John as a via media in this debate. For Žižek, the turn toward dialectical materialism asserts that true (alethia) existence is not a disconnected mix of things isolated from each other, but an integral holistic presense that freely offers particularity.  Rather, all of nature is in a state of constant motion and dynamic deepening akin to Goethe view of morphology and Engel’s view of nature  as ‘becoming’ (“All nature, from the smallest thing to the biggest, from a grain of sand to the sun, from the protista to man, is in a constant state of coming into being and going out of being, in a constant flux, in a ceaseless state of movement and change.” Friedrich Engels, Dialectics of Nature).  Additionally, we have much to learn in theoloogy as to the deepening of existense in Christ as a process whereby insignificant and imperceptible quantitative changes lead to fundamental, qualitative changes – see John 15 for the immeshed life of the body as a branch engraphed into the Vine. This is both catalytic and still point in a turning world – think of Acts 22 and Paul’s testimony of the Damascus Road.

My question: Why would the church choose dualism as a mode of being when intimacy – aka ‘materialism’ after Žižek or ‘dynamic incarnationalism’ for the Devout – is what we ultimately are seeking?

I will end with Žižek’s bold statement from The Puppet and the Dwarf:

“What we are getting today is a kind of suspended belief, a belief that can thrive only as today is a kind of “suspended” belief, a belief that can thrive only as not fully (publicly) admitted, as a private obscene secret.  Against this attitude, one should insist even more emphatically that the “vulgar” question “Do you really believe or not?” matters – more than ever, perhaps.  My claim here is not merely that I am a materialist through and through, and that the subversive kernel of Christianity is accessible also to a materialist approach; my thesis is much stronger: this kernel is accessible only to a materialist approach – and vice versa: to become a true dialectical materialist, one should go through the Christian experience. (emphasis mine)

Couldn’t agree more…