Fleming Rutledge is a preacher and teacher known throughout the mainline Protestant denominations of the US, Canada and parts of the UK. She is the author of seven books and has received a grant from the Louisville Foundation to complete a book about the meaning of the Crucifixion.
One of the first women to be ordained to the priesthood of the Episcopal Church, she served for fourteen years on the clergy staff at Grace Church on Lower Broadway at Tenth Street, New York City.
Fleming and her husband celebrated their 50th anniversary in 2009 and have two daughters and two grandchildren. She is a native of Franklin, Virginia.
The Good Samaritan
Bach Vespers October 23, 2011
A Samaritan’s Heart
Tonight’s cantata is based on the parable which is probably the best known of all Jesus’ parables, that of the Good Samaritan. The term “Good Samaritan” has passed over into everyday language, so that even people who don’t know anything about the Bible know that a person who pulls over to the side of the road to help a stranded traveler is called a “good Samaritan.” So people think they know something about what the parable means. It’s generally called into service to teach that we should always be responsive to the needs of others. However, there is much more to it than that. There’s a subtext in the parable which Bach understood and built into his cantata.
Jesus’ parables were never morality lessons. They were often directed against the religious authorities and they caused intense hostility. This one is told as a response to a “lawyer”—not a lawyer in our sense of the word, but one who was an expert in the religious law, the Torah. In order “to test Jesus” (Luke 10:25), this lawyer asks, “How shall I gain eternal life?” This is utterly insincere, since he already knows the answer. Jesus responds—as usual—with a counter-question: “What do you read in the Torah?” The legal expert has no choice but to quote the Summary of the Law from Deuteronomy. The Summary of the Law is the text of the first chorus of tonight’s cantata. In this way Bach affirms the Torah and Jesus’ adherence to it: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.”
Jesus responds, “You are correct; do this, and you will live.” This leaves the lawyer looking foolish, because Jesus has turned the tables on him. His attempt to embarrass the strange and challenging new rabbi has left him at a disadvantage. So, “wanting to justify himself” (Luke 10:29), he says, “Well, who is my neighbor?”
The answer that Jesus gives is to tell the story of the Good Samaritan. He describes a traveler who has been attacked by bandits and left by the road half dead. Along come two highly placed personages in the community, a priest and a Levite. Both of them pass by on the other side of the road. Since there are priests and Levites listening to this, the parable is already moving in a dangerous direction.
Now here comes a third person. Everybody knows that stories come in threes—didja hear the one about the minister, the priest, and the rabbi? the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker? So everybody listening to this story would expect Jesus to tell about the priest, the Levite and the scribe—in other words, three people in the same category. Otherwise the story is thrown wildly out of balance, as if you were to say a soldier, a sailor—and a terrorist; or a Scotsman, an Irishman, and—a child molester.
A priest, a Levite—and aSamaritan? This is truly shocking. I’m trying to give you some idea of how startling and offensive it is that the expected third person in the story turns out to be a Samaritan. The relations between the Samaritans and the Jews had been terrible for centuries, but they were worse in Jesus’ time than ever. Within recent memory, a group of Samaritans had gone into the temple court at midnight during Passover and defiled it by littering it with human remains. This gives you some idea of the mutual loathing between the two groups.
So it is precisely the despised Samaritan who stops and ministers to the battered victim. Interpreters have always been impressed with the details of the Good Samaritan’s painstaking care—using his own cloth for a bandage, pouring out his own oil and wine, putting the wounded man on his own donkey, paying an innkeeper to let the man stay and recuperate.
Let’s try to imagine the effect that this story is having on our friend the learned Torah scholar. Jesus has taken his two standard questions and turned them inside out. The lawyer is struggling to recover his lost dignity, because there are numerous people standing around listening. Jesus then asks a very non-standard question: “Who do you think proved to be the neighbor to the man who fell among thieves?” The teacher of the Law can’t even bring himself to say the word “Samaritan” so he says, “The one who had mercy on him.” And Jesus says, “Go and do thou likewise.”
Now the easiest way of interpreting this parable is to read it as ethical instruction. The priest and Levite are bad, the Samaritan is good, and we’re supposed to go out and be like the Samaritan. But Jesus was doing something much more radical than that. He has unmasked the pretensions of the priests, the Levites, and the teachers of the law. This is not a lesson about doing good works. The parable is deliberately offensive. Prior to this, he has already upset some of the religious hierarchy; now, with this parable, he is taking on many more. When Jesus set highly placed religious figures over against a despised Samaritan, he was taking one more step toward crucifixion
So—what is the subtext of the story that Bach understands so well? The history of interpretation in the church yields remarkable results. Jesus himself is in his own story. He is in the story in two ways. First, he is to some degree the wounded man. He himself will become a bloodied, perishing victim beside the road, entirely helpless, without anyone to come to his aid. The whole world will pass by on that road, as the book of Lamentations prophesies: “Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by? Behold and see if there be any sorrow like unto my sorrow” (Lamentations 1:12). But second—here is the surprise—Jesus is the Samaritan. He—the despised outcast—heis the one who stoops down to help the helpless, he is the one who has come to defend the defenseless; he is the one who steps down from a high place to lift up the one who has fallen.
Therefore, when the tenor sings of a “Samaritan’s heart”—notice that wonderful German compound wordSamaritaherz—he is praying to have a heart more like that of Jesus Christ himself. He is praying to the Father of Jesus: “Grant me…my God! the heart of a Samaritan (Samariterherz), that I likewise (zuglich,i.e. like Christ himself) love my neighbor and….that I not pass him by nor abandon him in his need.” St. Paul speaks of “the mind of Christ.” This is given to believers by the grace of God. alone That is what the cantata affirms. The singers respond to the gospel story in several different ways, each one from his or her own particular circumstances.
When the cantata begins, you will notice that the opening chorus very powerfully presents the Summary of the Law. I wish I could take the time to go through a full analysis of Bach’s theology and the way he weaves it into the music. The law is founded upon the love of God; that is the grounding for the love of the neighbor. The emphatic piling up of phrases toward the conclusion emphasizes the total claim that God has upon us, that we should love him with “whole heart, with complete soul, with all your might, and with entire mind…”.
The bass responds to this with robust affirmation: “So must it be! God will have the heart for himself alone.” This is followed by a paradox which is central to Christian faith, and was particularly well explained by Martin Luther. God will have us! That is his will and cannot be thwarted. But paradoxically, we must choose him. The relationship between God’s will and human will is one in which the human being becomes most free precisely as he or she submits to the prior will of God. In the case of the parable of the good Samaritan, this means that we find our true freedom in placing ourselves at the service of others. This is possible, as the bass recitative concludes, “only by God’s grace and goodness.”
The soprano and the tenor then both offer prayers to God to be shaped by him so that they will be filled with his love and thereby enabled to follow the way of the Samaritan. These can be our prayers also, for by the grace of God the Samaritan’s heart can be created in us. All of this expresses Bach’s profound understanding that we can only “do likewise” when our hearts are moved by God. In the words from the bass recitative, this is accomplished by the igniting of God’s Holy Spirit. This is an explicit rejection of the idea that we ourselves are autonomous beings capable of doing good works apart from the prior grace of God. If there were any doubt about this, the next aria by the alto freely acknowledges that when we are left to ourselves, even our good works are “vastly imperfect” and that we “fail in capability.”
This very night on your way home you will probably pass a beggar. Even if we drop a dollar bill into the bucket—even if we drop a hundred—we will still have failed to be the good Samaritan, won’t we? “Vast imperfection” is the right term for our attempts to do good deeds. But as the cantata ends, as always, with a chorale, the whole choir of voices offers up a prayer of confident trust and faith, that the Lord will indeed abide with us through the faith he gives us, and that he will strengthen it and make it truly “fruitful in good works…active in love, exercising joy and forbearance henceforth to serve my neighbor.”
We cannot do everything. We cannot minister to everyone in this city. But everyone can do something, and there is someone who needs you. And each of us can take home tonight the promise that God will create in us the heart of a Samaritan, and we can be sure that, as the letter to the Ephesians promises, “We are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” Amen.
You shall love God, your Lord, with whole heart, with complete soul,
with all your might (Kräften) and with entire mind,
And your neighbor (Nächsten) as yourself.
(und deinen Nächsten als dich selbst)
So must it be!
God will have the heart for himself alone.
One must choosethe Lord with complete soul, out of desire
And no longer take delight except in that whichignites the mind through his Spirit,
Foronly by his grace and goodness(Huld und Güte)do we ever truly have assurance
My God, I love you from the heart,
My whole life adheres to you.
Let me follow your commandments
And be so aflamed in love
That I might love you eternally.
Grant me thereby, my God! the heart of a Samaritan (Samariterherz)
that I likewise (zuglich) love my neighbor and that I also grieve for him in his pain,
that I not pass him by nor abandon him in his need.
Grant that I abhor (hasse) self-love (Eigenliebe)
Thus one day you will bestow on me a life of joy(Freudenleben)
Which I do wish, yet only out of grace.
Alas, there resides within my love vast imperfection (Unvolldommenheit)!
Though I often measure my will by what God wants me to achieve,
I indeed fail in capability (Möglichkeit)(it is beyond my power)
Lord, abide in me through faith,
Let it ever strengthen
That it be fruitful forever and ever
And be rich in good works,
That it be active in love,
Exercising joy and forbearance
Henceforth to serve my neighbor.