Motives in the Bible: A Reflection on the Lectionary Readings for 11 July 2010

Revised Common Lectionary Page for 11 July 2010 (Year C, 7th Sunday after Pentecost)

Amos 7:7-17 and Psalm 82Deuteronomy 30:9-14 and Psalm 25:1-10Colossians 1:1-14Luke 10:25-37

This week’s gospel reading was one of our lessons at VBS this year, and I can still remember not only my own role in the opening-assembly skit but also the things I did to try to make the story connect with a room full of third- and fourth-graders.  May God have mercy on us who try to teach children the Bible.

A strange thing happens when teachers teach this text, and I’ll admit that I wasn’t immune to the strangeness: although the text makes no comment as to what motivated the priest or the Levite, we all become amateur paleo-sociologists when the moment comes.  Among the reasons that I’ve put into the minds of the first two passers-by are fear for further crime, anxieties about temple purity, apathy, and preoccupation with the business of Jerusalem.  I’ve heard other preachers and teachers do the same, and in all of those cases (my own teaching especially), I wonder why a text so spare in psychological details leads so many to play mind-reader.

What’s even stranger is that the same impulse rarely if ever occurs to me when I get to the Samaritan: when I’ve taught this story, both to adults and to third-graders, my descriptions remain almost entirely active: he stops, he tends, he gives, he conserves.  Where I needed to assert reasons for the neglect of the religious officials, I can simply name the act of the neighbor.

At first I think this might have to do with the plurality of the negligent and the singularity of the neighborly, but I can’t even remember which motivation I assigned to the priest and which to the Levite three weeks ago at VBS, much less years ago last time I taught it.  Moreover, the motivations are susceptible to commutation as well as distribution: I could assign either motive to either passer-by, or I could assign the same to both, and nothing would change.

Perhaps that’s part of the genius of this story: whereas the double-minded man is subject to the rather boring processes of motive-analysis, the pure of heart lives with such a close connection between thought, sentiment, and will that simply naming the action makes him a neighbor.  Whether he was conflicted about the moment isn’t all that interesting to me; what fascinates me is that, though his social markers were foreigner and heretic, his moral identity is neighbor.  “To be a neighbor” thus assumes the singularity of intent and will that Jesus spoke on earlier when he described the pure in heart who sees God.  And notably, Jesus seems entirely content to assume that to think and to feel and to see are implied, perhaps even contained, in to go and to do.

May our own goings and doings make us neighbors.

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