a sermon for the Feast of St. Benedict, on Luke 10:25-37
onight we’re marking not only the 7th Sunday after Pentecost, but also the Feast of St Benedict; our forebear in this faith, whose name this community bears. According to Stanley Hauerwas, the church is a “story-formed community;” a people that derives its common identity through the stories it tells. It is one of the reasons that church communities in this tradition are named for saints; to locate our life together in the context of a story of someone who has walked before us, and about whom there might just be a story worth telling. Benedict has much to teach us about what makes for a community of disciples, but tonight I want to focus on one particular piece; the extension of hospitality.
In his rule for communities, Benedict wrote, “All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ, who said: ‘I was a stranger and you welcomed me.’” Lest the monastic communities he founded had any question as to what kind of guest Benedict might have been talking about, he went on to add that “Great care and concern are to be shown in receiving poor people and pilgrims, because in them more particularly Christ is received.”
It is hard to imagine a more appropriate gospel reading for this evening than the one that the lectionary has given us; the parable of the Good Samaritan. Ah yes, we all know that one, and we know how it all turns out. “Who is my neighbour?” the lawyer asks Jesus, and rather than giving him a nice, neat legal definition Jesus answers with the story of the Good Samaritan. The neighbour is not the priest or the Levite, both of whom, on seeing the beaten man lying in the ditch, cross to the other side of the road and keep on walking. It is the Samaritan, who not only stops to help, but goes the extra mile to make sure this poor guy is well taken care of. Three cheers for the Samaritan – for the one who the Jewish culture of the day would have dismissed as the “other,” as the enemy.
“Which of these three,” Jesus asks the lawyer, “do you think was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’” And without actually uttering the word ‘Samaritan” the lawyer answers, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ You can almost hear him sigh as he says it, knowing that he has been set up by this little story. ‘Go and do likewise,’ Jesus says.
And so begins the evolution of the term “Samaritan,” as it gradually loses all sense of meaning the despised “other” and comes to signify in our modern parlance something more like do-gooder; the stranger who comes through in the crunch. It is the stuff of the random-act-of-kindness/pay-it-forward stories that occasionally feature on the front page of our daily papers.
Think, too, of the ministries and missions that have taken the name, including Franklin Graham’s “Samaritan’s Purse” and the many, many Good Samaritan Hospitals around the world. A quick internet search reveals hospitals with this name in Los Angeles, Edmonton, Dayton, Baltimore and Portland.
But is that all that Jesus was trying to convey with his story? According to Robert Farrar Capon, we’ve often missed the main point of this parable by training the camera lens too narrowly.
The defining character – the one to whom the other three respond by being non-neighbour or neighbour – is the man who fell among thieves. The actual Christ-figure in the story, therefore, is yet another loser, yet another down-and-outer who, by just lying there in his lostness and proximity to death, is in fact the closest thing to Jesus in the parable.
That runs counter, of course, to the better part of two thousand years’ worth of interpretation, but I shall insist on it. This parable, like so many of Jesus’ most telling ones, has been egregiously misnamed. It is not primarily about the Samaritan but about the man on the ground. This means, incidentally, that Good Samaritan Hospitals have been likewise misnamed. It is the suffering, dying patients in such institutions who look most like Jesus in his redeeming work, not the doctors with their authoritarian stethoscopes around their necks. Accordingly, it would have been much less misleading to have named them Man-Who-Fell-Among-Thieves Hospitals. (Robert Farrar Capon, The Parables of Grace)
An overstatement? Maybe not.
This is the thread that Benedict is picking up on in his Rule, when he insists on receiving all visitors as Christ, and it is part of what he has in view when he points specifically to the poor and the pilgrims. He is not suggesting that such hospitality is a generally good practice, or even that it is Christ-like to do this. Rather, he’s saying that this might just be the way in which you will meet the Christ this day; beaten and bloody, hungry and thirsty, or maybe just plain inconvenient.
Oftentimes those who arrive at a monastic house seeking a room are people like you and me. We’re wanting to spend a few days on retreat, and after enjoying the space and stillness and hospitable welcome of the monastery will dutifully make a donation in return for the privilege of that time. In the life of a monastic community, though, one of the realities is that people do knock on the door looking for some sort of aid or even for a room, and sometimes these folks are not so predictably well-behaved. Such visitors can outstay an easy welcome, place all manner of demands on the community, ignore any protocol around making a donation of money or even of offering a bit of labour, and then head out down the road… only to come knocking again a month or a year later. The running joke in many Benedictine communities is that when the guest-master answers the door and sees such a guest waiting to be let in, what that monk really wants to say is “Oh Christ, it’s you.”
Yet as Joan Chittister writes in her book on the Rule of St Benedict, the force behind Benedict’s challenge to welcome each guest as Christ is this: “Come right in and disturb our perfect lives. You are the Christ for us today.”
“Go and do likewise.”
It isn’t easy to say, “Come right in and disturb our perfect lives.” It really isn’t. And we aren’t called to “do likewise” merely out of duty, or to welcome someone in for the sake of being nice. We’re called to meet the stranger, and to encounter the other, for in doing so we are being opened to an encounter with the living Christ. It is in the last and the least and the lost and the dying that still he comes to us.