Tonight we mark the Feast of St Benedict, and rather serendipitously the lectionary has us reading the parable of the Good Samaritan; a teaching that has deep resonance in the Benedictine vision. Of course the lectionary also has us reading from the writings of the decidedly hard-nosed prophet Amos, and it is one of those passages that kind of makes you gulp when the reader ends with “The Word of the Lord”. “You yourself shall die in an unclean land,” Jackson read, “and Israel shall surely go into exile away from its land.” “The Word of the Lord.” “Thanks be to God…” I think?
But yes, part of what scripture does is unsettle and challenge. The theologian Reinhold Niebuhr famously quipped that the task of Christian proclamation is to “comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable,” and when you think about it that’s not a bad summary of what Jesus did in the course of his ministry. While there may not be a whole lot of comfort visible in the words of Amos, he does have the afflicted and the downtrodden very much in view throughout his writings. God has awakened him to some cold realities that have set into Israel’s life: social, economic, and political injustice. Israel has sold the righteous for silver, the needy for a pair of sandals he writes earlier in the book. (Amos 2:6) The very shoes you’re wearing, he is saying to the privileged elite, come at the cost of the poverty of others. This is no longer the Israel of God. It is a pale image and a corruption.
And so Amos speaks, and his message is directed to the very pinnacle of power, to King Jeroboam himself. Amaziah the priest catches word of it, and tries to silence Amos. Go back home to Judah, he says, and prophesy there. Leave us be.
But no, Amos says. No, I can’t not speak. “Then Amos answered Amaziah, ‘I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees, and the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, “Go, prophesy to my people Israel.” Did you catch a sense that Amos came to this calling almost reluctantly? I’m not a member of a prophets’ guild, nor the son of a prophet. For heaven’s sake, I’m herdsman… but the Lord called me. “Go, prophesy to my people Israel.” And so with his eyes opened to the hard truth of what Israel has become, Amos speaks.
St Benedict was born in what is now Italy, sometime around 480. The son of a Roman noble, as a young man he had gone to Rome to further his education, but was evidently quite troubled by what he found there. These were the dying days of the empire, and the city that was the centre of Western Christianity was in a state of serious social decay. Just as the eyes of Amos had been opened to see just how far Israel had fallen from its calling, Benedict was awakened to the decay of a dying empire and to the thinness of its Christian vision. The young man found that he simply couldn’t stay in that city—that he craved a deeper life—and so he left to pursue solitude in the mountains.
But here’s the funny thing. Others had evidently been wakened by Benedict’s restlessness in that the decaying city with its domesticated Christianity, and soon rather than being in solitude in the mountains he was surrounded by others who were also thirsty for more. Just as Amos might have been a herdsman who had been surprised to find himself called into a hard prophetic vocation, Benedict would have been equally surprised to find himself called to shepherd a community.
That first community, by the way, was rather a failure. In an account related by St Gregory the Great, some members of the community even tried to poison Benedict, they were so unhappy with his leadership. Whether or not that part of Gregory’s account is historically true, there is something striking in knowing that that Benedict’s first attempts at forming a community failed. Even more striking, though, is that he didn’t give up—that the need was still there—and in time he would write his great Rule for community life. The Rule offered an alternate path to the decaying empire; one in which balance trumped excess and fresh life overcame decay. And while the Rule comes out of a world very different from our own, communities around the world continue to take from it their vision and their shape.
One of the Rule’s best-known and best-loved teachings is on hospitality. “Let all guests who arrive be received like Christ,” Benedict instructs, “for He is going to say, ‘I came as a guest, and you received Me.’” Open your eyes, he’s telling them, and recognize that those who come to your doors—whatever their status, their condition, their need—are to be welcomed as Christ himself.
N.T. Wright calls the parable of the Good Samaritan “Jesus’ major re-evaluation of Israel’s boundary markers.” “Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,’ he said, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’” Jesus answers this question with another question. “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” to which the lawyer rightly responds with “Love the Lord your God… and your neighbour as yourself.” So do that, Jesus says, just do it. Yet the lawyer wants to talk specifics, and so asks “And who is my neighbour?”
I hardly have to rehearse the details of Jesus’ answering parable. The neighbour of the man who had been attacked on the road was neither the priest nor the Levite, but rather the Samaritan; the socially and culturally despised “other.” The lawyer can’t but admit that this is the case, that it is “the one who showed him mercy” who is the neighbour. “Go and do likewise,” which really does mark the expansion of Israel’s borders. You must now see with different eyes, he’s telling the man. You simply cannot and must not dismiss someone because of their Samaritan ethnicity or religion. And of course we could spin that list out, couldn’t we? Ethnicity, religion, skin colour, sexual orientation, gender, status, age, mental and emotional health, weight… yes, weight; people who struggle with weight often feel that one of the real socially acceptable prejudices is against people who are deemed “fat.”
Who is my neighbour? Everyone. But what if they aren’t acting neighbourly? Because we can all tell stories of people who have breached all lines of neighbourliness. And I suspect that every Jew and every Samaritan in Jesus’ time could tell similar stories about how the “other” had acted toward them. No excuse, Jesus would say. The boundaries have expanded.
And now think of what Amos might say if he were asked that same question by King Jeroboam or by the priest Amaziah. Your neighbour is the needy person whose life you are trampling so you can buy yet another pair of shoes. Your neighbour is the one you step over or step upon as you seek to fill your own insatiable needs.
And in Benedict’s vision every neighbour is also Christ. His vision, of course, builds on Jesus own teachings from Matthew 25, that just as you fed or clothed or visited or aided the least of his people, you did it to Jesus himself.
This is more than just being more charitable or doing more good deeds, right? This is all a fundamental shift in how we see the other, the outsider, the stranger, even the hardest to love sorts of people.
May God grant us those new eyes, and the courage to act when we see. And when we seem called out on what seems an unlikely calling, may we have the courage to follow.