The practice of encounter

Luke 10:25-37

The story of the Good Samaritan brings us face to face with the radical metamorphosis Jesus desires for the world. It is not an admonition to help those less fortunate than we are, though helping the poor and needy is a very good starting point – an essential beginning.

Jesus first describes two failures to love. A priest and a Levite, hurrying by on important business, see someone in trouble. This is a person who would probably think of them as neighbors – one of their own people, probably wealthy enough to have been robbed. And yet they do not help him. They stay away from any contact, passing on the other side of the road. He’s naked, which is an extremely shameful state in which to be. But from their perspective, the more important drawback is that he’s bleeding, and if he touches them, they’ll be rendered ritually unclean and unable to attend to the important business in which they are involved that day. Their jobs have to do with the spiritual lives of their communities, a ministry to hundreds. They must keep themselves from contamination; they have duties from which they cannot escape. Too bad for the guy in the ditch, but they cannot be of assistance there. That would keep them from their service to the greater number who are absolutely depending on them.

We understand by this story what Jesus thinks about being a functionary. In service to the institutions of the world, even religious ones, duty must take second place. Institutions were made to serve people, not the other way around. Seeing and responding to the individual in front of you – loving your neighbor – comes first.

In the understanding of Jesus’ time the Samaritan is emphatically not the neighbor of the guy in the ditch. He’s of a different people, a group for whom Jesus’ listeners felt more than a little antipathy. That he helps in the way he does crosses every social barrier and disrupts every sense of propriety. The guy in the ditch probably would be mortified to have to be beholden to such a benefactor. And yet the Samaritan does help in a substantial way.

It’s not the blood tie, the living on the same block, the belonging to the same church or club or community that makes for a good neighbor. It’s the willingness both to encounter and to be available to whoever is in front of us in the moment, human to human. Jesus answer to the lawyer is circular. The Law says, “love your neighbor as yourself.” Who is my neighbor? Anyone I love as I love myself.

Following the Law to love is a spiritual practice. Barbara Brown Taylor, in her book An Altar in the World (Harper One, 2009), calls this the Practice of Encountering Others, saying, “the hardest spiritual work in the world is to love the neighbor as the self – to encounter another human being not as someone you can use, change, fix, help, save, enroll, convince or control, but simply as someone who can spring you from the prison of yourself, if you will allow it.” (pg.93)

The word “encounter” is quite apt. “Encountering” means coming face to face with something unexpected and possibly difficult and dangerous. The word has its roots in the notion of a meeting of adversaries. Neighbors are not necessarily kind or friendly. They are just there, in front of us. The kingdom of heaven is built of those moments when we can value them as we value our own person.

Beloved God, as I make my way through the world today following the dictates of duty, open my heart to those I meet and make me available to them, whatever the cost. In Christ’s name I pray. Amen.

Laurie Gudim is a religious iconographer and liturgical artist, a writer and lay preacher living in Fort Collins, CO. She will soon manage a website for the Diocese of Colorado highlighting congregations’ creative ministries.

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