Jonah …. lay there fast asleep.
You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.
Our readings today contain two very well-known stories from Scripture. First, the story of how Jonah comes to be in the belly of the whale. Second, the story of Jesus sharing the parable of the good Samaritan. These two stories are so well known that they have become part of our culture, even among people with no religious background. Why, there’s even a travel club called the Good Sams.
Unfortunately, as with many oft-repeated scripture stories, we can forget to listen with our hearts as well as our minds when they’re read. We find ourselves in danger of falling “fast asleep,” just like Jonah in the hold of the ship when we hear them.
It is common in church circles to hear someone say, “I’m trying to discern the will of the Lord.” I have often found myself in the position of knowing I need to do something different with my life, but wondering what that could be. How we wish to be in Jonah’s position of having the Lord come and just tell us what to do. And yet, I suspect, that if this were to come to pass we, too, might try to flee from the Lord. There’s a saying I’ve heard that goes something like this: “I know the Lord only gives us as much as we can handle, but He must think I’m some kind of superhero if He thinks I can handle this.” This seems to sum up Jonah’s attitude. And Jonah seems to come to some sort of redemption here, because he instructs the sailors to throw him into the sea that they might live. He admits it is because of his fleeing from the Lord that they are in dire straits. This is the first step towards his fulfilling the will of the Lord.
Then there is the reading in the Gospel of the scholar who stood up to test Jesus. He essentially asks, ‘What is the will of the Lord?’ Jesus, knowing it is a test, turns the question back to the scholar. When the scholar correctly answers that it is to love God and care for each other, Jesus says, “That’s it.”
But the scholar, pressing the point, asks, “But who is my neighbor?” In the parable that follows, Jesus casts as the neighbor a member of a group considered unclean to the Hebrews. To remain spiritually pure (read “close to God”), Jews had to avoid any interaction with Samaritans. The Samaritans were considered so impure, that mere proximity would require ritual cleansing.
So when we read this parable, we need to remember that the Samaritan represents those people we would refuse to invite to our own dinner table. A member of the opposite political party? The homeless? A jihadist? When you find someone that makes you squirm in your seat to think of breaking bread with, you’ve found your Samaritan! This is the one who Jesus says is your neighbor–the one you are to love as yourself.
Talib Huff is a volunteer and presenter at Christ the King Retreat Center in Citrus Heights, California.