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As clergy in a busy cathedral in the centre of the city, we often have opportunities to chat with visitors, some of whom are facing difficulties so serious that it’s difficult to know where to start. There can be the temptation to want to say something inspiring or do something practical. Sometimes this is warranted, but often what is required is to listen. The temptation to come across as virtuous clergy person (maybe I’m just an inexperienced curate) is present and may even get in the way of being truly virtuous, if that makes sense.
What can often go unacknowledged is the isolation that exists in these encounters. Not the isolation that comes from someone’s issues, but the isolation that exists in the accepted stance of us and them. The isolation that exists in the perception that there are some with problems and there are some who are there to solve problems. In that sense, we miss the humanity in others. This isolates us.
Sam Wells’ interpretation of the Good Samaritan is helpful here. It’s thought that we are to strive to be the good Samaritan. That is who we often identify with in the parable. Helping those who are in the ditch and struggling. But Wells makes the point that Jesus is saying that it is those he is addressing, the Israelites, who are the ones in the ditch, they just don’t see it. That God comes to them through the Samaritan, the other, those who they don’t expect, who carry with them a dignity and gifting that is not immediately obvious to those who believe they are the ones who are doing OK. We often believe that there are those who are in need (I’m not knocking social action) of our help, but we fail to see the need in our own selves, the lack that exists in our isolation from others.
Early one morning last week, I chatted with someone who has recently become homeless; I tried to be encouraging and helpful, but they talked to me about the gift of prayer and how it is helping their anxiety and worry. It was a gift to me about how I value the place of prayer and offering anxiety to God.
Wells uses the language of conversion in connection with the parable of the Good Samaritan. We (those who think we’re OK and others are not) are to go through a conversion process to perceive that stranger (those who we see as lacking) is the one whom we learn from, who possesses the gifts and relational qualities that open us up to the wonder at Christ being made known through them.
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