What does God look like? Children ask this with equal measures of innocence and expectation. What a disappointment to learn that God is invisible! If we ask Google, we get a wide variety of images: mostly white beards and triangles, traditional and modern images of Jesus and, not surprisingly, almost no female figures.
In the hymn he placed in the letter to the Colossians, Paul depicts Christ as the image of the invisible God. This hymn reminds us of Teilhard de Chardin, who saw Christ as the origin and destiny of the universe, the God who became incarnate and the human who assumed divinity, the one by whom all creation was born and in whom all will be united. Paul and Teilhard are mystical brothers who amaze us. By following their example, we could spend a lifetime assimilating it and letting it transform our inner selves.
On days when we need a story instead of poetry, we can turn to the first three gospels. Today, Luke tells one of Jesus’ most famous parables, one that never ceases to challenge us. It calls us to take a fresh look at the maligned Samaritans of our time.
Jesus’ challenge becomes sharp if we let the Samaritan represent not only the marginalized people, but especially the people with whom we most vehemently disagree. Can you imagine what it would have been like to be desperate and rescued by someone “like that”? Needing the person we denigrate is the most uncomfortable image in history.
When we imagine ourselves in the script, we might have a little more sympathy for those who have been there. We’ve all heard stories of entrapment where someone fakes the need to ambush (or find a way to chase) the helper. Anyone traveling alone would be prudent to avoid such a potential pitfall.
Instead of heeding it, our good Samaritan freely offered his service and goods to replace what had been stolen from the victim.
We know all of this. Now suppose we listen to the parable in response to the question we started with. What if we listen as if Jesus is using this parable not just to describe who a neighbor is, but to paint a picture of God? A self-portrait? What would it mean to envision God as the Samaritan?
Seeing the plight of the victim, the Samaritan abandoned his plans, sacrificed his own provisions to heal the other’s wounds, turned his pack animal into an ambulance, and finally tasked someone else with continuing to s take care of the victim. Who better than this Samaritan gives us a portrait of Christ, the incarnate and compassionate Word of God?
From this perspective, we have the story of a person whose human dignity was trampled on in every possible way: stripped of their possessions, stripped naked and left for dead. Responding to this victim inevitably involves risk. On the one hand, there is the risk of an ambush, turning the so-called assistant into a real victim. On the other hand, the movement from helper to victim inevitably involves putting all that he is and all that he has at the service of the other.
In both cases, the caregiver freely assumes the vulnerability of the victim.
Is there a story in the Christian scriptures that offers a more poignant description of Christ’s mission? The Nativity tells us that God took our vulnerability and the Passion shows us that the Incarnation led to the victimization of Jesus by the very people he wanted to save. Here, in the middle of Luke’s gospel, we have the parable that explains the motive of Jesus’ mission. When God sees suffering and need, the divine response is intimate and unlimited solidarity.
When Luke describes the compassion of the Samaritan, he uses the word splanchnizomai, which refers to being moved in your belly or guts. It portrays God in Christ as passionate about the welfare of creation. This tells us that God honestly takes on the pain of each person who suffers and bears the cost of their suffering.
The work of the Samaritan, to be moved, to bandage the wounds, to carry the victim and to command his care describes God’s response to the needs of the world. He tells us that God is like an eternal first responder.
It goes back to the day when Moses heard God say: “I have witnessed the affliction of my people, I know well what they are suffering, therefore I have come down” (Exodus 3:7-8). The parable of the Good Samaritan tells us that God has many faces, faces that are visible wherever human beings risk solidarity with others who suffer.
What is the message for us? Nothing more or less than Jesus’ conclusion to this story. Looking at the poor and all the innocent victims, he addresses us saying, “Go and do the same.”