Living the Questions

Sunday July 10

Amos 7.7-17, Psalm 82, Colossians 1.1-14, Luke 10.25-37

Richard Browning

If you want to hand over the entire truth, placing in the other’s the ‘whole thing’, even though it may well take years or a lifetime to make sense of what is right in front of them, you tell a story. The shortest bridge to sharing truth is story. And today we encounter Jesus the master storyteller. Maybe the entire Gospel is hidden in what we call the Parable of the Good Samaritan.

For nearly 25 five years I have been carefully spreading a rumour. It goes like this. “When I grow up I’d like to be a really good story teller”.

With that introduction, I have just put myself under enormous pressure, for I am about to tell a story. It is not mine. It is an old epic folk tale that Wagner turned into an opera. I tell it a little differently and you will be pleased to know, with much greater brevity.

Once, there upon a time, there was a young man maturing into adulthood. He longed to have every ounce of his body in tune with the biggest thing and be in possession of the most precious thing. They called this thing ‘the Holy Grail’.

So Parsifal, whose moustache had barely showed itself beyond a sparse shadowing, climbed onto his horse, sword in hand, and galloped off through the village gates and into the forest and the valleys beyond. So began his search for the Holy Grail.

His search took him to distant places and peoples. By the time we catch up with him, his beard is full and dark, his horse was loyal but wearied from wandering as his master pressed on for the Holy Grail.

One day, Parsifal rounded a corner and there in front of him was a man finely dressed carrying a flag. “Your presence is required.” Parsifal had been invited by the Ruler of the Realm to attend the royal banquet.

Parsifal followed the herald and came to a grand castle with turrets covered in colours waving Parsifal in. He was led into a great court before being ushered into an enormous banquet hall. Remarkably, Parsifal was placed at the high table.

The place was full of noisy guests. Four incredible courses had been served before the doors flung open, trumpets blew and a procession followed. It was the Ruler of the Realm, carried on a litter, and brought to the high table. Parsifal was sitting at the high table beside the The Ruler of the land! He didn’t notice, but the Reagent was poorly, enfeebled with a sickness.

More incredible courses were served as the fruits of the field and forest covered the banquet tables. Then the doors were flung open, trumpets blew and another procession took place. It began with a spear held high, then acolytes and candles. You could see it at the rear . Already Parsifal’s attention was captivated by it. There it was

the

Holy

Grail!

Parsifal was awestruck, the Holy Grail. His eyes were transfixed. It took a while for him to notice that the Ruler was wailing with pain. And it seemed as if the closer the Grail came, the greater was the pain.

Indeed, the nearer the Grail drew, the louder the Ruler wailed.

Parsifal was torn, the Grail, the Pain, the Grail, the Pain.

            The GRAIL.

                        The PAIN.

And then the grail was within reach, and with both hands outstretch, eyes agog and mouth open, Parsifal reached forward and said, “the Grail, is it for me?”

Then POOOFFT!

It disappeared.

It all disappeared. The banquet, the castle, the lot. All was gone except the waiter from the top table, who walked over to Parsifal now seated in the dust of the road and leant forward to say:

            “You

            Asked

            The wrong

            Question.”

Then Poooft, the waiter disappeared too.

This is where we shall leave the story for the moment. As the story suggests, one of the irrepressible characteristics of the human life is that we ask questions. Big questions. We are curious about the sky and life and living. How can we not but wonder? Within our living comes a great many questions. My homily today is not so much an intellectual proposition but a provocation: what are your questions? What questions shape your day? For a lived and examined life, questions are unavoidable. At this time in your life, what are your questions? And provocatively, are they the right questions?

When we are young it the question might be a rudimentary ‘am I OK?’, and later, ‘where do I belong?’, ‘who is my tribe?’. Of course, there are many other questions. The recent On The Way podcast revisits the work of Alexander John Shaia (https://omny.fm/shows/on-the-way/alexander-john-shaia-the-fourfold-path?in_playlist=podcast and https://www.quadratos.com/). Alexander John puts forward four foundational human questions. We know them, not because we know his work, but because we have encountered these questions in our own life. They are unavoidable:

            How are we to face change?

The second is related and is about suffering. The question is not how do we avoid it but how do we move through suffering?

The third is how do we receive and enter into the fullness of joy?

And finally, how do we increase in love, maturing in service?

Again. The heart of this reflection is your reflection. Take your time: what season are you in? What is the question you must follow and work through? What is your right question?

Two observations about questions.

  • You cannot give someone else ‘their question’. Questions have to emerge from within and take over the imagination.
  • The other observation is painful. No one else can live our questions. Our journey cannot be outsourced to a surrogate. The blessing and responsibility of the life we have is that it is ours to live.

Rainer Maria Rilke’s work is pretty special. The short text I am about to share with you I have known for many years. But it is only recently that I have found it speak with gravity. He writes:

“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves… Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

This lived and examined life has at its heart the quest that comes from our questions. Without anxiety may we each live our questions. So again: what are yours? What season are you in?

In today’s Gospel we find a questioner who brings to Jesus a cracking question: “what must one do to inherit eternal life”. I would ask the same question this way: how can I live with all I have – my heart and soul and body and mind – and be awake to the fullness of each moment, and love, face forward with God?

Yet it would seem the Lawyer is not living his question. We are told from the outset he is out “to test Jesus”. There is a meeting of two very different world views. The best way to explore this is to examine Jesus’ response to the lawyer’s second question, the one about who is my neighbour? Did Jesus answer his question?

It can be easy to miss, but the answer is no. Jesus does a very modern thing and turns a noun into a verb. The idea of neighbour lies at the heart of the Gospel. The second question works best to identify who falls outside the burden of love and in what contexts the duty of care might be relinquished.

The lawyer asks the wrong question and Jesus won’t have a bar of it.

The person most likely to fall outside the lawyer’s plumbline of neighbour or not neighbour is a Samaritan. In the reading from Amos we see the devastating roots of this falling out. The northern Kingdom of Israel is overrun, first by moral decay and the abandonment of the voiceless and oppressed. Soon it will be overrun by an army.

The road from Jerusalem to Jericho is the one a faithful Jewish lawyer might take go north but avoid travelling through Samaria. You drop down to Jericho, head north along the Jordan, skirt Samaria and on you go with nary a Samaritan in sight. The lawyer’s response makes this context plausible. Jesus asked at the end of his parable who acted as a neighbour to the traveller and the lawyer could not say the ‘S’ word, just ‘the one who showed mercy’. If the lawyer was left half dead by the side of the road and only a Samaritan stopped, the enmity is such that he would consider dying before receiving the Samaritans help.

This is how Jesus has changed everything. In the world Jesus restores there is no insider or outsider, there is no slave or free, male or female, enemy or other. The transition from darkness to light is won, the dividing walls are over.

In the economy of God’s kingdom, the right question is not who is our neighbour. Everyone is a neighbour, without exception. The right question is how are we to be a neighbour? To ask who is a neighbour brings a lens of judgmentalism. The first inclination is to sensor the other’s worthiness. To ask ‘how do we be a neighbour’ requires no judging. The first inclination is kindness and mercy.

It is outrageous that Jesus holds up the Samaritan as the keeper of the law, but so it is: with our heart and soul, body and mind, copy the Samaritan, the one we are trained to despise.

As we grow in the knowledge of God, increasing in strength, patience and joy, here on this bend of the river, may we be that community that always lives the question “how are we to be a neighbour?” The context is the cost of living, health, education, poverty and the question is how do we love. Do this, and along some well walked road, we shall see how we have lived into the answer.

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Postscript.

In a different time and place, a conclusion to the story of Parsifal would be appropriate. I include it here for those who have come this far and are keen to read on.

Parsifal picked himself up from the dirt and raced every which way up and down the road. Nothing.

He spent a few futile days searching still for the castle. Then he stopped. He didn’t give up. He just settled in.

He gave his horse to a passing foreigner escaping slavery.

He ate the food of pigs while working for the widow on her farm.

He laboured for the blacksmith and learnt how to thatch rooves.

He fostered an orphan and then another and taught them how to work the farm.

When the floods swept through he cleaned and cleanrd.

When the war thundered through he bound up the wounded and buried the dead.

Parsifal didn’t notice the years passed by, but his beard now was long and shot through with grey when he rounded a corner and there stood the herald who said “Your presence is required.”

Parsifal was surprised but followed. He went as fast as walking would allow.

And there was the castle.

And there were flags, and the court, the banqueting hall and the high table.

And there were the servings – all the servings.

And there were the trumpets and the procession, the Ruler and the litter.

There were more servings and then more trumpets and another procession.

Parsifal’s attention was rivetted.

There there was the spear, the acolytes and it all. And then the Holy Grail.

The Grail drew near but Parsifal did not notice so much. The Ruler at his left groaned in pain, and soon it filled the hall. Before the Grail reached the high table Parsifal interjected and asked, “great ruler, you wail in anguish.

What

is the source

of your pain?”

Then POOOFFT!

The Ruler was gone, and the grail was gone.

But the banquet and the castle remained.

PoooFT.

There was Parsifal. HE was the ruler. The hall was filled with the people of the village, and they each raised their glasses to the farmer king: Parsifal.

So what is the right question?

It is not so hard. It is within reach:  

Where do you hurt?

What do you need?

How can I be a neighbour?

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