Studying philosophy means trying to look at questions from every angle, and attempting to test conclusions against everything relevant. Preferably one stops short of actually going mad, but as most of my friends will tell you, I personally didn’t succeed! 😛
In this case, particularly, when everyone else is telling me my conclusion must be wrong, and I have struggled with it myself (it’s hardly an easy answer), I have kept questioning and considering.
And I still come out with the same answer: that is, that we have got it wrong, and that in locking Churches and denying people the Sacraments, we have betrayed three times: God, the people of the Church, and the people of the world: the former in treating Him as if He was not the primary means of Life; the people of the Church in excluding their part in the work of God, and in showing a lack of reciprocal commitment to them; and the world in not bearing witness to the fact of a more fundamental life than that which a disease can destroy.
The good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) logically comes in for some real scrutiny in this context – something that could be used to argue that I have in fact got the priorities wrong – and I think it is an interesting one to examine, as it may be that it is often read at present by way of putting the second commandment before the first. (I am referring to Matt. 22:37-40 and its analogues in reference to the first and second commandments, by the way – not to the Old Testament ten).
I should be clear that the case for using it to defend the response of shutting Churches and denying the sacraments is my own, as is my conclusion that this case should be rejected. I haven’t yet heard anyone try to use this parable to justify what has been done, but, again, considering what might speak against your conclusions by way of testing them is part of doing philosophy well.
I do not find the Good Samaritan convincing as a argument for denying the Sacraments on the grounds that there remains some risk of infection that cannot be negated even from the perspective of receiving an intincted Host at arm’s length through a window while both parties wear a mask.
The argument for saying that it should justify this, is the argument that this indicates that a person should be willing to sacrifice even their worship to the corporeal good of others. I think it is probably problematic, however, for several reasons – both to do with the parable, to do with what is the truest service to neighbour, and to do with its lack of real analogy to the situation (sacrificing others, as opposed to sacrificing yourself).
The position of the debate in the Gospel can be read against taking even the straightforward reading as a exultation of the second commandment over the first. That is, both the questioner and Jesus seem to have have agreed about the first commandment “You shall love the Lord you God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength and with all our mind” and are debating a particular detail of the second “and your neighbour as yourself.”
Though the subversive overturning of “who is my neighbour?” is probably straightforward in itself – “go and do likewise” – the nature of the text suggests a symbolic reading which actually points to, rather than away from the Sacraments. The “likewise” may point beyond the original “love your neighbour as yourself” towards “love each other as I have loved you”.
The man who is set on by thieves is going from Jerusalem to Jericho: this probably has a symbolism rather like that of the prodigal son going to a far country and feeding the pigs: i.e. he has sinned, and the result of this sin is disaster.
It is not clear if we are told which direction anyone except the man is going in: however, in the translation I have here, both the man and the priest are said to be going “down” the road, which would suggest the priest would also have been going towards Jericho. This may be significant, as it suggests that while the notion that too great an emphasis on ritual purity may be relevant (avoiding a possible corpse), the specific priority of the temple worship probably does not come into it if the priest is going towards Jericho (i.e. away from the temple).
The bandages, the oil and the wine may be sacramental images (the Baptismal garment, the oil of anointing, the Precious Blood), the ass may represent Christ’s bearing our sins and their consequences in His Body, the Inn may represent the Church in which Christ’s care (that He has paid for) is received*.
I am never sure what to make of these extremely symbolic readings; however, when it is a matter of considering a deeper meaning (a lot of powerful narratives can be meaningfully read on both a straightforward and a symbolic/allusion level: it is part of their power), and not standing outside the general tenor of the Gospel narrative, I think there is some reason to at least take them seriously. And if so, it can actually be brought in as much to argue what I have been saying for other reasons: that is, that the Divine Life and care for the Divine Life is more fundamental, as to argue that we should sacrifice the worship of God entirely to care for neighbour (instead of regarding it as part of how we care for our neighbour, accompanied by the corporeal works of mercy. Both can be distorted into selfishness, but neither are selfish in themselves**).
This in itself, while I think it does matter and is significant, in that it would suggest the reading of the parable may not be as simply focused only on the corporeal works of mercy as it looks at first glance***, seems to only confuse the issue. This may be partly because I am not a theologian, and cannot write with much confidence when it comes to scriptural interpretation (there’s a lot of difference between knowing about a subject, and understanding how to apply the processes which are used in it).
I’ve written at length already (see quite a lot of previous posts in the same categories) on the second reason: that is, that our primary service to the world should not be adopting its priorities but witnessing to the Life of God.
The final reason I’d suggest that the parable of the Good Samaritan does not justify the decisions made is impossible to put with real tact. What I would say instead to people is simply: I write as a sinner and conscious of my own failings of faith, and I do not write to accuse, but to seek reconciliation. That cannot be done except in acknowledging the reality of the situation and the experience as it has actually been for me. Trying to ask people to understand why their sympathy is upsetting and does not mean much is always difficult, but it is the only way through when it is the reality.
The reason is this: the Good Samaritan sacrifices himself, not other people. He has compassion, he puts the man on his animal, he takes him to an inn and he pays the innkeeper for his care. The COVID-19 decisions, involving the refusal of the Sacraments to all but clergy households, has involved one group of people sacrificing another for the purported good of third parties***. It’s more equivalent to a situation where the Samaritan was journeying with a severely wounded relative on his donkey, and assisting another wounded friend along by foot. Upon meeting the man set on by thieves, this Samaritan pushes the wounded person off the donkey to abandon them to death and the powers of darkness in the road, puts the person set on by robbers on the donkey, and forces the other wounded person to take them to an inn and pay for their care. He then carries on alone, missing their company, lamenting their difficulties, and praying for them, but quite confident he has done the right thing in saving the man lying by the roadside at their cost! It is not surprising that such sympathy is not likely to make much difference to what the person left to die in the road thinks or feels about the situation…
Of course, within Catholic order, which I do still hold despite all this, it is not the priests’ fault that they cannot share the fate of the non-ordained in enforced excommunication, for even if they were to decline to celebrate the Eucharist and receive (which personally, I would not advocate), they have the choice, while we do not. This is among my reasons for suggesting that we can only be consistent by point-blank refusing to go along with secular orders that people should be actually deprived of the Sacraments (as opposed to changing what we are doing to take a lot of extra precautions). If the non-ordained are equally the people of God, it follows that the duty of stewardship from the clergy in taking them the Sacraments has to be fairly absolute.
So, for various different reasons, my mind on this point is not changed by the contemplation of the parable of the Good Samaritan.
Having talked about the issue with regard to the clergy-laity relationship, however, I would like to finish by re-emphasising that I do believe that our primary betrayal is of God, not of the people. That is, it is in turning from Christ, truly present in the Eucharist, to seek life chiefly in “professors’ models“.
*Except for the comment on ritual purity (I’ll find a reference if anyone wants to ask me for one) and the comment on possibly pointing to the New Commandment (which is my own), this all comes from The Orthodox Study Bible; St Athanasius Academy of Orthodox Theology 2008.
**It could be argued that we have become infected by a tendency to regard religion as a private matter: it would make more sense from the Christian tradition of thought to defend religious freedom by emphasising that all must come freely to God, than by making out that what we do in worship, we do entirely for our own benefit.
*** And our own supposed protection, which I would argue is a worse argument, because (a) the notion that someone can be done good by being denied Christ – the Way, the Truth, and the Life; the one thing necessary – is absurd, and (b) we are grown up. It should be up to us, as individuals in conjunction with our own spiritual advisors, in our own circumstances, with our own knowledge of our strengths and weaknesses, our particular calling, and the way God works with us, to make decisions as to whether to receive the Sacraments in such a situation or not. To systematically deny us that capacity to choose on such grounds is to deny our capacity to come to maturity in faith.
N.B. If the use of “we/our” in this text, as in “our primary betrayal” is confusing, given that I am speaking primarily as someone who has suffered the situation rather than being part of doing it, this “we/our” is a collective use, which I feel to be appropriate in context. I am not ordained. I have to date been left completely without the Sacraments for more than 14 weeks, despite (to the best of my knowledge) repeated requests to the contrary made on my behalf, so my experience is that of a lay person who was previously a daily communicant.
However, I am part of the whole mess of faithlessness that created the situation where such decisions could be made, and there is a manner in which it is meaningful to use “we” even when there can be no personal responsibility (as in “we [the British] were involved in the slave trade in 1700”). The question of collective/non-personal responsibility is a very complex one – some linguistic confusion is perhaps accurately reflective of this?!