The Burden of the Gospels

The following, from Wendell Berry‘s forthcoming The Way of Ignorance: And Other Essays, is an excerpt of an excerpt published in the September 20, 2005 issue of The Christian Century:

I think Jesus recommended the Samaritan’s loving-kindness, what certain older writers called “holy living,” simply as a matter of propriety, for the Samaritan was living in what Jesus understood to be a holy world. The foreground of the Gospels is occupied by human beings and the issues of their connection to one another and to God. But there is a background, and the background more often than not is the world in the best sense of the word, the world as made, approved, loved, sustained and finally redeemable by God. Much of the action and the talk of the Gospels takes place outdoors: on mountainsides, lakeshores, riverbanks, in fields and pastures, places populated not only by humans but by animals and plants, both domestic and wild. And these nonhuman creatures, sheep and lilies and birds, are always represented as worthy of, or as flourishing within, the love and the care of God.

To know what to make of this, we need to look back to the Old Testament, to Genesis, to the Psalms, to the preoccupation with the relation of the Israelites to their land that runs through the whole lineage of the prophets. Through all this, much is implied or taken for granted. In only two places that I remember is the always implicit relation—the practical or working relation—of God to the creation plainly stated. Psalm 104:30, addressing God and speaking of the creatures, says, “Thou sendest forth thy spirit, they are created . . .” And, as if in response, Elihu says to Job (34:14-15) that if God “gather unto himself his spirit and his breath; All flesh shall perish together . . .” I have cut Elihu’s sentence a little short so as to leave the emphasis on the phrase “all flesh.”

Those also are verses that don’t require interpretation, but I want to stretch them out in paraphrase just to make as plain as possible my reason for quoting them. They are saying that not just humans but all creatures live by participating in the life of God, by partaking of his Spirit and breathing his breath. And so the Samaritan reaches out in love to help his enemy, breaking all the customary boundaries, because he has clearly seen in his enemy not only a neighbor, not only a fellow human or a fellow creature, but a fellow sharer in the life of God.


About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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