Parables good common sense

Friday January 22, 2016 Written by Published in Church Talk
The parable of the Good Samaritan has been illustrated in countless art works through the ages. 16012115 The parable of the Good Samaritan has been illustrated in countless art works through the ages. 16012115

One of my dreams for this year is that 2015 can be a year where we lean more to common sense, rather than trying to score points over issues that arise in the community.


There is no lack of authorities who can be produced by either side to support their cause and it often appears that whoever can shout the loudest and the longest will win. Whether it is actually a good decision or not gets lost in the debate.

A simple definition of common sense taken from the internet is “the ability to think and behave in a reasonable way.” Taking it a little further, we might say common sense is being able to make a sound and prudent judgment based on a simple perception of the situation or facts. “You really should go to see a doctor if your chest hurts that much. It’s just common sense!”

Given I am writing for the Church Talk page, you will not be surprised that I look at the gospel to see whether Jesus himself took a common sense approach to the problems of his day.

The lawyers of the time confronted him with issue after issue. Matters to do with keeping the Sabbath. Fasting. What is clean or unclean food? Who is my neighbour? Can a man divorce his wife? If a man is married seven times in this world, which of them will be his wife in the next life? How often the challenger slips away quietly, knowing that the answer Jesus gave was a worthy common sense answer.

After 2000-plus years of using the gospel, the core message of Jesus still appeals with a freshness. And one can easily say that nowhere is this highlighted better than in his parables. The parables maintain the teachings of Jesus unaltered.

Many parables of Jesus resemble those proverbs in which a vivid image sparks a common sense insight. Sometimes expanding the image into a brief narrative, Jesus pushes the inner mechanism of that type of proverb just a little bit further.

Typically, his parables have three steps. Step one, confronts us with a question like, “Who is my neighbour?” Step two is our reply. Without hesitation we answer, “Well, everyone knows this.” Common sense tells us so. But then comes step three – another question, and often an implicit one: “If you know it so well, why don’t you act accordingly?”

Laughter is the proper response. The joke is on us. We can all laugh together at the fact, that we have all the common sense we need, yet when it comes to the most important matters, we live like idiots.

A closer look will show us, however, that few of the parables in the gospels still work as jokes. This is because we cannot tell the same joke time and time again to the same audience. Even after a few times, even the most patient of us, will boo. And yet, the images Jesus used retain and repeat the images, but turn the joke into moralising stories. The parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10: 29 – 37) is a good example of this.

The occasion is a discussion about loving one’s neighbour. Step one, someone asks a question, “But who is my neighbour?”

Jesus picks up on the question. God forbid that I should be kind to someone who is not my neighbour in the true sense. And now he goes into the story. “A man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho……..” Now remember this man is you. The first person mentioned is often the one with whom you must identify for a joke to work. So you travel down that road, which is notorious for hold-ups, and sure enough, someone holds you up, beats you, strips you and leaves you half dead on the side of the road. This is important, as you must be alive enough to see what happens next. Because remember, you are the one at the centre of the story.

So as you are lying there on the side of the road, you see the one who is your neighbour approaching. Your heart cries out. “He must help me.” Notice you suddenly know who your neighbour is, when you are in trouble. You know it – but he doesn’t – or doesn’t want to know; he walks right by. But wait, you get another chance. Another traveller is coming by. Surely this one will know he is my neighbour and will help me. You don’t know who it is, but common sense tells you that he is your neighbour.

Unfortunately, he too walks by on the other side of the road.  But don’t give up yet (there is always a third one in this type of joke). Each time you hope more fervently that the stranger will know he is your neighbour. Finally a third one comes by – a Samaritan. By now the story has manoeuvred you into a position where you are more than glad to welcome anyone as your neighbour, even your enemy. For a Jew to think of a Samaritan as neighbour was outrageous. But here, common sense clashes with public opinion and common sense wins.

Tongue in cheek, Jesus asks, “Now which of the three, do you think, was neighbour to him who fell among the robbers?” The one who had asked, “Who is my neighbour?” can no longer claim that he doesn’t know the answer. Still he will only say, “The one who showed him mercy.” No way was he going to say the Samaritan. He cannot get it out of his mouth that a “no-good” Samaritan was indeed his neighbour.

The stories Jesus tells in his parables are not edifying tales, but jokes of this kind. You want to know who is your neighbour? Wait until you get into trouble. Why does your common sense work so well in your need? Why is your sense of our common humanity so restricted when another needs our help?

You notice the three elements typical of Jesus’ parables. A strong image: yourself as victim of a mugging on the road; a common sense insight; when you are in need, you know that everyone is your neighbour, and the point of the joke; if you know this so well, then why act as if you didn’t?

By replacing “Samaritan with the name of a current ethnic scapegoat, say for example Muslim, we too, might get the point and laugh at our own prejudices. Of course by calling this the Parable of the Good Samaritan, we kill the joke.

Among those to whom Jesus first told the parable, the only good Samaritan was a dead Samaritan.  Miss the point and all that is left is an edifying tale told by a detached reporter. But when we look at the events through the eyes of the prejudiced victim with whom we identify, we are suddenly confronted with the authority of common sense.

A tendency today is that we attempt to be too sophisticated for our own good. Let us not forget the virtue of simplicity. Someone like the Dalai Lama or Mother Teresa. Theirs is or was a genuine simplicity.

They have the ability to be able to lay aside self importance – the desire for fame with all the complications it creates. The more lightly we take ourselves, the more we leave the narrow confines of our little egos and enter the wide open spaces of our true selves, discovering an inner freedom to be open to others.

Winning every battle is no longer a must, as common sense will lead me to be at home with the universe and all who live in it. In other words, not only do I know my neighbour, but I am able to reach out to him or her too.

Source: Words of Common Sense... Brother David Steindl-Rast.

            Bishop Paul Donoghue                                (Catholic Church)

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