By Jean McCurdy Meade
In modern English the second person singular pronoun (thou, thee, thine) has been relegated to archaic status. In other modern European languages, as well as ancient languages like Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, the second person singular is used as a familiar address or to emphasize the individual being spoken to as opposed to a group. We must now depend on context to know whether the you or yours we read or hear is meant as singular or plural. In conversation we often add colloquialisms to “you” to make sure it communicates as plural when that’s what we mean, for example, the southern Y’all.
In the church, we still use these singular pronouns, as found in the original Greek, in the Lord’s Prayer to address God, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done.” But we rarely use a translation of the Bible, like the Authorized Version, even in Bible study, which translates the Hebrew and Greek second person singular pronouns as thee, thou, thy, and thine. They are retained in Rite I in the Book of Common Prayer but in Rite II and elsewhere, the Greek, Hebrew or Latin is translated as “you/yours” whether the pronoun is singular or plural. Unfortunately, we who speak and read English are left to wonder whether a commandment, admonition, or teaching is meant to be for the individual or for the collective group of Israel or the Church.
Understanding to whom the commandment is addressed is essential to understanding its meaning. All the Ten Commandments, as well as the “Greatest Commandments” are directed to the singular thou, to the individual, although they are given to the whole community. The community standards thus come from the faith and practice of the individual people that form it, not vice-versa.
Thou shalt not have other gods before me, not make graven images or worship them, not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain, must keep the Sabbath day holy, must honor thy father and mother. Thou shalt not steal, murder, commit adultery, bear false witness against thy neighbor, nor covet thy neighbor’s goods, wife, house or anything that is thy neighbor’s.
That means thee and me individually. Stealing isn’t just bad for the community, it is forbidden for me! So is adultery and bearing false witness.
Each individual is commanded, “to love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, soul and mind or strength” (Deut. 6:4-5), in what Jesus called the greatest commandment, and in “the second, which is like unto it,” to “love thy neighbor as thyself” (Lev. 19:18).
These foundational commandments are personal requirements and duties, which cannot be divided up and parceled out into various tasks for some who have special gifts to take care of on behalf of the whole community. This is not to contradict the Pauline metaphor of the body of Christ and its many members that have different callings or functions, but rather to emphasize that it must first be the individual who loves God, responds in obedience to his commandments, and seeks to love her or his neighbor as himself or herself. The community’s strengths derive from the faithful individuals who comprise it.
There are, of course, many teachings that are addressed to the community, whether Israel or the Church. “Ye are the light of the world.” “You are a chosen generation, a holy nation, a royal priesthood…” But it is the individuals who have decided to follow Jesus that form this community. And there is especially a great tension throughout the Old Testament between the corporate Israel and the individual Israelite, and between the individual and her/his family or tribe.
Most dramatically, the second commandment against making images or worshiping them adds, “For I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me but showing mercy to thousands who love me and keep my commandments” (Ex. 20). That may be describing accurately how sin can infect the next generations of a family, but it confounds one’s sense of justice since the person who faithfully loves and obeys the Lord might have a grandmother who kept pagan gods in the house, as Rachel did. Is there is no way forward into God’s mercy for the children of sinners?
In answer to this perennial dilemma in the Torah, the prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel foresaw the day when each individual would be responsible only for knowing and keeping the law personally.
In those days they shall no longer say, “The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” But every one shall die for his own sin; each man who eats sour grapes, his teeth shall be set on edge. (Jer. 31)
What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, “The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge”? As I live, says the Lord God, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel. Behold, all souls are mine; the soul of the father as well as the soul of the son is mine: the soul that sins shall die…Yet you say, “Why should not the son suffer for the iniquity of the father?” When the son has done what is lawful and right, and has been careful to observe all my statutes, he shall surely live. The soul that sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the fathers suffer for the iniquity of the son; the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself. (Ezek. 18)
Jesus follows and expands the teaching of these prophets. Although he preaches often to large groups, he consistently asserts the responsibility of each individual to respond to the Kingdom of God that has drawn near. He treats the women and men who respond and follow him as individuals, regardless of their forebears, occupation, or even ethnic background, much to the disgust of the Pharisees and other pillars of society who presumably have good pedigrees. Fishermen and prostitutes, publicans, and Pharisees, Roman soldiers, the wife of Herod’s steward, and Samaritans — even a femme fatale who picks up men at the local well — all become Jesus’s disciples.
This emphasis on the individual as distinct from his or her background, race, or even creed is shown most dramatically in the parable of the Good Samaritan. In Luke 10, a lawyer asks Jesus, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” The lawyer seems to know that some action on his part is required according to Jesus’s teaching. Whether he is sincere or not in hoping for Jesus’ message of eternal life is not really relevant. He assumes that his personal response is required.
[Jesus] said unto him, What is written in the law? how readest thou? And he answering said, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbour as thyself.” And he said unto him, “Thou hast answered right: this do, and thou shalt live.” But he, willing to justify himself, said unto Jesus, “And who is my neighbour?”
Realizing that the question, “Who is my neighbor” is an attempt to get him to interpret the law so that the lawyer could justify himself, Jesus does not attempt to answer his second question directly. Instead he tells a parable, and only then, Socrates-like, he elicits the correct answer from the questioner.
We know the story he told: a man, presumably a Jew, is alone on the road to Jericho from Jerusalem when he is assaulted, robbed and left for dead by thieves. The first passer-by is a priest, who surely knows all the commandments well, though nothing is said about that. He passes by on the other side of the road instead of aiding or even examining the man lying there helplessly. Next a Levite comes along, another fellow countryman of the victim who also would be well versed in the Law. He also passes by on the other side of the road. Then a Samaritan, not exactly a foreigner but a mixed breed of Jew and Gentile whose theology and worship were considered inferior if not heretical by most Jews, comes down the road. This man, however, stops and gives first aid to the battered man and then takes him to an inn and pays for his care. He goes the extra mile, and then some. He stays with the man overnight and promises the innkeeper he’ll return and pay the bill for the victim’s care.
That’s the end of the story. Jesus then asks the lawyer: “Which now of these three, thinkest thou, was neighbour unto him that fell among the thieves?”
He answers, “The one who showed him mercy.”
I used to think he says that because he cannot bear to say “the Samaritan,” that he does not want to name the ethnic group he despises. But I think the lawyer actually understood what Jesus was getting at; he got it right. If someone has compassion on and shows mercy to you, then that’s your neighbor.
Only then does Jesus answer the lawyer’s prior question that began the exchange, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” He directs him, “Go, and do thou likewise.” Now the lawyer knows what he should do — be like the Samaritan in showing mercy as often as he can, even to someone he would not call a friend or even care to speak to in ordinary life.
So according to Jesus here, the main thing each of us can do to love our neighbor and thus inherit eternal life is to show mercy to the individuals we meet. Furthermore, the people we are supposed to imitate in showing mercy are the ones who have shown us mercy, whether they are of the same race, class, ethnic group, or whatever category we may think matters. And that is one important way a person fulfills the first great commandment too; one shows one’s love for God, “whose property is always to have mercy,” by seeking to be merciful to others who may need our compassion.
The realization that these commandments are addressed to the individual is key to comprehending the meaning of the parable. Jesus is not evoking Rodgers and Hammerstein and singing, “The farmer and the cowman should be friends” about Samaritans and Jews, or about any other groups of people who are afraid of or dislike one another. Rather, it is a teaching about recognizing a neighbor, one by one, and then being a neighbor by following that example.
Be a neighbor! You have no way of knowing who is going to be your newest one but you can surely be one to someone else you encounter along the road. The person who does that “shall surely live.”
The Rev. Jean McCurdy Meade, Ph.D. is a priest of the Diocese of Louisiana, now retired.