Go and Do Likewise

by Jessica Coblentz

I had anticipated the Van Gogh exhibit for months before it arrived at the Seattle Art Museum. I imagined that the yellow of his sunflowers and the curves of his swirling stars would be no less than magical in the real, undoubtedly mesmerizing this nascent art-lover for hours. Sure enough, when I joined the crowds to admire the screaming teal backdrop of his self-portrait and the interesting lines of his bedroom paintings, I was filled with wonder.

Years later, the painting I remember most clearly from the occasion is one I had never anticipated, and one few people associate with Van Gogh. The painting is called The Good Samaritan. The exhibit explained that, as was custom for many young artists, Van Gogh had once honed his personal style by imitating the artwork of others. The idea behind this practice is that no painting can be replicated exactly, and often the very artistic idiosyncrasies that prevent one from perfectly replicating a piece turn out to be their stylistic strengths as an individual artist. In the last year of his life, Van Gogh, then well-developed stylistically, returned to the practice of imitation with this reflection of Eugène Delacroix’s The Good Samaritan. I have often returned to the commentary that accompanied this painting. It is fascinating to me how this practice of imitation assumes that the imitator already possesses the gifts of a unique artist, however nascent; they need only reveal themselves through the work of the painter.

Today it strikes me that the lectionary provides us with a compelling set of Sunday readings that share this message about the tremendous capacities we each possess. In Deuteronomy, we read the words of Moses, one who experienced a number profound revelatory encounters including that which resulted in the Ten Commandments, as he tells his people that they have within them all they need to live faithful lives: “This command I enjoin on you today is not too mysterious and remote for you…No, it is something very near to you, already in your mouths and in your hearts; you only have to carry it out.” This bearer of revelation-from-without reminds us that we already possess revelation within. What’s more, the story of the Good Samaritan, which we find in our gospel reading from Luke, exemplifies this insight as well as any Christian parable. “A man fell victim to robbers as he went down from Jerusalem to Jericho. They stripped and beat him and went off leaving him half-dead. A priest happened to be going down that road, but when he saw him, he passed by on the opposite side. Likewise a Levite came to the place, and when he saw him, he passed by on the opposite side. But a Samaritan traveler who came upon him was moved with compassion at the sight. He approached the victim, poured oil and wine over his wounds and bandaged them. Then he lifted him up on his own animal, took him to an inn, and cared for him. The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper with the instruction, ‘Take care of him. If you spend more than what I have given you, I shall repay you on my way back.’”

Here, we read that those with the written Law–the priest and Levite–are not necessarily the enactors of faithful living any more than those without it, like the Samaritan. While the Law reminds us to love one’s neighbor as oneself, this command is known to the one without the law–and to all of us before the Law. Like the Good Samaritan, and in accordance with Moses’ insight, we need only attend to the internal command of compassion already written on our hearts–that stirring in our stomachs at the sight of suffering, the tightening of our throats when we witness heartache and disappointment, the clenching of our fists when faced with injustice. These are signs of the commandments within, those “already in our mouths and in our hearts.” Often, the written commandments of God simply remind of us of capacities we already hold within. We recognize that we have these within us when we are moved to love as Christ loved and commanded. In its history and its biblical image, Van Gogh’s piece reminds me that we have everything we need to live faithful, loving lives just the way we are. Surely, at times our attempts appeared flawed. Yet, like the young artist who continues to paint, I am convinced that as we continue to try to love as Christ loved our unique and natural capacities will reveal themselves. For, didn’t Christ share this conviction in our potential as well: “Go and do likewise,” he said. Go, and love; you will find you already possess the good gifts you need to do it well.

Jessica Coblentz is currently a student at Harvard Divinity School. Follow her writing on the Web at www.jessicacoblentz.com.

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One Response

  1. […] Go and Do Likewise Jump to Comments Check out my latest post at From the Pews in the Back. It’s a reflection on today’s Sunday readings, entitled, “Go and Do Likewise.” […]

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