Landscape with Good Samaritan

[This post continues the reflections on the Gospel portion for Sunday, July 11, on the Good Samaritan.]

When I was involved with Christian Education we used to pretend Bible texts. A room full of people, after choosing characters and costumes, play Bible. Unless something exceedingly dramatic happens that draws a crowd – an especially noisy exorcism,   loud accusative Pharisees – a parable or teaching or miraculous healing might take place while you buy oranges in the other side of the marketplace or gossip with an old friend. After putting costumes away and sitting down to talk through the experience, the “missing” of the Jesus event always becomes a topic of discussion, an event in itself. Jesus healed a blind man in the alleyway (or church corridor)! I was in the scene somewhere, but I missed the miracle!

That’s what I thought of when I looked at Rembrandt’s Landscape with the Good Samaritan. Within a vast landscape of other interesting things to see, it is easy to miss two figures in the shadows in the lower right corner blending together: the victim on the donkey and the rescuer’s strong hands steadying him. I can’t see anything more of the Samaritan than those hands.  Other people remain close to the bushes, perhaps warily coming out of hiding after seeing the roadside violence. Maybe they are the holy men turning away from the impurity upon the path. Does a servant burn incense close to the old tree as his master avoids the donkey and bloodied path?

But the subject of the painting is the landscape itself. Complex and dark, beautiful but lonely, a broken branch from the heavy twisted ancient tree dominates the foreground. Threatening clouds rise high into the sky allowing one patch of sunshine to illumine a field in the distance. A windmill and other structures look safe outside the forest where a coach drawn by four white horses (ah! maybe the holy men?) head toward a patch of sunlight in a field where a little bridge crosses a waterfall. Or does the coach represent the ease of motion once you’ve come toward the light? And what about the water?

Oh, no… Is this painting anti-Semitic? What if the sunlight, the coach, the running water represent Christianity and the old twisted tree the Law etc.? Golly. That’s not helpful. But what if I translate the old dying tree in the dark forest as the old way of self-preservation, say, or clinging to the way of fear. The painting, in any case, is my story. Our story. Everyone’s story. Here’s the choice: become one with neighbor. A continual choosing to see, to risk being present to life and love through acts of mercy. Or, maybe, just missing the whole thing?

[To see a larger rendering, go to the Web Gallery of Art 
Click on the painting. The viewer will let you magnify the picture.]

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