Last week we began a six week focus on the parables of Jesus. Using the book, Short Stories by Jesus, written by Amy-Jill Levine, we are trying to re-hear the parables from the perception of the first century listeners to whom Jesus spoke. Part of our trouble in hearing is that we have nearly 2000 years of interpretation that affect our ability to hear with 1st Century ears, as opposed to 5th, 15th, or even 21st Century ears.
We do need to be able to understand the text as it is applicable for faithfulness in our lives today – but if we don’t know what Jesus was saying about faithfulness, or even about God, to the first century listeners, his immediate hearers, it will be hard to faithfully apply Jesus’ teaching to our lives today.
As we named last week, one of the worst things that has happened over the years is the printing of the Bible are the section headers. The editors of the Biblical text set us up for failure again this week with the header, giving us a preconceived notion that this text is about a “Good Samaritan.” Before we get to why this is a poor title for the parable, let’s look at the context in which the parable is offered.
Beginning in verse 21 of the 10th chapter of Luke, we find that Jesus is grateful that some of the faithful are starting to grasp the truth of God. Jesus is giving thanks that some are wise to understand who he is in relationship to the Triune God. Jesus says, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and have revealed them to infants.”
Following this moment of praising the Spirt, Jesus turns to speak directly to the disciples. In verse 23, we find Jesus says to them, “Blessed are the eyes that see what you see! For I tell you that the prophets and kings desired to see, but did not see it, and to hear, but did not hear it.”
Jesus is praising the disciples for they are hearing and understanding what it is he is teaching them – about himself, about God, and about our call to community with one another. As Jesus has just finished saying, “Thank you God for hiding these things from the wise and intelligent …” and, “Thank you God these disciples are grasping what the prophets and kings missed …” we find the very next sentence is verse 25, where our text for today begins, which says, “Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus.” … Don’t think this line of narrative is merely a coincidence. Luke knows well and good what he’s doing.
I want to make sure we’re all on the same page as to why this line of teaching is so humorous, however, given the number of lawyer’s in this congregation, I found it hard to name this without offending you all. Because of our 21st Century depiction of lawyers, this connection between intelligent people who just don’t get it, and those who missed it vs those who understand is somewhat amusing. Ok, just one, as an example, what do you call a smiling, courteous person at a bar association convention? … The caterer. (It was hard to choose just one, but seriously, just Google lawyer jokes. There are a lot, and they’re not very charitable.)
The negative connotations that are used to mock lawyers today offer a very different opinion about lawyers than would have been held by those who were listening to Jesus in the 1stCentury. Jesus himself seems to have a low opinion of lawyers, which is reflected both here and in other scriptural texts. But to those Jesus was speaking – to the Jewish population of the first century – lawyers were held in similar high esteem to the Pharisees and scribes. (Perhaps that’s why Jesus had such a problem with them.) The lawyer was a part of the Jewish elite whose job was to focus on right interpretation of the law. It should then come with little surprise that this lawyer is asking for clarity regarding Jesus’ teachings.
The lawyer is shown to be wise in the initial line of questioning, even if his questioning was designed to “test” Jesus. “What must I do to inherit eternal life,” he asks. Jesus responds, turning the question back to him, “You tell me: what is written? How do you interpret the law?” … that was his job: to rule on Biblical interpretation. Jesus is simply asking him to do his job: “How do you rule?”
The lawyer then responds with a quotation that is attributed to Jesus in Matthew and Mark’s gospels, saying, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind; and love your neighbor as yourself.” … Jesus tells him he is right. “Do this,” Jesus says, “and you will live.”
The conversation should have ended here. The lawyer questioned Jesus and, in a round-a-bout way, he had his question answered. Jesus tells him, “Do the very thing you have just proclaimed to be truth, and you’ll have the life you are seeking.” However, the lawyer is not to be loved, so we can’t leave the story in such simple fashion. The lawyer tries to further provoke Jesus, asking, “And who is my neighbor?”
In some ways, the lawyer’s question has legal merit. In order to be able to live out the understanding of the law that says, “love your neighbor as yourself,” one really should have a good sense of who is “your neighbor.” As appropriate as this question may be, in the context of this Biblical text, we’re led to believe the question has mal-intent. As set up by Luke in this line of narrative, the question appears to have a negative purpose. We are made to believe the lawyer’s question is asked to validate his list of excluded persons, more so than actually hearing who it is that is defined as “neighbor.” “Asking questions for the purpose of gaining an advantage over another is not a kingdom exercise. Neither is asking questions with no intention of implementing the answers.”[i]
Sensing the question to have corrupt motivation, Jesus again flips the question back to the lawyer in verse 36, but first, to set up his rebuttal question, Jesus tells the parable.
Our Biblical header calls this The Parable of the Good Samaritan. As a society, we love this title. Indeed, the “Good Samaritan” title has become a popular headline throughout the nation and world. There’s the Medstar Good Samaritan Hospital in Baltimore, the Good Samaritan Medical Center in both West Palm Beach, Florida and Lafayette, Colorado, and there’s the Good Samaritan Hospital in Los Angeles, and another in Dallas (among many more). We even have a “Good Samaritan” law on the books that protects the actions of well-doers who stop to administer emergency care for a person in need. There are also a number of charitable organizations that pull from this title, perhaps the most well-known being Samaritan’s Purse.
The Good Samaritan also shows up in the speeches of politicians seeking to gain attraction with the masses. George W. Bush invoked the story in his inaugural address in 2000, saying, “I can pledge our nation to a goal: when we see that wounded traveler on the road to Jericho, we will not pass to the other side.” (That quote didn’t age well.) Another example comes from then Prime Minister Tony Blair, who said while celebrating the opening of a Baptist Center in Jordan, that Jesus “extols the virtue of the Good Samaritan, the stranger, over those who were supposedly devout believers.” Many other politicians have pulled from the story as well.
Yet, for as much as we love the idea of the “Good Samaritan,” such a title can only be considered revisionist in nature. The title assumes that for the hearer, the Samaritan can (and should) be called“good.” In reality, for the 1st Century Jew hearing Jesus tell this story, such a title would be nothing more than an oxymoron, if not outright offensive. Perhaps that’s why Jesus never calls the Samaritan “good.” This title, as with all the others in the Bible, was not added for centuries.
Though not called “good” by Jesus, the Samaritan is used in this text to exemplify the one who is “the neighbor.” In itself, that was offensive enough to Jesus’ listeners. That we have tried to make this a pleasant story about a person who offered help when help would have been unexpected does not do the story justice. It does not make the story nearly offensive enough.
For the 1st Century Jew listening to Jesus, the road from Jerusalem down to Jericho was known to be a dangerous space. The road was steep like a mountain pass, with switchbacks offering plenty of hiding spaces for bandits seeking an easy victim. The man who was beaten is hardly defined by Jesus; the severity of his wounds left to the imagination of the hearer. That he was going from Jerusalem to Jericho leads one to believe he was a Jew, departing the central city of the Jewish people, but our imagination offers the only detail we have.
The Levite and the priest seethe man lying half-dead, bruised and bloodied, and decide to move away from him as they pass by. There are many scholarly reasons offered as to the motive of the priest and Levite (which we’ll touch on in our Deep Dive conversation following worship today). Yet, for all the reasons we can conjure up and use to hypothesize their action, these two representatives of Jewish lineage, Jewish righteousness, and proper Jewish culture, ignored the man’s devastating state and passed him by.
That they passed him by would have been difficult for the Jewish audience to hear. At the core of the Jewish law is the care of the community. Were he dead, it is incumbent on the first Jew to see him to offer burial care for the body and to cover him up. Were he not dead, it is imperative in Jewish law to offer care for the man. Yet, the first two pass him by. “Not their motives but their (in)actions judge them.”[ii]
But Jesus isn’t just a little offensive, offering an example of not one, but two supposedly righteous Jewish men failing to be faithful to God’s will … no, Jesus goes for the jugular.
Jesus says, “But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him; and when I come pack, I will repay you whatever more you spend.”
To understand just how offensive this extravagant generosity is, you have to understand the history of the Jews and the Samaritans. The Samaritans were not just disliked people, they were they hated enemy of the Jews.
In the New Testament, we see some of the bad blood rise to the surface. For example, in John 3, we have the story of Jesus speaking with the Samaritan woman at the well. After Jesus’ encounter with the woman, the disciples can only ask, “Why were you speaking with her?” Their shock at Jesus’ encounter is further clarified Luke 9. We’re told Jesus received a hostile reception in Samaria, and in response James and John asked Jesus, “Would you like us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” … They didn’t ask, “Jesus, should we stop buying Samaritan goods?” Or, “Should we avoid travelling to their land again?” Or even, “Jesus, should we be mean to the next Samaritan who comes to our land, because they were mean to you?” … No, their question is, “should we nuke the Samaritans because they were hostile to you?” … Spoiler alert, Jesus says no, and rebukes them for their question.
But again, there is a history between the two. This is not a New Testament revelation.
The Samaritans were considered half-breeds. They were a subset of the Jewish population that had mixed with the Gentiles – the non-Jews. During one of the Assyrian conquests, this population of the Northern Kingdom of Israel intermarried with non-Jews, and settled in the land of Samaria. The Jews of the South in Judea more or less disowned them, considering them less than pure, less than worthy, and certainly outside the true lineage of the covenant of God.
The two warred against each other – the Jews destroyed the temple of Samaria, which was located at Mount Gerizim. The Samaritans defiled the Jewish temple with pig’s blood. In the Old Testament history, we see this feud portrayed through the city of Shechem, which was a central city in Samaria. It was Shechem himself, the city’s namesake, that raped Dinah, who was Jacob’s daughter … following this action, Dinah’s brothers went by sword and killed every male in the city, including Shechem himself. The two populations literally warred with each other, often killing whole subsets of each other’s populations.
To grasp just how difficult their relationship was, it should be named that the city of Shechem, and the region that was once known as Samaria, is in what has been whittled down from the 1940s into what we know today as the West Bank. If you want to understand the weight of this parable as Jesus first told the story, tell it in the Jerusalem Temple today as “The Parable of the Good Palestinian from the West Bank.”
Better yet, tell it to a CBP Officer or ICE Agent as “The Parable of the Good Mexican.”
Or tell it to a community association as “The Parable of the Good Convict.”
Or tell it at the next Democratic National Convention as “The Parable of the Good Republican.”
What person is it hardest to imagine Christ saying to you, God is working through this person? … That’s probably who Christ would use in this parable were he telling this story to you today. … That’s who the Samaritan was for the Jewish listeners in the 1st Century. It was the last person they could imagine being faithful to God.
The parable was meant to be offensive. The lawyer was trying to find a way out of loving those he didn’t want to love, and Jesus says, there is no person to whom you cannot show love if you are seeking faithfulness … if you are seeking true life.
At the end, Jesus again flips the question. The lawyer had asked, “Who is my neighbor?” In telling the story, Jesus responds by asking him, “Which one of these three men, the priest, the Levite, or the Samaritan was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”
The question is no longer, “who is myneighbor?” The question becomes, “which one is the neighbor to the other?” The emphasis goes from the responsibility of the other, to the responsibility of the self.
The lawyer answers Jesus’ question, though he cannot use Jesus’ words, because to do so would be to admit that good can come from the very people he hated most. Instead of saying, “the Samaritan was the neighbor,” he says, “the one who showed mercy.”
Jesus’ final response is actionable: “Go and do likewise.”
We can come up with all kinds of reasons to hate on other people. We can come up with any number of reasons to be at war with others. We can name any number of differences that lead us to have hatred toward other groups of people, defined by whatever demographic marker we want to use to identify or marginalize them … but in the parable, in the Biblical word, Jesus offers that no distinction will let us off of offering to them the very love and mercy God offers for us. It matters not who they are, where they are from, what difficulties we may have had in our past – what matters is, can I see the person, can I draw near to them, can I care for them? … Can I show them mercy? This, Christ says, is faithfulness. This love of the other is the very synopsis of all the law – to love God, and to love your neighbor. So go, and do likewise. Amen.