Good Samaritan

This Sunday’s text is built around the so-called Parable of the Good Samaritan, preceded by the controversy that generates the parable and followed by the story of Jesus’ interaction with Mary and Martha.

February 17, 2013

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Commentary on Luke 10:25-42

This Sunday’s text is built around the so-called Parable of the Good Samaritan, preceded by the controversy that generates the parable and followed by the story of Jesus’ interaction with Mary and Martha.

Reading them together, pay attention to what is important that the characters — and by extension, also we readers — ought to do.

Luke regularly presents lawyers, expert interpreters of the Law, as antagonists to Jesus. That picture is reinforced here with the notice that the lawyer is “testing” Jesus, just as the devil did and shouldn’t have (cf. 4:12!). The lawyer may call Jesus “Teacher,” but he really is putting himself in the position of grading Jesus’ answer. Jesus quickly changes the dynamic of the situation by posing a question back to him and grading the lawyer’s response with a “You have given the right answer.”

The lawyer, however, wants to “justify” himself, and that’s not good both in the ‘small’ sense of asserting one’s correctness (cf. Luke 16:15; 18:14) and the Pauline ‘big’ sense of being made righteous (cf. Acts 13:38f.). He poses a challenging question to Jesus, but Jesus once again turns the tables by telling the parable, resulting in yet another question that the lawyer reluctantly answers before being dismissed by Jesus.

Jesus clearly controls the whole scene and proves to be the true “Teacher,” but also pay close attention to the questions and how they shift through the account.

  • The lawyer asks, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” After their exchange, Jesus says, “Do this, and you will live.” Are those two things the same, or is Jesus trying to get the lawyer to think differently about “life”?
  • When the lawyer tries to justify himself and ask, “Who is my neighbor?”, what exactly is he asking? Is the emphasis on the “who,” the “is,” the “my,” or the “neighbor”? His inquiry seems to be a reasonable one. Is it really possible to love everyone? It would help to have some limits on neighborliness. I think, then, that what the lawyer is really asking is, “To whom must I do neighborly acts?”
  • Note, however, how Jesus has changed matters by the end of the parable when he asks the lawyer, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” Instead of focusing on the object of one’s actions, Jesus focuses on the subject and essentially is asking, “Who did neighborly acts?”
  • Unable to utter the word “Samaritan,” the lawyer responds, “The one who showed him mercy.” Now, when Jesus says to him, “Go and do likewise,” we have a direct answer to the lawyer’s initial question, but the terms of the argument certainly have changed.

The parable itself is well told. We really do not know anything about the person who is going down from Jerusalem to Jericho. He could be a merchant or perhaps a priest returning home after performing his month of duties in the Temple. After he is stripped of his clothes (which might have given some idea of his status), he is left truly anonymous.

The wording is very clear how the priest and Levite make a wide loop around the victim. Could he be ‘bait’ to trap them? Or are they simply afraid of acquiring uncleanness? This latter would not really be an acceptable excuse, since the best evidence we have of rabbinic regulations indicates that preservation of life really is a priority that trumps all others.

In many story forms, there are often three characters, so after the priest and Levite have departed, the audience is indeed expecting the third character to provide the contrast. Since the first two were from the priestly class, one possibility is that the next one along will be a layperson. Since, this whole story has been initiated by a lawyer, however, I suspect that everyone was expecting a lawyer to show up on the scene. So when Jesus says, “A Samaritan…”, there was doubtless a gasp from the Jewish audience.

As we saw in the preceding lesson from Luke 9:51-53 for Ash Wednesday, there was tremendous hostility between Jews and Samaritans. Yet not only does this Samaritan show “compassion” (using splanchnizomai, a term regularly used to characterize both God and Jesus in the Gospels), but he tends to the wounds, brings him to an inn, and then, if the story isn’t already stretching believability, gives the innkeeper a blank check.

Usually this parable is given a moral reading, the logic for which rests on something like, “If a lousy Samaritan can be a good neighbor, I suppose I can be one too.” That’s not what Jesus meant, and it’s no way to read a parable. Let me suggest some parabolic alternatives.

The victim was stripped, beaten, and left for dead. Sound familiar? From a Christian viewpoint, if we think of Jesus as that person, then how do we read? Are we not forced to conclude, “We are the Samaritan”? Can you imagine any self-respecting Jew in Jesus’ day saying that? From this perspective, we are forced to conclude that being a neighbor is not simply a matter of doing good but of identifying with the last, lost, least, little, and lifeless.

From a Jewish perspective, a Samaritan would be despised and rejected, and in the story, he is identified as one who heals and who will come again. Sound familiar? Again, from a Christian viewpoint, if we think of Jesus as the Samaritan, then how do we read? It means that we are the victims in the ditch. If that’s the case, then would we even welcome healing/salvation from one who is despised, rejected, and comes in a totally unexpected way? If we understand ourselves to be as good as dead, who will we want as our neighbor? Do we protest that it would only be over our dead body that we would recognize such salvation? Or is it precisely the point: only when we discover how dead we are that experience the healing and saving compassion of God in Christ?

This same tension between helping and being helped appears in the Mary and Martha story that follows. Remember, Jesus told the lawyer to love God and neighbor: “Do this, and you will live.” At the end of the parable, he told the lawyer to “Go and do likewise” in showing mercy. Martha sure looks like the do-er, and both in that culture and in ours today, I think she would be commended for her service (diakonia). Jesus is sympathetic to Martha and her busyness, but he is also very clear that her worries and distractions are not good.

So what’s going on here? Did Jesus tell the lawyer to “do” with the awareness that he would never be able to “do” it right? Is Martha like the priest and Levite so busy and distracted that she misses the needful thing? Was it a hard choice for Mary to sit and listen to Jesus and let Martha do all the work? Are we all in such denial of death that we think we can work our way out of the ditch we find our battered selves in?

Only one thing is needed. One part will not be taken away. Only one person has the words of life that will actually save us.