Amos 7:7-17 – Amos’ call to prophesy. He prophesies against Israel and Jereboam.
Deuteronomy 30:9-14 – God will make you prosper if you obey. The word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.
Psalm 82 – Defend the poor and the orphan. Vindicate the oppressed and suffering!
Psalm 25:1-10 – Teach me your paths O Lord. Remember not the sins of my youth!
Colossians 1:1-14 – Paul and Timothy write to the church at Colossae, commending them for their faith, and their love, made known to them by Epaphras. They pray that the church there may bear fruit in every good work and be prepared to endure what may come with patience.
Luke 10:25-37 – The parable of the Good Samaritan. Jesus: “Go and do likewise.”
The Good Samaritan
Check put my Connections article on a conversation with Luke scholar Mikeal Parsons at Baylor. This conversation left me intrigued with the story of the Good Samaritan, and other stories unique to Luke’s gospel.
Wherever people are divided by race, ethnicity and religion, this story is incredibly applicable. So, basically everywhere, but especially here, and now.
Samaria was located between Galilee, the home of Jesus, to the north, and Judea, the home of the Jerusalem Temple, to the south. Samaritan society was a racially and religiously intermixed DMZ between the two. Jews had intermarried with indigenous folks and with those who had immigrated from surrounding nations. They were a more racially diverse society.
Along with these other cultures came their religions. Although the Samaritans were monotheistic adherents to the law, pagan idols and temples existed alongside traditional Jewish monotheistic religion. Samaritans allowed the name of Yahweh to be pronounced, and differed in other ways from the Jews. Their religious observance was considered contaminated. They were to be avoided at all costs. They were shunned and looked down upon, which is what gives the story of the Good Samaritan its edge. Without some understanding of the Jewish relationship to Samaritans, it will be hard for our congregants to hear this as more than an injunction to help people on the road (which it is, but so much more).
Later, in Acts 8:14-17, Luke recounts the ministry to the Samaritans. This happens between the ministry to the Jews in Acts 1-7 and the ministry to the Gentiles that follows.
Last week we heard the sending of the seventy (or seventy-two). After a short soliloquy in which Jesus give thanks that God has hidden “these things” from the wise, and revealed them to little children (shades of the Magnificat), Jesus is approached by a lawyer asking about eternal life.
Spoiler alert: Luke 10 and 11 from this point are about love of God and neighbor. This is not just in the points made, but also built into the structure of the text. Parsons (Luke, Paideia series) points out the chiastic (A-B-B-A) structure:
A – On loving neighbors (parable of the good Samaritan, Luke 10:29–37)—example, Samaritan as Christ figure
B – On loving the Lord (Mary and Martha, Luke 10:38–42); example, Mary
B′ – On loving the Lord (the Lord’s Prayer, Luke 11:1–4); example, Jesus
A′ – On loving neighbors/friends (the parable of the friend at midnight, Luke 11:5–13); example, friend seeking bread
Fortunately, we read all of these in the RCL:
July 14: Luke 10:25-37 (The Good Samaritan)
July 21: Luke 10:38-42 (Mary and Martha)
July 28: Luke 11:1-13 (Lord’s Prayer and Friend at Midnight)
A “lawyer” (νομικός) stood up to test Jesus. This kind of debate, which I will discuss in a minute, is perfectly normal. “Lawyer” refers to one who is learned in the Mosaic law, not an attorney in the modern sense. It would not be uncommon for two observant Jews to debate the application of some matter of the law.
The lawyer asks: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” The lawyer doesn’t ask, “What must I do to get into heaven when I die?” though this is what most of our folks will hear. Obviously, there is an afterlife component to eternal life, but eternal life begins now. It breaks into this world as well, like the reign of God.
In typical rabbinical fashion, Jesus answers the question with a question. He will do the same after the parable: “Which of these was a neighbor to the man who fell among robbers?” Jesus invites the lawyer answer his own question. Not only is this a rabbinic way of teaching, it is also Socratic, something Luke would likely have known about. The Socratic method used friendly debate, asking and answering questions, to stimulate critical thinking. When someone thinks through a matter, and arrives at a conclusion, they are more likely to remember it. In our society we often see debate as hostile, rather than as a dialectical way to ferret out truth. We want everyone to agree, or at least pretend to agree. This puts us in danger of engaging in superficial community. We also feel uncomfortable leaving the questions open, and feel there must be a right and wrong, orthodox and heretical answer to everything, rather than a recognition of mystery, and the humility of a knowledge that is incomplete, only made perfect in love.
Parsons names this a rhetorical device. The lawyer takes the bait and quotes the Shemah, Deuteronomy 6:5, and then Leviticus 19:18. Matthew 22 is the parallel here, however Matthew has Jesus answering the question himself. The Good Samaritan story is unique to Luke. I often marvel at what we would miss without Luke’s gospel: Zaccheus, The Prodigal Son, The Good Samaritan, the Nunc Dimittis, the Magnificat…
Jesus acknowledges that this is a good answer. Love God. Love neighbor. That’s it. Go do it.
“But wanting to justify himself…” Dr. Parsons suggested to me that of the canonical evangelists, Luke has the best handle on Paul’s theology. He was referencing Luke’s stuff about Paul in Acts, but we see bits of it here.
For those familiar with it, here is the Greek:
ὁ δὲ θέλων δικαιῶσαι ἑαυτὸν εἶπεν πρὸς τὸν Ἰησοῦν, kαὶ τίς ἐστίν μου πλησίον;
δικαιόω means “to render righteous.” This reflects back to Abraham “being reckoned righteous” in Genesis, for believing God’s promise. There is a clear theology of justification by grace through faith here. The lawyer isn’t thinking about being reckoned righteous by trusting God. He is thinking about justifying himself, by his good work, and justifying his current bias.
The word ἑαυτὸν means “self.” The lawyer wants to make himself righteous, or more colloquially, “justify himself.” In what way? The answer is in his question. “But who is my neighbor?”
In the Greek:
Καὶ τίς ἐστίν μου πλησίον;
Καὶ can mean “and,” “but” and other things. It’s fun to play with the tone of the question:
And who is my neighbor?
But who is my neighbor?
So who is my neighbor?
Then who is my neighbor?
I like “but.” Who do I have to love? Who do I not have to love? Perhaps the lawyer is trying to draw a circle encompassing those neighbors whom he must love, with those he need not love – those outside the circle. Remember, this is the Jesus who has called his followers to love even their enemies, just four chapters ago (Luke 6:27, 35).
Today’s listeners may ask the same questions. If a family member is hungry or thirsty, playing poverty or violence, I know I have to help. But what about a stranger? Or someone from another country? Another religion? Who am I called to love? Am I called to love immigrants? Am I called to love those with whom I disagree? Must I worship with them? Am I called to love ISIS? What does that mean? How do we pray for our enemies? For their conversion from hatred and hostility? For their well-being?
Who is my neighbor? Is my neighbor the person who lives in the house on my right or left, or the whole neighborhood? Or those in my neighborhood who share my faith, or ethnicity? Does Leviticus mean I must love my fellow Jew, or does it go beyond that?
Jesus could give a pat answer if he wanted to, but then it would devolve to a matter of opinion. Jesus does not just want to lecture the lawyer. He wants to convert, convince, inspire, transform.
A tangent about preaching: Do we preach for information? Inspiration? Transformation? Do we believe that if people have the right information everything will work out? Do we assume with the right information they will do the right thing? Do we assume that we as preachers have all the right information and they don’t? What information do we have? What information do they have that we need? How do we move beyond information to inspiration? How do we move beyond inspiration to transformational preaching? How are we inviting people to respond to the message? As my seminary preaching professor Paul Harms used to write at the bottom of our embryonic sermons: “So what?”
Back to the text. Jesus could answer the question. He could respond with another question. He will, eventually. But first he employs another rabbinic technique: He tells a story.
“Once upon a time…” Our minds are wired for stories. Stories convey multiple layers of truth that cannot be conveyed through didactic statements, laws, rules, doctrines. The brain craves stories. Stories are sticky.
“Every culture bathes their children in stories to explain how the world works and to engage and educate their emotions. Perhaps story patterns could be considered another higher layer of language. A sort of meta-grammar shaped by and shaping conventions of character types, plots, and social-rule dilemmas prevalent in our culture.” http://bigthink.com/ideafeed/how-the-human-brain-became-hardwired-to-tell-stories
I think I would be a better preacher if I used more stories and questions. Lead people to discover the obvious conclusion for themselves. Recognize that platitudes don’t stick, but stories do. The Good Samaritan is a great example. What good stories with surprise endings can you tell that invite us to see the stranger as our neighbor?
You know the story. I won’t belabor it. Should the priest obey the law against corpse defilement, or help the neighbor? Which law should prevail? Jesus seems to think everyone knows the answer. If your donkey falls in a ditch on the Sabbath, you know what to do. The answer is obvious. Compassion is at the heart of the law.
The one who renders aid is the Samaritan, who is despised by the lawyer. Jesus’ question is the ultimate in inductive teaching. “You tell me: Who is the neighbor in this story?” The lawyer is forced to admit the Samaritan is his neighbor. I like to imagine he had trouble even responding. Whispering at first. “Um, the, uh, Sam…” Jesus, “Sorry. Didn’t get that. What did you say? A little louder. Who is your neighbor?”
Parsons points out that many scholars dismiss a christological reading of this story: C. A. Evans 1990, 178, states flatly: “The Samaritan is not Jesus.” But Lutherans know Luther interpreted everything christologically, sometimes to a fault, bending some Old Testament texts away from their original meaning. Of course Paul did this too, with his allegorical interpretations (e.g. Sarah and Hagar). Parsons points out that Luke uses “he felt compassion” only three times, and the other two are for God-figures (like the father in the Prodigal Son). Parsons is not so quick to dismiss a christological interpretation. But the beauty of it, is the text may be understood on many different levels. The story can have meaning when you are 12 and when you are 80.
Augustine didn’t shy from allegorical interpretation of the Good Samaritan either. In Quaestiones Evangeliorum II:19, he said “A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho,” is the loss of innocence in the Garden of Eden. The man is Adam, according to Augustine. Jericho signifies our mortality. The thieves are the devil and his angels. They stripped and beat him, meaning, they enticed him to fall into sin. The priest and Levite could not produce salvation by the law. The Samaritan is Christ. The oil is hope. The wine is the Spirit. The beast is Christ’s incarnate flesh. The inn is the church. The next day is the resurrection. The two coins are the commands to love God and neighbor. The innkeeper is Paul. And so on. You’ve got to love Augustine.
At the end of the story, after the lawyer admits the Samaritan is the neighbor of the story, Jesus says, “Go and do likewise.” This makes it seem like a morality play. At one level it is, but we know there are always many levels to a story. What does “do likewise” mean? Help the stranded? Yes. Love across ethnic and religious boundaries? Yes. Recognize the neighbor in the other? Yes. Jesus answers the “so what?” Now, go and live it.
Here’s a furtive question to leave everyone squirming a little bit: First century Palestinian Jews had no dealings with Samaritans. With whom do you have no dealings? [The Word in Life Study Bible, New Testament Edition, (Thomas Nelson Publishers, Nashville; 1993), pp. 340-341]
Oh, and keep in mind, Jesus was rejected by a Samaritan village in the previous chapter, which we read two weeks ago. Could you make a hero out of those who rejected you?
Questions: Another Way to Approach the Text
I love the wonderful Godly Play question: “What do you wonder about in this story?“ It invites questions, imagination, discovery.
Try this: I have preached a couple sermons where the entire sermon consisted of questions. They were questions I had about the text, but also leading questions, that pointed people to curiosities in the text and made them think for themselves. This summer, try constructing a sermon like that and see what happens. Not answers. Questions. It is a Aristotelian, inductive way of teaching. It is the way Jesus uses in this story, by telling a story and asking questions. He allows his listeners to draw their own conclusions.
Read this coming Sunday’s gospel text, Luke 10:25-37. Off the top of my head, some of my questions might be:
• What do you wonder about this story?
• I wonder: What does lawyer mean in this context? Is this an attorney? What law are we talking about?
• What does the lawyer mean by “eternal life?“ Does he just mean unending? Or is there more to the question?
• Why does he use the word inherit? Like inheriting something from a relative who died?
• What do I have to do to inherit eternal life?
• Why does Jesus always answer a question with a question?
• Does Jesus want the lawyer to answer his own question?
• Does the lawyer’s answer to Jesus, answer my previous question about what law we are talking about, and what kind of lawyer this is?
• Why does the lawyer pick these two things as the most important: love God and love neighbor?
• Is the passage about loving the Lord your God with all your heart soul mind and strength the most important passage in the Jewish tradition? Is it true that observant Jews recited this passage daily?
• How does Jesus feel about this answer? Why is Jesus’ response so positive?
• What does Jesus tell the lawyer to do with his own answer to the question?
• When Jesus says “Do this and you will live,“ doesn’t mean after you die, or right now, or both?
• If it also includes life now, what is it mean to truly live now? What does it mean to not truly be fully alive in this life? Am I fully alive? Am I fully awake?
• Why does the lawyer need to then justify himself? What does that mean exactly? Is Luke using the word the same way Paul uses the words justify and justification?
• Why does the lawyer ask the question, “Who is my neighbor?”Why does he need to ask this particular question? He’s already said loving your neighbor is the most important thing, so is he trying to identify who is not his neighbor, and therefore who he need not love?
• Why does Jesus always respond by telling stories? Why doesn’t he just answer the question plainly?
• Why does Jesus immediately go to a story about someone who has fallen into misfortune through the fault of his own? Why does Jesus begin with a story about someone who is “half dead?” Hmm.
• Robbed, stripped and beaten nearly to death: What emotion might this kind of story immediately evoke in the lawyer, and the other people standing around? What feelings does it invoke in you?
• Why does Jesus mention specifically the road from Jerusalem to Jericho? Is this a road with which the lawyer and those listening are familiar? Might some of them have actually come upon this very experience, much like people in urban centers come across the homeless sleeping under bridges and on park benches?
• What is a Levite?
• Why might the priest in the Levite have passed by? Was there danger? Inconvenience? Apathy? Religious scruples?
• Why does Jesus use a Samaritan, a person he knows his listeners despise, as the protagonist in the story? What feelings and conflicts make this surface in those listening?
• What current events in our world does this story bring to mind? What feelings do those events evoke in you? Can you write them down? How might Jesus be suggesting we respond to those events?
• What feelings does the sight of the half dead man evoke in the Samaritan? What word does Luke use? What does it mean?
• Why does Luke describe the Samaritans feelings?
• What actions are prompted by those feelings?
• Why does the Samaritan pour oil and wine on the wounds?
• How are oil and wine used in worship today? Could there be any connection?
• When the Samaritan put the man on his animal, does that mean that the Samaritan has to walk the rest of the way?
• Why does the Samaritan take the man to an inn? What kind of inn? Are there no hospitals?
• Why does the Samaritan give the innkeeper two coins, two denarii, two days’ wages?
• What would two days’ wages be worth today? Given the average income? Given my income? Have I ever done something like this? Have I ever been this generous to an individual who had fallen into a hard place? Could I, going forward? What would this look like? Would I respond to a sudden, urgent situation like this?
• Why did the Samaritan say, to the innkeeper, “When I come back, I will repay you whatever you spend?“ Is this not a blank check? Could this not turn out to be an enormous sum? Might it have been wiser for him to set a limit on this generosity?
• “When I return… send “Where have I heard that before in the gospels?
• Why is Jesus telling this story? What was the question he was originally asked?
• How does Jesus answer the question?
• Why does Jesus ask yet another question, “Which of the three was the neighbor?“
• Which of the three was ,in fact, a neighbor? How do you answer the question?
• How did the lawyer answer the question? What do you read?
• How are we showing mercy today in our current circumstances?
• How do you understand the story? Do you read it literally or allegorically?
• Would you tend toward Saint Augustine‘s christological interpretation, in which we are the ones in the ditch, Christ is the good Samaritan who saves, the priest and Levite are the law and the prophets who do not save, the inn is the church, the innkeeper is the apostle Paul, the wine and oil, and the two coins are the sacraments, and the Samaritan/Christ says I will come again and re-pay all that is owed? Would you agree with this interpretation?
• Or is this a story about Samaritans, and who is your neighbor? Would that also not be an allegorical understanding?
• Could the story possibly have multiple leanings on multiple levels, for multiple audiences?
• What is the last thing Jesus says in this text?
• If the story is understood allegorically, Why does Jesus say “Go and do likewise?”
• What is Jesus saying to you right now?