Text Study for Luke10:25-37 (Part Five)

At the end of all the interesting exegesis, preachers still gotta preach. Mikeal Parsons, in his workingpreacher.org commentary, invites us to revisit a Christological reading of the parable.  By that he means that we can and perhaps should read the parable as a way of understanding more fully Jesus’ person and work in the context of the Lukan account. Which character most clearly reflects Jesus in the story? Which actions look most like what Jesus would do (and is doing)?

Parsons points out that the word for “he had compassion” shows up three times in the Lukan account. In Luke 7:13, Jesus has compassion for the widow at Nain at the loss of her son. He tells her not to weep and then raises her son from the dead. In Luke 15:20, the father sees his wandering younger son from a far distance. He is filled with compassion, runs to the son, wraps his arms around him, and kisses him. The father character seems to represent God in the parable of the Lost Sons.

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“In other words,” Parsons suggests, “’showing compassion’ in the Lukan narrative is a divine prerogative and a divine action. Here is our first clue in the text of Luke itself that the Good Samaritan,” he continues, “when he shows compassion on the man in the ditch, is functioning figuratively as God’s agent.” I think it’s important to remember that Parsons and others do not impose this interpretive move on the text. Rather, he seeks clues in the text that call for this perspective.

At the other end of the parable, Parsons points to the lawyer’s description of the one who acted as neighbor to the man in the ditch. The neighbor was the one who treated the man with mercy. Parsons notes that both Jesus and the Lukan author allow this description to stand without comment or correction. He points out that nearly every instance of the word “mercy” in the Lukan account is connected with actions by God or God’s representative. “Within the immediate context of Luke’s Gospel,” Parsons writes, “the Good Samaritan, who ‘shows compassion’ and ‘does mercy,’ functions as a ‘Christ’ figure who ultimately acts as God’s agent.”

If we treat the parable, Parsons argues, primarily as an example story (“go and do likewise”), we are missing an important point. In spite of lots of interpretation to the contrary (including some of my own), the story is not really told from the perspective of the man who fell among the robbers. “Rather,” Parsons suggests, “Jesus’ admonition to the lawyer demands that the primary perspective be that of the Good Samaritan, whose example the lawyer is admonished to follow.”

Given the textual hints Parsons has collected, we may have not only permission but some pressure to read and proclaim this text Christologically. “Thus,” he concludes, “we have in its literary context a call by Jesus to imitate the compassionate Samaritan and in so doing to imitate the compassion of Jesus himself. Ethical admonition is grounded in a Christological basis.”

This Christological reading was Martin Luther’s favorite way to read and to preach our text. Mark Tranvik’s article reviews Luther’s reading and preaching and is worth discussing in this regard. “Luther does not see the good Samaritan as a model of Christian discipleship,” Tranvik writes. “Instead he picks up on a long tradition of allegorical interpretation that sees not the listener but Christ as the good Samaritan…this changes the focus of the parable and allows Luther to proclaim the good news of God’s radical grace in Christ while not losing the idea that this parable ‘relocates’ the Christian in the world” (page 253).

Tranvik reminds us that this Christological reading is related to but not the same as the allegorical reading of texts fostered in Alexandria, brought to fruition by St. Augustine, and carried to sometimes ridiculous extremes in the Medieval Church. In that perspective, the Parable of the Good Samaritan comes to represent and reproduce “the entire Christian drama from the creation and fall of humanity to its reconciliation in Christ” (page 254).

Luther believes that such an interpretation leaves the text behind and indulges the imagination of the interpreter. The unfortunate outcome is that while some metaphorical interpretation is good, more is perceived to be better (and better, and better). Luther waxes allegorical, but within the confines of the text. In our reading, Tranvik suggests, “the emphasis on the centrality of the neighbor is crucial for Luther. Christ is the true exemplar of the Christian life, which ought to direct love outward toward the neighbor—a decided contrast to the self-serving piety that Luther believes has infected the church of his day” (page 255).

In his preaching, Luther notes that the man is as good as dead. This is the condition of the sinner in relationship to God as well. Christ carries us to healing and salvation because we cannot make the journey on our own. “Having been healed totally by Christ,” Tranvik summarizes, “the victim is now restored and able to turn outward and truly fulfill the commandment of loving God and neighbor.”

Luther’s interpretation creates paths toward his polemical agendas in preaching. He hammers away at works righteousness by pointing out that all the actions are taken by the Samaritan and none by the nearly-dead man. He goes after those who are more concerned about proper religious practice than about works of compassion and mercy for those in need. He attacks those who think that making monuments and enduring pilgrimages are adequate substitutes for hands-on neighbor love.

While we don’t need to share Luther’s polemical concerns, I think we can still have sympathy with the spirit of his critiques. Life presents many candidates for such critiques in our time.

Luther’s Christological interpretation gets around to application, especially in terms of his understanding of Christian vocation, as Tranvik points out. Neighbor love begins with those closest to us – in our home and family, our work and play, our community and church. “Get about the business of being an attentive spouse, citizen, or worker,” Tranvik imagines Luther as saying, “There’s plenty to do and, if taken seriously, your calling will wound you. But then Christ will be there as well, fixing you up, and getting you back on the horse” (page 261).

If this Christological interpretation of the text has merit (and I think it does), then another consideration comes to the fore. Jesus identifies God (and himself) with the Samaritan. Jesus comes to us as One who knows what it means to be Other, to be excluded, to be ostracized, to be reviled, to be abandoned. We may indeed find ourselves lying in a ditch, naked and alone, nearly dead and devoid of hope. The One who comes to us is one who is familiar with our plight. The One who comes to us stands in solidarity with all who have fallen among robbers and are left for dead.

I think I might remind listeners of the wonderful words in Hebrews 2:14-18 (NRSV) here. “Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood,” we read in verses 14 and 15, “he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death.” Just as the Samaritan could knew intimately the pain of being alone and afraid, so Jesus knows intimately the terror of mortality, dying in a ditch.

This is why Luther talking about the “crucified God” and why Bonhoeffer wrote that “only a suffering God can help.” The writer of Hebrews concludes chapter 2 (verse 18, NRSV) with these words: “Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.” I think this Christological solidarity in suffering may be the most important element of the parable for our preaching.

In that solidarity of suffering, all the masks fall away. All the pretending is past. The writer of Hebrews reminds of this reality in chapter 4. The power of the word of God is to pierce our pretensions and relieve us of our self-delusion. “Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account” (verses 12 and 13, NRSV).

We lie in the ditch of real life, laid bare and unable to move. In that moment of ultimate exposure, we are saved (and saved and saved and saved). “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin,” the writer of Hebrews continues. “Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (4:15-16).

As we receive mercy and find grace, we are equipped to help others in time of need. That is the graceful and grateful vocation of a Jesus follower.

References and Resources

Capon, Robert Farrar. Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus. Kindle Edition.

Hultgren, Arland J. “Enlarging the Neighborhood: The Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10: 25–37).” Word & World 37, no. 1 (2017): 71-8.

Levine, Amy-Jill. Short Stories by Jesus. HarperOne. Kindle Edition.

Levine, Amy-Jill, and Witherington III, Ben. The Gospel of Luke (New Cambridge Bible Commentary). Cambridge University Press, 2018.

Swanson, Richard W. Provoking the Gospel of Luke: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Year C. Cleveland, OH.: Pilgrim Press, 2006.

Tranvik, Mark D. “The Good Samaritan as Good News: Martin Luther and the Recovery of the Gospel in Preaching.” Word & World 38, no. 3 (2018).

Text Study for Luke 10:25-37 (Part Four)

“Who, then, is my neighbor?” It is such a deceptively simple question. But let’s think about it together. I can read that question from a demographic perspective. Who are the people with which I live in proximity? I live in what was originally a first-ring suburb, a White-flight destination. But that reality is two generations past.

Now, I live in a neighborhood with a small amount of racial and ethnic diversity in the single-family homes. I live next to an apartment complex with a much higher amount of racial, economic, linguistic, ethnic, and age diversity. Our property is one of only a few in the neighborhood that actually touches both the single-family properties and the multi-unit property. Most of my single-family neighbors do not regard the apartment people as their neighbors, although we do.

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I’m wondering how even that geographic proximity affects our perceptions. Most of my single-family neighbors regard the children of the apartment dwellers as interlopers and potential threats. They monitor those children (mostly BIPOC folks) with suspicion and tend to ascribe anything negative in the neighborhood as their fault. We don’t see those kids the same way and have come to know some of them a bit. They are our neighbors.

Who, then, is my neighbor? Is that a question of definition? Perhaps the lawyer remembers that “neighbors” in the Leviticus 19:18 text are Israelites, not “foreigners.” I think at least some of my physical neighbors believe that their neighbors are supposed to be white, middle-class, native-born Americans who own their houses, pay their taxes, and have nice lawns. Those who fall outside such parameters don’t qualify for the “neighbor” label.

This takes us to a third way of hearing and reading the question. Who should be my neighbor? Arland Hultgren argues that this is the real nub of the conversation in our text. He writes that “the thrust of the story and the follow-up question of Jesus expose the initial question for what it is, namely an attempt to classify people into two groups: those who are the neighbors whom I am to love, thereby keeping the love commandment, and those who are beyond my circle of concern” (page 75).

Hultgren argues that “making that distinction is wrong.” The issue is not about defining “neighbor” in order to determine who’s in and who’s out. “One’s concern should be,” he concludes, “How can I be a neighbor to anyone in need?” (page 75). As you know from my previous post, I’m not sure that’s how the rhetoric of the text actually works out. But the outcome is virtually the same.

Jesus followers shall not allow the boundaries of human enmity to determine the scope of neighbor love. God does not allow the boundaries of enmity between God and sin to determine the scope of God’s love. In fact, God’s love renders those boundaries null and void. For God, the boundaries of enmity are not removed in order for neighbor love to cross. Instead, neighbor love crosses those boundaries, and in the crossing dismantles them.

Here’s how I would put it in theological terms. Grace is the source of reconciliation. Reconciliation is not the precondition for grace. The Samaritan comes as neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers. The Samaritan continues that neighborliness to the end. Will the man be changed by that encounter and see the Samaritan now as neighbor?

Like most interpreters and preachers, Hultgren reads the text as a story about the call to help others in need. “How far am I obligated as a Christian,” Hultgren asks, “to help another who is in need” (page 75). The story and our reflections will get us to that question, I agree. But that’s not the first stop on the rhetorical journey. Will I risk accepting help from, being vulnerable to, being naked and alone with one who is by historical definition and social convention, the Enemy? Can I endure the danger of allowing grace to come ahead of guarantees?

The Samaritan is the “hero” of the story – if a hero is to be found. We who are part of the dominant culture in America always want to identify with the hero. Entertainment media has complied with that desire by making our historical heroes White like us. I’d refer you to Kristin Kobes Du Mez’s work in Jesus and John Wayne for the straight scoop in that regard. We press the Samaritan into that mold and assume that somehow, he is just like us.

But the Samaritan is not like a White, privileged, powerful, and propertied American. And I can’t make him to be so. This Samaritan is the Enemy, the Outsider, the Half-Breed, the Traitor, the Heretic, and so much more – at least to first-century Jews. The character we can identify with is the man in the ditch – likely a Jew heading home after faithfully practicing his faith in the Jerusalem temple. This is a man of at least some privilege, power, property, and position.

Hultgren proposes a sort of “color-blind” sensibility for the Samaritan in the story. “The Samaritan crosses over religious and ethnic boundaries, and the fact that Jesus includes that feature within the parable makes it a crucial point,” Hultgren argues. “The Samaritan provides an example of one who does good to another person in need with any regard for religion or ethnicity. Authentic love,” he concludes, “pays no attention to religious, ethnic, or culture differences when need is present” (pages 76-77).

The Samaritan crosses those boundaries in the story. But there is no reason within the story to think that the Samaritan is anything but painfully aware of those boundaries. Only those with privilege and power can be oblivious to such boundaries. The Samaritan saves the man in the ditch in spite of those boundaries, not because they have now become somehow invisible or irrelevant. Love in action is always specific and incarnate. The Samaritan didn’t stop being a Samaritan. The Jew didn’t stop being a Jew.

I note this because Hultgren’s reasoning leads him to minimize the realities of racial, ethnic, religious, and economic boundaries in the works of neighbor love. Such boundaries “are simply there,” he writes. “But there is a perennial tendency, faced by each generation,” he concludes, “to make the distinctions more important than they are” (page 77). The real result of this way of thinking will not be more vocal neighbor love. The result is the continuing culture of oppressive silence when it comes to dealing with such boundaries.

Expanding the boundaries of our own neighborhoods of active care is a critical part of following Jesus in contemporary America. I agree wholeheartedly with Hultgren in that regard. But that focus leaves the powerful in positions of power. We are the ones who do the healing and helping, the soothing and saving. We are still the heroes, and control of the system still belongs to us (White people). Opening ourselves to the care of the Other – that’s even harder to do.

In my anti-racism book study, we’ve launched into a discussion of the twentieth anniversary edition of Beverly Daniel Tatum’s Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? Our conversation led us to reflect on the sources and causes of the generalized White fear of Black people. While the sources and causes are, to coin a phrase, legion, one of our members spoke with candor about a particular cause for the fear.

A significant expression of White fear, our friend noted, is the expectation that Black people will, given sufficient power and resources, at some point retaliate for the violence, oppression, injustice, hatred, and theft they have experienced at the hands of White people over the last four hundred years. After all, that is probably how White people would generally respond if the roles were reversed, right? The historical data is all too clear in that regard.

In this understanding, supported by studies, journalism, and other documentation, Whites and Blacks regard one another as enemies rather than as neighbors. At least some White people do not trust Black people to act with civility and restraint, given half a chance to act otherwise. Our mythology is that Black men are beasts who want our women and our money. Therefore, White fear leads to continued structures and systems of restraint and oppression directed toward Black people.

At the very least, White people continue to resist having Black people as actual neighbors in actual neighborhoods in actual villages, towns, and cities in the United States. That’s an interesting lens through which to read our text. We can ask it first of all, not as a theological question, but perhaps as a demographic and sociological question. In fact, where I live, who is my neighbor? And how does that impact how I live as a daily disciple?

More than that, will I as a White person risk being vulnerable enough to engage in relationships with those “unlike” me? Will I risk the possibility that I might say or do something hurtful to a BIPOC friend, colleague or associate and then have to ask forgiveness and receive correction? Or will I remain, as Robin D’Angelo puts it, a “nice racist”? Am I willing to lay naked and alone, hurting and vulnerable along the road and trust that a potential “enemy” could be my neighbor? I think that’s what we’re called to “go and do likewise.”

References and Resources

Capon, Robert Farrar. Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus. Kindle Edition.

Hultgren, Arland J. “Enlarging the Neighborhood: The Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10: 25–37).” Word & World 37, no. 1 (2017): 71-8.

Levine, Amy-Jill. Short Stories by Jesus. HarperOne. Kindle Edition.

Levine, Amy-Jill, and Witherington III, Ben. The Gospel of Luke (New Cambridge Bible Commentary). Cambridge University Press, 2018.

Swanson, Richard W. Provoking the Gospel of Luke: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Year C. Cleveland, OH.: Pilgrim Press, 2006.

Tranvik, Mark D. “The Good Samaritan as Good News: Martin Luther and the Recovery of the Gospel in Preaching.” Word & World 38, no. 3 (2018).

Text Study for Luke 10:25-37 (Part Three)

What if Jesus didn’t “switch questions” on the lawyer in Luke 10? What if the parable Jesus tells is a precise answer to the lawyer’s question? I’ve been thinking about that possibility today.

Let’s begin with the lawyer’s supposed frame of mind and motivation in posing the question. Most commentators assume that the lawyer comes with hostile intent – that his plan to “test” Jesus was in fact a desire to trap Jesus in a major theological faux pas. There are reasons behind that assumption. Others who “test” Jesus in the Lukan account and elsewhere are generally up to no good. In this view, the testing is an extension of Satan’s attacks on Jesus in the wilderness.

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That assumption – that “testing” is an indication of malice – is not, however, a certain conclusion. Richard Swanson suggests that the lawyer “acts in this scene as a building inspector. He probes to determine Jesus’ solidity,” Swanson continues. “Jesus does well in this test, which is a good outcome for all concerned” (page 162). A test can be an evaluation without hostile intent. It can be a measure of limits, tolerances, capacities, and constitution. It is possible to read the lawyer’s frame of mind in this way.

Levine and Witherington make a strong case for the lawyer’s malevolence. However, the points they make could just as easily point to the lawyer’s curious neutrality as to his active antipathy. The lawyer refers to Jesus as “Teacher” rather than as “Lord” or “Master.” That may indeed be a way to disrespect Jesus. But it could also be a way to simply withhold judgment. The lawyer’s question about eternal life could be a trick question that may produce an unorthodox answer. Or it may be a genuine inquiry.

There may be some of both motives in the question – some hostile pushback and some real curiosity. In the Lukan narrative, our text comes immediately after Jesus tells the disciples that they see and hear and know things that have been kept from “the wise and the intelligent.” The lawyer is a case study in this “wise and intelligent” cohort. The narrative seems to indicate that Jesus’ critique of conventional wisdom and intelligence was a public pronouncement as opposed to the private revelation to the disciples in Like 10:23-24.

Perhaps the lawyer resembles Jesus’ remarks in Luke 10:21-23 and wants some further conversation on this indictment. It would be understandable if the lawyer was somewhat offended by those comments. It is commendable if the lawyer responds by asking more questions rather than responding with rejection or violence. Perhaps the lawyer takes a deep breath, gathers himself, and releases his need for hitting back verbally or otherwise. Instead, he moves toward his discomfort and invites a theological dialogue.

“This is not a conflict scene,” writes Richard Swanson, “This is an argument scene. Argument is what people engage in if they respect each other and attempt to dig out the truth” (page 165). He suggests that this interaction is more like brainstorming than boxing, more like a “joyful competition that calls for a hug and maybe a beer afterward” (page 167). We don’t know if the interaction ends that way in our text. But we also don’t know that it doesn’t.

Jesus’ response indicates, according to Capon, that Jesus treats the question as a sincere inquiry rather than as a theological trap. I know that my psychological wiring predisposes me to assume that most questions are efforts to make me look stupid or to prove me wrong. I’m not suggesting that this is the actual case with most questions I get. I am saying that this is my default response – a default I’ve had to battle for a lifetime and which I work to discipline and tamp down all the time. I also think it’s a default response that is at least as much cultural and sociological as it is psychological.

It’s not a stretch to say that good questions were valued among first-century Jews. It’s accurate to say that answering a question with a question was and is regarded as good and necessary rabbinic practice. Jesus is not evading a response to the lawyer’s question. Jesus is accepting the invitation to debate and dig deeper. As an aside, we can learn a great deal from this reminder for our own lives in our churches. Jesus loves good questions (and the dialogue and debate produced) far more than supposed “good” answers. If only our theological (and political) life together in the Church shared this Jesus value set! We wouldn’t “know” anymore, but our life together would certainly be much more interesting.

Capon argues that by the time Jesus gets to the actual parable, he has chosen to drop his guard and put his suspicions on hold with regard to the lawyer’s motives. “As I read him,” Capon writes of Jesus, “he has decided to deal unsuspiciously, if provocatively, with what he takes to be a mind honestly curious about the mystery of lostness” (Kindle Locations 2650-2651). If Jesus takes the question of the lawyer as a sincere one, then it would be dishonest to switch that question and answer another.

Another critique of the lawyer’s malevolent motives is based on the words in Luke 10:29. The lawyer is reported as wanting to “justify himself” (in the NRSV rendering, for example). Any whiff of the odor of “self-justification” provokes a five-alarm theological emergency for us who are heirs of Luther and his reformation. Immediately, we assume that the lawyer is guilty of “works righteousness” and is certainly on the wrong track.

Swanson notes, however, that this translation is – at the least – unusual. He reminds us that neither the Lukan author nor Jesus is or was a Lutheran. The word translated as “justify” here needs attention. “In Jewish contexts,” Swanson writes, “the word is best translated as ‘be strictly observant.’” In other words, we can read the text as saying that the lawyer wanted to make sure he was getting things right theologically. So, he asked another question.

Swanson observes that the Greek verb is translated in the middle voice by most editions. In the middle voice, the action of the verb is taken for the benefit of the actor. We don’t have an English equivalent. But it would be far more typical to translate the verb as passive, with the action happening to the actor. “If the verb is passive,” Swanson argues, “it means that he wishes to be justified, not that he is seeking to justify himself.” Jesus’ parabolic response, as opposed to an outright rejection, indicates that Jesus hears the question as a need for deeper understanding rather than a desire to be a smart ass.

Richard Swanson puts it this way. “The middle voice creates a picture (for Protestant Christians, in any case) of a person who exhibits all the diagnostic signs of the basic theological misunderstanding that plagues human relations with God: asserting our own righteousness rather than accepting God’s forgiveness. The passive voice does the exact opposite,” he continues, “now the picture is of a person who has recognized that God’s grace is a free gift” (page 163).

Therefore, let’s move to Jesus’ response at the end of the parable. “Which of these three, do you suppose,” Jesus asks, “became a neighbor of the one who fell among the robbers?” The lawyer answers, “The one who did mercy with him.” Jesus concludes with the advice, “Go, and you do the same way” (Luke 1036-37, my translation).

We tend to read this as advice to do mercy to the wretches we find along our own roads. But that’s not really how the narrative works, in my opinion. The question the lawyer poses is, “Who, then, is my neighbor?” The answer Jesus gives is, “The one who does mercy to you, even if that one is a hated, despised, and dangerous enemy.” The action appropriate to the lawyer’s question is to be willing to receive neighboring from just such a one when it is offered.

My neighbor is not merely the one who is like me and whom I like. My neighbor may well be one who is completely other and whom I despise. I may find myself in place where I must accept neighboring from such an Other or die in a ditch, naked and alone. If we are invited first of all to identify with the man who fell among the robbers (and I think that’s the case), then this may be the answer Jesus offers to the lawyer’s question – sincerely put to Jesus or not.

I cannot avoid making a connection, now, to Romans 5:10. “For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son,” Paul writes, “much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life” (NRSV). Paul describes human beings as weak, sinners, enemies of God – and all in desperate need of healing, ransom, and rescue. We have fallen among robbers, are lying half-dead in a ditch. The One who can save us is the Wholly and Holy Other. And that One does.

As Jesus would ask, “What do you read?”

References and Resources

Capon, Robert Farrar. Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus. Kindle Edition.

Hultgren, Arland J. “Enlarging the Neighborhood: The Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10: 25–37).” Word & World 37, no. 1 (2017): 71-8.

Levine, Amy-Jill. Short Stories by Jesus. HarperOne. Kindle Edition.

Levine, Amy-Jill, and Witherington III, Ben. The Gospel of Luke (New Cambridge Bible Commentary). Cambridge University Press, 2018.

Swanson, Richard W. Provoking the Gospel of Luke: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Year C. Cleveland, OH.: Pilgrim Press, 2006.

Tranvik, Mark D. “The Good Samaritan as Good News: Martin Luther and the Recovery of the Gospel in Preaching.” Word & World 38, no. 3 (2018).

Text Study for Luke 10:25-37 (Part Two)

I referred in the previous post to Dr. King’s use of the parable in his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech of April 3, 1968. The speech was delivered in Memphis, Tennessee, the night before Dr. King was murdered on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. In that speech, he makes a brief but pointed reference to the parable. He draws a simple distinction between the first two travelers in the parable and the third, the Samaritan. The first two, Dr. King notes, asked (and I paraphrase), “If I stop, what will happen to me?” The Samaritan asks, “If I don’t stop, what will happen to him?”

Dr. King connects that question to his presence with and for the striking sanitation workers in Memphis. “That’s the question before you tonight,” King said, “Not, ‘If I stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to my job?’ Not, ‘If I stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to all of the hours that I usually spend in my office every day and every week as a pastor?’ The question is not, ‘If I stop to help this man in need, what will happen to me?’ The question is, ‘If I do not stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them?’ That’s the question,” Dr. King concluded.

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That’s an important and compelling framing of the central question in the text. However, I’m not sure it is quite the focus of the parable as presented in the Lukan account. As Matt Skinner notes in the current SermonBrainwave podcast, perhaps the question is different. Jesus asks the lawyer, “Who, then, was neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” The question is more about what it means to be neighbor than it is about what happened to the man. Perhaps, as Skinner suggests, the question is, “If I don’t stop, what will happen to me?”

In practical terms, if I don’t stop, nothing is going to happen to me. I’ll just go on my merry way. But if I have any compassion at all, I will take that beaten and bloodied man with me. And I will find myself to be less of a human being than I was before. That, I think, is what will happen to me.

As we travel to Sunday worship, we pass the same man on a street corner each week. He appears to be unhoused and with few resources. He has a hand-lettered sign and a few belongings in a pile along the street. He creates a new sign each week. It is always some variation of “Need help. All gifts appreciated.” When the stoplight at the corner is red, or there is no traffic behind us when it is green, we hand the man five or ten dollars. He always responds with a loud and clear “Thank you!”

I am blessed to share my life with a generous, compassionate, and loving spouse. She plans ahead to make sure we have some cash to share with the man alongside the street. We often don’t carry much cash these days, so it takes just a bit of foresight and effort to be prepared to respond. But that’s the smallest of efforts. And it is her effort, not mine, usually.

If the interaction happens to come up in a conversation, someone is certain to suggest that the money will go for alcohol, drugs, or both. Perhaps, some would argue, we are “wasting our money.” Worse yet, we may even be enabling bad or self-destructive behavior on the part of the man. Worst of all, in the eyes of some, we are naïve simpletons, conned by another scam artist happy to separate us fools from our folding money.

Any or all of those things may be true. I don’t wish to minimize or dismiss those concerns. I wonder and worry about those things as well. In addition, I grew up in a home where cash was scarce, and bills were omnipresent threats. I often feel anxious when I hand money over to someone else. What will happen to me if and when I don’t have enough? Perhaps I will compete with the Sunday man for that prime bit of panhandling property.

Of course, that’s not going to happen (at least it is highly unlikely). Yet, the anxiety is often there. If I give him some money, what will happen to me? But if I don’t, what sort of person will I become?

If that’s the question (and I think it’s one of them, anyway), then, for example, we don’t have to worry about the motivations and rationales that caused the priest and the Levite to “pass by on the other side.” In the story, we can assume that they each had rationales that made good sense to them at the moment. We can charitably believe that they made the best decisions they could at the time. But what did they think of themselves later?

If and when I pass by on the other side, I become a little more selfish and a little less compassionate. The Sunday man in my life isn’t beaten and bloodied, half-dead by the side of the road. For all I know, he lives as well as I do (but I don’t think so). But if I pass him by, I leave behind a bit of my humanity there with him. If I do that often enough, I’m not sure how much humanity I will have left at some point. If I pass by on the other side, I fear that’s what will happen to me.

You might think this sounds self-interested in the extreme. I don’t mean it to be that way. I don’t think I respond to the Sunday man simply to get a boost to my ego or additional raw material for my delusions of grandeur. Instead, I’m trying to reflect on the outcome of my actions, not the reason for them. Turning down the chance to act with compassion ends up making me less authentically human than I was before. Do that enough times, and I may cease to inhabit this existence as anything resembling the creature God has made me to be.

Who turned out to be neighbor to the man by the side of the road? The one who showed him mercy. The man who fell among robbers was raised up to live again. The man who turned aside in compassion and care was raised up to live more fully. Jesus tells the lawyer to get out there and do the same thing—to live as the compassionate caregiver God created him to be.

This perspective on the text makes me think about what it means to be an ally and an accomplice in the ongoing struggles against racist behavior in myself, in our Church, and in our American society. I can become clear about the results of our racist system for BIPOC folks. The life-draining disparities in educational, healthcare, housing, transportation, employment, wealth, and political resources between White people and BIPOC folks is well-documented, even when vociferously denied or studiously ignored.

Our racist system has left people literally and figuratively lying by the side of the road – beaten, bloodied and half-dead – for four hundred years.

Some people have been left fully dead. The differential treatment by law enforcement of Jayland Walker and Robert Crimo screams out the realities of what we do to BIPOC folks through our law enforcement systems. The airwaves are filled with White voices that seek to vociferously deny or studiously ignore that deadly disparity as well. If we “pass by on the other side,” we can be clear about what that means for BIPOC folks in America.

But what does it mean for us, who are White and privileged and powerful? It means that we must make ourselves less than fully human beings. At the very least, we must segregate all reminders of such suffering and lock away those reminders behind massive doors of denial. If we are to pass by on the other side, we must spend large amounts of energy and effort pretending not to see anything or anyone at all. That’s one of the reasons we White people continue to live in racially isolated and heterogeneous neighborhoods. The only neighbors we can stand to see are those who, like us, benefit daily from the systemic carnage that racism perpetrates.

We are left anxious and afraid. We are left outraged and offended. We are left vicious and violent. We become liars about our own history and looters of the histories and cultures of others. And when someone challenges our White goodness and innocence, we become all the more enraged that someone would dare to name the reality we spend so much of ourselves to suppress.

If I pass by on the other side of the road in this oppressive, racist system, what will I become? A hollow man. An amoral shell. A performance of whiteness because I have no authentic self out of which to live. That’s what will happen to me. I become incapable of loving God and loving neighbor. And I become incapable even of loving myself.

We don’t know how the lawyer responds in the end. How will we?

References and Resources

Hultgren, Arland J. “Enlarging the Neighborhood: The Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10: 25–37).” Word & World 37, no. 1 (2017): 71-8.

Levine, Amy-Jill. Short Stories by Jesus. HarperOne. Kindle Edition.

Levine, Amy-Jill, and Witherington III, Ben. The Gospel of Luke (New Cambridge Bible Commentary). Cambridge University Press, 2018.

Swanson, Richard W. Provoking the Gospel of Luke: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Year C. Cleveland, OH.: Pilgrim Press, 2006.

Text Study for Luke 10:25-37 (Part One)

I think the best place to begin reflection on this week’s text is with Amy-Jill Levine in Short Stories by Jesus. In the Lukan context, the episode follows hard upon the successful mission of the seventy disciples. Therefore, we preachers need to take it in that context. This is about what it looks like, from the Lukan perspective, to be disciples in a diverse and dangerous world.

We’re always tempted to extract the “Parable of the Good Samaritan” out from that context. Many people have treated it as a stand-alone morality tale. When the parable and its framing are removed from the larger context, we can attach the parable to almost any agenda we wish to promote. The beauty of the parable, in such an approach, is entirely in the eye of the beholder.

Photo by Lukas Rodriguez on Pexels.com

That may make for good speeches. But it does not make for biblically faithful preaching. More often than not, in the hands of Christian preachers, it results in an anti-Jewish, self-serving Christian presentation that does violence to the text. More often still, it can use that anti-Judaism as a theological hobby horse upon which Protestants ride when bashing Catholics (who are often portrayed as the “priest” and the “Levite”). Luther could be guilty of such a misuse, and Luther’s children have often been more guilty still of that assault on the text.

That’s why AJ Levine’s treatment is a helpful corrective at the outset. So, here we go. “What’s not to like about helping the stranger and being charitable toward others?” Levine asks. “But those are not the messages a first-century Jewish audience would have heard. They didn’t need a parable to tell them to care for others,” she continues, “they were already commanded to love both the neighbor and the stranger” (page 80).

Acting with compassion toward a person in need was not an “un-Jewish” response. It is, rather, commanded in the Torah. The lawyer who questions Jesus knows this and reports it correctly. The word Jesus uses in verse 28 is the Greek word “orthos.” Think orthodoxy, orthopraxy, or even orthodontics. It means getting things in line with the proper standards. Loving God and loving neighbor are the obvious, Jewish, things to do.

Levine notes that Jesus’ parable would sound quite different to first-century Jewish ears than it does to twenty-first century American Christian ears. She argues that they would not have heard the parable as focusing on compassion for a fellow human being in a difficult spot. When the lawyer asks Jesus the question, “And who then is my neighbor?” Levine notes that Jesus doesn’t answer it. “It is,” she suggests, “more provocative than that” (page 80).

First, Levine encourages us twenty-first century American Christians to resist the temptation to identify with the Samaritan. If we make that identification, we will fall inevitably into “the standard anti-Jewish interpretations that have infected much of New Testament study” (page 80). If we read the Samaritan as the hero of the story and the priest and Levite as the villains, we will be stuck with anti-Judaism then and now.

If we can begin to hear the shocking dissonance (to those first century hearers) of our twenty-first century title, “The Good Samaritan,” we might stand a chance of allowing the text to be more of what it was in first-century settings. First, the lawyer is not seeking information. Rather, the lawyer is testing Jesus and seeks to entrap or at least embarrass him. The lawyer is not a good-faith actor in the Lukan narrative – here, or elsewhere in the Lukan account. Nor does the lawyer have much understanding of what Jesus is about. The lawyer wants a checklist for religious propriety. Jesus gives him a path toward life in the world as God intends it.

The question of the man in the parable is a simple one according to Levine – “Who will help me?” It should have been the priest or the Levite. “To follow Torah, the priest should have checked to see if the man was alive and, finding him alive, should have helped him,” Levine writes, “Should he have discovered a corpse, he should have covered it and then immediately gone for help” (page 100). This goes against most interpreters who find some manufactured ritual purity concern to explain the behavior of the priest.

With that more typical explanation in hand, we are no longer on the road to Jericho but back on the road to anti-Judaism. However, we are on the road going down from Jerusalem, not up toward Jerusalem. Therefore, Levine notes, the priest doesn’t have to worry about ritual purity concerns vis a vis the temple. Levites, according to Levine, had even fewer “purity” restrictions than the priests. The ritual purity argument for why they avoided the man makes little to no sense.

Instead, Levine notes, the law really requires the pair to attend to the man in the ditch, dead or alive. “Arguments that read the parable in terms of ‘uncleanness’ or ‘purity’ are made by modern Christians, not by Jesus or Luke,” Levine concludes. “Neither gives the priest or Levite an excuse. Nor would any excuse be acceptable. Their responsibility was to save a life,” she notes, “they failed” (page 102).

What reason would these characters have for avoiding the man in the ditch? Levine thinks Dr. King was correct in his assessment – that they were more worried about what would happen to them than they were about what had happened to the man. It was, after all, a wilderness area, and a dangerous road.

Levine points out that we have another parable complying with the “rule of three.” The first two characters failed in their Torah duty because they were concerned about themselves and not others. The third character would be different. And, based on story-telling conventions, the audience would expect that third character to be a garden-variety Israelite. You can read Levine’s work for the argument in that regard.

“However, Jesus is telling a parable,” Levine writes, “and parables never go the way one expects. Instead of the anticipated Israelite, the person who stops to help is a Samaritan. In modern terms,” she observes, “this would be like going from Larry and Moe to Osama bin Laden” (page 103). Now, we’re getting somewhere.

The Samaritan tends to the man with his own goods. He restores the man to life. He goes up to him and shows him compassion. This “compassion” is the best emotional word in the New Testament to describe Jesus’ response to need, suffering, and death. And Jesus ascribes this emotional response to the Samaritan.

We might not balk at such a description. But for the first-century Jewish listeners, this description was applied to the enemy, the oppressor, the object of disgust. “Thus,” Levine observes, “to Jesus’s Jewish audience as well as to Luke’s readers, the idea of a ‘good Samaritan’ would make no more sense than the idea of a ‘good rapist’ or a ‘good murderer’” (page 104). I don’t think most of our listeners will make that immediate and visceral connection in the text.

Levine points us to an incident in 2 Chronicles 28 that sheds some intertextual light on the parable. In light of that connection, she delivers this provocation. “Those who want to kill you,” she argues, “may be the only ones who will save you” (page 112). The Samaritan is not a marginalized person with no resources or status. He has the money and the power to save the man in the ditch. Nor is this a one-off item on a moral checklist. The Samaritan provides for the man’s ongoing care.

The lawyer asks, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus asks, “Who was neighbor to the man?” The conversation is not about legal categories but rather about right action. “Loving God and loving neighbor cannot exist in the abstract,” Levine notes, “they need to be enacted” (page 114). And it is the Samaritan who does the enacting. It is the Samaritan who acts like God acts. It is the Samaritan who provides the model by which the lawyer should “go and do likewise.”

Levine ends her section with a series of questions. “Can we finally agree that it is better to acknowledge the humanity and the potential to do good in the enemy, rather than to choose death? Will we be able to care for our enemies, who are also our neighbors? Will we be able to bind up their wounds rather than blow up their cities? And can we imagine that they might do the same for us?…The biblical text,” she concludes, “and concern for humanity’s future—tell us we must” (page 116).

Earlier, James and John wanted to call down heavenly fire on a recalcitrant Samaritan village. Continuing the cycles of violence and recrimination is not what it means to follow Jesus. Jesus followers – as imaged in the Samaritan – put ourselves on the line to interrupt such cycles with compassionate hearts and active care.

After all, that’s what God does for us in Jesus.

References and Resources

Levine, Amy-Jill. Short Stories by Jesus. HarperOne. Kindle Edition.