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.
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.