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.
“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).