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.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

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.

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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.