This Sunday’s gospel lectionary reading is Luke 10.25-37, most commonly known as the Parable of the Good Samaritan. I suspect many people preaching on this will be looking to wring some new truth from this, but might well lapse back into the ‘Jesus wants us to do good to others’ trope. It might be hard to find anything new to say on such a well-known story—such is the power of Jesus’ story telling that the phrase ‘pass by on the other side’ and the description of someone as a ‘Good Samaritan’ have passed into proverbial English use (though I don’t know if that is true of other cultures and languages).
But as I have reflected on the story during this week, it occurs to me that there are a number of common misuses of the story.
- Antinomianism: ‘Jesus wanted to do away with legalism and the Mosaic law; in the end, all that matters is caring for people’.
- Reductionism: ‘Jesus only gave us two commandments, and both of them were positive’.
- Moral ‘oughterism’: ‘Jesus told us that we ought to care for people, so this I what we ought to do.’
- Liberal inclusivism: ‘The parable uses a despised outsider as the model of right action, so the truth is found in the lives of the marginalised.’
Some careful attention to the biblical text addresses these issues and offers us a better understanding of what is going on.
First, we need to note that, though the story Jesus tells is only in Luke, the question of which is the greatest commandment comes in all three Synoptic gospels. It is not clear whether each of the writers puts his own interpretive angle on the encounter, or whether in fact this question arose on more than one occasion; if Jesus did indeed minister for the best part of three years (as the Fourth Gospel suggests), then the latter option is highly likely.
|Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
|One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”
“The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”
|On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
“What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”
He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”
“You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”
There are things to note about the differences here. As is common, Mark’s account of the opening dialogue is longer and more detailed than either Luke or Matthew; Mark includes the introduction to the Shema from Deut 6.4 that Jesus quotes, and Jesus goes on to commend the ‘lawyer’ and note that he is ‘not far from the kingdom of God.’ [We need to note the quite different sense of ‘law’ and ‘lawyer’ here; we are looking at a dispute about religious texts, and debates between the religious ‘experts’; and the ‘law’ was the first five books of the Bible, much of which was narrative.] Luke has interpreted this, possibly for an audience less familiar with Jewish theological terms, into the promise that ‘you will live’, though has the answer on the lips of the questioner rather than Jesus. Both Matthew and Luke interpret the question as somewhat negative, whilst Mark’s interpretation is more positive.
The second thing to be aware of is that the request for a summary of the law has some very clear parallels. In Jesus’ day, two of the main rabbinical schools were those of Hillel (first century BC) and the later Shammai (50 BC—AD 30). Hillel and his school were generally thought to be more relaxed and open in their thinking, whereas Shammai and his school were often more rigorist—and so Jesus is often compared with Hillel in his approach.
One famous account in the Talmud (Shabbat 31a) tells about a gentile who wanted to convert to Judaism. This happened not infrequently, and this individual stated that he would accept Judaism only if a rabbi would teach him the entire Torah while he, the prospective convert, stood on one foot. First he went to Shammai, who, insulted by this ridiculous request, threw him out of the house. The man did not give up and went to Hillel. This gentle sage accepted the challenge, and said:
“What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary—go and study it!”
(It is worth noting that with regards to ethical teaching, Jesus is often more in agreement with the school of Shammai, the most striking example being that of divorce. John Ortberg summarises David Instone-Brewer’s take on this on beliefnet.com)
It is important to spot what Hillel is doing here. He is not telling the would-be convert that there is only one commandment and that is all he needs to know. Instead, the man needs to go away and study Torah—but now knowing what it is fundamentally about, so that he does not fail to see the wood for the trees. There is, we might say, a mutual interpretive dynamic at work. If I want to make sense of the individual commandments, then I need to know the big picture that they are building into. But if I want to live out the big picture, I do need to study the individual commandments and the detail.
There seems to be something similar going on in the teaching of Jesus. It always strikes me as odd that so many read individual commandments of Jesus as if they were just features of an interesting text, and not the product of a mind that had a coherent and integrated outlook. Of course, Jesus offers us many commandments, not just two (‘turn the other cheek’, ‘bless those who persecute you’, ‘do not worry’, ‘do not judge’ and so on), so the question is: how does his summary of the law relate to his other teaching?
Although it seems odd to us now, in reading the gospels, to find such a compelling story only in one gospel is not that surprising, given that each gospel has its own unique material, and given both the extensive nature of Jesus’ teaching and ministry, and the strictly limited space that each writer had. In a brief conversation I had on the London Underground this week with an English Literature graduate, he commented that he had always found the Bible ‘very dense’ to read—and I replied that this was because the ancient writers had space for few words, so used each of them to the full! That also meant being highly selective about what they included.
Luke has a distinctive interest in Jewish-Samaritan relationships, including the rejection of Jesus by Samaritans in the previous chapter, and the mention of the grateful leper in Luke 17.16 who was a Samaritan, as well as recounting the Samaritan ‘mission’ in Acts 8.25f. It is striking that Luke assumes his readers know about the enmity between Jews and Samaritans, even though he appears clearly to be writing for a non-Jewish audience. It is quite difficult to capture the rhetorical impact of the mention of the Samaritan, in contrast to the very respectable figures of the priest and the Levite, and English translations miss the emphasis in the text with the word ‘Samaritan’ coming first in verse 33, in contrast to the mention of the other two figures in the previous verses. In the 1980s, the Riding Lights Theatre Company retold it as the Parable of the Good Punk Rocker (on the train from London to York, ‘London to York, London to York’…) which attempted to replicate this effect. We might do well to try and find a similar contrast in our own day.
It might be claimed that this demonstrates Luke’s focus on the marginalised and the outsider—but Luke also mentions the wealthy (in a positive light) and influential Jewish leaders more than the other gospels. So his focus is not so much that the gospel is for the marginalised, but that the gospel is for both the marginalised and the wealthy, both insider and outsider equally.
We also need to note that the parable does not contrast legalism with compassion, since the Mosaic law also demands that we care for the stranger—in fact (rather ironically) this part of the summary of the law (‘Love your neighbour as yourself’) comes from the heart of what some readers would see as the most problematic law text in the Old Testament, Leviticus 19.18, not even a full chapter later than the notorious Leviticus 18.22! The issue is not compassion versus law, but the right understanding of the law, and the possibility of using Scriptural teaching for one’s own convenience rather than for the purpose for which it was intended.
The final observation is perhaps the most important. The parable has been interpreted in a wide range of different ways, and one of the best known (though least persuasive for modern readers) is the allegorical reading first proposed by Origen:
The man who was going down is Adam. Jerusalem is paradise, and Jericho is the world. The robbers are hostile powers. The priest is the Law, the Levite is the prophets, and the Samaritan is Christ. The wounds are disobedience, the beast is the Lord’s body, the [inn], which accepts all who wish to enter, is the Church. … The manager of the [inn] is the head of the Church, to whom its care has been entrusted. And the fact that the Samaritan promises he will return represents the Savior’s second coming. (Homily 34.3)
This reading was virtually universal throughout early Christianity, being advocated by Irenaeus, Clement as well as Origen, and in the fourth and fifth centuries by Chrysostom in Constantinople, Ambrose in Milan, and Augustine of Hippo—whose version is perhaps best known:
A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho; Adam himself is meant; Jerusalem is the heavenly city of peace, from whose blessedness Adam fell; Jericho means the moon, and signifies our mortality, because it is born, waxes, wanes, an dies. Thieves are the devil and his angels. Who stripped him, namely; of his immortality; and beat him, by persuading him to sin; and left him half-dead, because in so far as man can understand and know God, he lives, but in so far as he is wasted and oppressed by sin, he is dead; he is therefore called half-dead. The priest and the Levite who saw him and passed by, signify the priesthood and ministry of the Old Testament which could profit nothing for salvation. Samaritan means Guardian, and therefore the Lord Himself is signified by this name. The binding of the wounds is the restraint of sin. Oil is the comfort of good hope; wine the exhortation to work with fervent spirit. The beast is the flesh in which He deigned to come to us. The being set upon the beast is belief in the incarnation of Christ. The inn is the Church, where travelers returning to their heavenly country are refreshed after pilgrimage. The morrow is after the resurrection of the Lord. The two pence are either the two precepts of love, or the promise of this life and of that which is to come.
There are all sorts of problems with this approach to the text, not least that it appears to have little connection with what Jesus actually meant, but also that it appears to annul the moral imperative. But the modern reaction to such a reading is to head in the opposite direction, and reduce the impact to mere practical morality, devoid of any Christological significance and detached from what the rest of the New Testament says about sin, atonement and ethics.
In fact, Luke’s careful approach to numerical composition helps us here. The turning point of the story is that the Samaritan sees the man, and is ‘moved with compassion’ (some ETs blunt this a little by saying ‘had pity on him’). The Greek term here, splagchnizomai, ‘literally’ means ‘his bowels were moved’ (hence the AV translates the cognate term in Phil 1.8 ‘I yearn for you with the bowels of Christ’). This term only occurs three times in Luke’s gospel:
- Luke 7.13 The raising of the widow’s son
- Luke 10.33 The parable of the man who fell among thieves
- Luke 15.20 The parable of the two sons and the forgiving father
And in each case, not only is this verb the narrative turning point of the story—it is also the word which is numerically at the centre of each pericope, with an equal number of words before and after this term, to emphasise its importance. (This also tells us something about the care with which Luke has composed his gospel!).
And the striking thing is that, in the other two instances, it is Jesus who is moved to compassionate action. This implies that, whilst the allegorical reading has major problems, it has at least noted one thing of importance: it is the Samaritan who is taking the part of Jesus in the story. We might want, then, to reflect further and understand theologically that, beaten and bruised as we have been by sin, it is Jesus who has refused to pass by on the other side, but who has brought us help and healing by paying the price that was needed for us.
This is not to rob the story (pun not intended!) of its moral force—but it shifts the register. We do not help others because we ‘ought’ to, but because we have received for ourselves from Jesus the life-changing compassion which we then share with those around us, as part of sharing the love of God in word and deed.
We love because he first loved us. If we say we love God yet hate a brother or sister, we are liars. For if we do not love a fellow believer, whom we have seen, we cannot love God, whom we have not seen. And he has given us this command: Those who love God must also love one another. (1 John 4.19–21)
As you go, proclaim this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received, freely give. (Matt 10.7–8)
The practical lesson of the Parable of the Good Samaritan is to give to others what we have already been given.
(Some of this content was published in an earlier article in 2017).
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