Uniform 02.08.2015: A Need for Fresh Eyes

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Luke 10:25-37

In every community, there are stories that have been told so many times that people develop a shorthand code for telling them. For my family, the mention of “sunny-side-up eggs” evokes a cautionary tale against overeating before church. My siblings and I describe an exceptionally silly mood when we talk about “the jar in the kitchen.” Outsiders might not understand what is meant by these references, but, for insiders, these phrases are instantly meaningful.

For Christians, the Parable of the Good Samaritan is such a story. When someone is called “a good Samaritan,” we instantly know that this person has behaved in a kind and generous way. A Google search for “good Samaritan” yields a number of headlines about citizens who reached out to help others in difficult situations: “Good Samaritans credited with aiding injured motorcycle officer.” “Good Samaritan beaten trying to help woman assaulted by boyfriend.” “Couple reunites with lost ring thanks to good Samaritan.” This story—of a Samaritan who helps a man left in a ditch after a priest and a Levite pass him by—is so pervasive that our Christian code for loving our neighbors has been accepted by the larger culture.

While the general acceptance of the importance of being kind to strangers is positive, reducing Jesus’ parable to a familiar catch phrase is dangerous. When we feel like we understand all that Jesus is trying to say when we hear an easy two-word summary, it’s probably worth taking another look at the text.

Jewish New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine suggests that paying close attention to the original context of Jesus’ words can unlock new meaning in the Parable of the Good Samaritan for modern readers. This can help us undo some of the damage caused by convenient summaries.

Christians today most often identify with the Samaritan, who took action and saved the day. But ancient Jews would have identified with the man in the ditch, Levine contends. How might seeing the story from the perspective of the wounded man change our understanding of Jesus’ words?

The casting of a Samaritan would have been surprising to Jesus’ original hearers because, in stories that included a priest and a Levite, the third person was an Israelite who did the right thing. According to Levine, to complete the trio with a Samaritan “would be like going from Larry and Moe to Osama bin Laden.” We usually see the Samaritan as a good person who has been the victim of unfair stereotypes. But Levine argues that the man in the ditch would have identified the Samaritan as an enemy and been wary of accepting his help. How might removing the word “good” from the title of this parable help us rethink what kind of people we allow to help us?

Looking for definitive interpretations of Jesus’ parables is unhelpful. If we limit our understanding to what his stories meant two thousand years ago, we risk denying that the Bible is the living word of God. But if we condense every parable into a simple title, we prevent ourselves from asking the questions that can lead to important insights into the way God works in our world. The Good Samaritan is a story about a kind stranger. But it can be a lot more than that if we let it.

Amy-Jill Levine, “Go and Do Likewise,” America, 29 September 2014 http://americamagazine.org/issue/go-and-do-likewise (accessed 28 January 2015).

Discussion

1. What stories in your family, circle of friends, or church community have developed a shorthand summary?
2. What does the phrase “good Samaritan” mean to you? How have you heard it used? How do you use it in conversation?
3. How might your use of “good Samaritan” limit your understanding of Jesus’ parable? How can you find fresh eyes to see this overly familiar story?
4. Why is it important for us to remember how Jesus’ original audience would have heard his words? How can we balance our need for an interpretation that speaks to us with an appreciation of the Bible’s historical context?
5. How can looking at a biblical text from many angles deepen our understanding of God? From what angles can we consider Luke 10:25-37?

Reference Shelf

“But then a certain Samaritan on a journey”—because he would not have been heading to or from the temple—“came upon him and when he saw him, was filled with compassion.” Zechariah the priest predicts John’s prophetic ministry in these terms: “to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins, through the compassionate mercy of our God” (1:77-78). Luke, who avoids assigning Jesus emotions, once says, “seeing her, he was filled with compassion” when he came upon a widow who had just lost her only son (7:13). The Samaritan, then, is acting in imitation of the Father and the Son when he tenderly cares for the injured man. Jesus’ story illustrates how even a non-Israelite may act upon the true knowledge of God if he does mercy to those who need it.

The Samaritan gives the injured man first-century first aid—wine to clean the wounds, oil to soothe them, wrappings to keep them clean—but in doing this he also gives away rations he planned to use on his journey. He put the injured man on his animal (the word used means any sort of transport animal) and took him to an inn, which was a sort of roadhouse or hostel that sold meals, a place to sleep, and a place to shelter animals. There he cared for the man through the night. Next morning, he gave two denarii—two days’ wages for a common laborer—to the innkeeper, asking the innkeeper now to take over the role of caregiver and promising to give more money if it were required. Think about that last part for a bit: in Jesus’ story, the Samaritan expects the hostel-keeper to continue to provide compassionate care until the injured man is better, and for the hostel-keeper to accept the Samaritan’s promise that he would return to repay any debts incurred. What if, as soon as the Samaritan was around the bend, the innkeeper threw the man out on the road and kept the money for himself?

The parable puts an ordinary person in a tragic circumstance—unfortunately, an all-too-commonplace occurrence. Two religious persons, from family groups of whom Torah says “their portion is the Lord,” fail to provide the Lord’s mercy for the person in need. Two other persons do what it takes to get the man back on his feet. The first, the Samaritan, might or might not be included in the strict definition of “neighbor” according to Leviticus 19, since he was not an Israelite and might not have been a resident alien. As noted earlier, the Samaritans Jesus encountered earlier were most definitely inhospitable, but this man’s generosity and hospitality could not be faulted. The second, the innkeeper, we assume to have been an Israelite and assume to have followed the Samaritan’s instructions. His acts are not selfless, since he is going to be paid for his troubles, but are the sort of normal human goodness we all count on: people who do their jobs honestly, fairly, even compassionately, so that we don’t have to spend all our lives watching our backs. In the world of Jesus’ story, as in the real world Luke and we live in, there are senselessly violent acts, acts of immoral indifference, outstandingly compassionate acts, and acts of normal honest commerce. Sometimes the people we would like to count on to be the best of us let us down—that’s life.

Resource

Richard B. Vinson, Luke, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2008) 341–42.

Bonnie Chappell is the editor of the Uniform Series Bible Study. She is a graduate of Mercer University and Vanderbilt Divinity School. She is an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.

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