Wednesday, January 25, 2017

The Good Samaritan

This is one of the more familiar parables in the Bible.  The term Good Samaritan is so common these days that we forget what a contradiction in terms, what an oxymoron it would have been to use this term 2000 years ago.

The term Good Samaritan is not even used in the scripture.  This is a title or pericope heading that attached itself to the text in later years.  In Luke’s Gospel, this story is sandwiched in between the sending of the 72 and a very personal encounter with Mary who truly valued her time with Jesus and Martha who remained wrapped up in things of the world.

This parable begins with a question.  It is a question from a teacher of the law who is seeking to best Jesus in public more than he is seeking an answer.

The teacher asks, what must I do to inherit eternal life.

Jesus answers with a question and the teacher replies:  Love the Lord with all you heart, soul, strength, and mind; and to love your neighbor as yourself. 

Jesus replies, yes you got the right answer.  Do this and you will live. 

There is another train of thought that could be pursued here—he didn’t say the words, Jesus is Lord or whosoever believeth in hiim, and Jesus told him he would live if he did these four things.  We don’t have a ticket for that train at this time.  Perhaps we will board that train on another day.

The teacher wants to take one more shot and asks who is my neighbor?

Jesus tells the parable, in which we can easily see five or six main characters.  The robbers set the story in motion by ambushing a man.

The man is probably a Jew.  Jesus was talking to a teacher of the law and most of the people around him at this time were likely Jews.  The man was one of them.  The crowd likely had empathy for the man.

Next we have the priest and the Levite.  Both see the man and pass by on the other side.  Our reaction in the twenty-first century is often look at how sanctimonious these religious leaders were.  We have seen that holier than thou attitude before.

These two might have received a little more sympathy from the Jewish crowd.  After all, Priests had to remain clean and pure to fulfill their duties in the temple.  Some might have said, they were just following the law and the provisions and commentaries on the law found in the Talmud and Mishnah.  The teacher of the law, however, should have known that the Mishnah provided and exception to these restrictive guidelines when encountering an abandon corpse. 

If we take the words literally that both the Priest and the Levite are going down the road, then they were leaving Jerusalem which was several hundred feet above sea level and Jericho was below sea level.  Today, we might say that we were going down the road and in western Oklahoma that term may or may not connote a change in altitude.  But if the priest and the Levite were both going down, then they were leaving Jerusalem, traveling the same direction as the man, and thus would have concluded any temple duties which would have required purification.
In any case, both passed the man on the other side of the road.

Next we come to the Samaritan.  I would suspect that there might have even been a few boos and hisses at the mention of this character.  It’s not that there was underlying racial hatred towards the Samaritans.  There was overt racial hatred towards these “half breeds.”  Whether the roots of this hatred go back to the time of the Babylonian Captivity or were a more recent development really doesn’t bear on the situation.  Racial hatred is racial hatred and it is not going to be dispelled by finding the historical roots.  Hatred is a condition of the heart and many in the crowd that was listening likely had this hatred ingrained in their hearts.

When Jesus asks the teacher of the law which one of the three was a neighbor to the man who was robbed, the teacher replies the one who showed mercy.  Perhaps this is just the teacher revealing his insight into the parable or perhaps it is his reluctance to say the word Samaritan without spitting at the same time.

But it is the Samaritan who does what most had hoped the priest or the Levite would do.  He cares for the man with his own oil, and wine, and beast of burden.  He brings him to an Inn and doesn’t drop him off.  He cares for him overnight.  The next day, he pays the innkeeper in advance and tells him that he will settle accounts upon his return and pay him anything else that he is due.  The Samaritan truly shows love and mercy.

There is another human character in this story, one who has no lines to say or action, but who perhaps has something to reveal.  That is the innkeeper.  He accepts the Samaritan at his word that he will make good on any expense incurred by the innkeeper.  This tells us that he either witnessed something that inspired trust in the Samaritan or there was an existing relationship.  In either case, the innkeeper agrees—at least we hear of no objection—to keep and care for the beaten man. 

Others throughout history have interpreted this parable allegorically.  Origin Adamatius, one of the church fathers that lived in the second and third centuries would offer the following representations.

The man in Adam.
Jerusalem is Paradise.
Jericho is the world.
The priest is the law.
The Levite represents the prophets.
The beast or donkey is the Lord’s incarnate body.
The Inn which accepts all—whosoever will may come—is the church.
The Innkeeper is the head of the church.
The Samaritan is Christ and the message to the Innkeeper that he will settle accounts upon his return reminds us of the second coming of Christ.

Augustine and others might parallel this traditional allegorical interpretation to some degree.  They might add that the robbers were the Devil and his angels.

John Newton, who would write Amazing Grace and lived in the 18th and 19th centuries, also penned these lines supporting the traditional allegorical interpretation:

How kind the good Samaritan
To him who fell among the thieves!
Thus Jesus pities fallen man,
And heals the wounds the soul receives.

There have been many interpretations of this parable through the ages, but this morning, I would like to focus on the two very direct statements that Jesus makes in conjunction with this scripture.

The first comes before the parable when the teacher responds to the question posed by Jesus, how do you interpret the law.  The man says 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.

Jesus says do this and you will live.  The conversation could have stopped here.  Jesus said love God with everything that you are and everything that you have.  Jesus said, truly love God.

We—the generations of believers who followed—are enriched by the parable that followed the teacher’s question, who is my neighbor.  Jesus answered the teacher’s question with a parable and with a command.

When the teacher revealed that the neighbor was the one who showed mercy; Jesus said go and do likewise.

The answer to who is my neighbor is to be a neighbor.  For all of the interpretation and representation that this parable may include; the directive words are to love God and to be a neighbor—to love one another.  We are not to be so much concerned about who to love or where to love or in what circumstances do we show love.  We are told to go and do likewise—to be mercy, to be love, to be a neighbor.

It is a wonderful parable that so many have tried to make more intricate than it need be.  Love God, love each other, and be a neighbor are powerful and direct.

There are so many ways to examine this parable, but the question to us is what are we going to do in response to this teaching?

How about:
Love God.
Love one another.
Be a neighbor.


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