Meeting the One who tells parables
And behold, a lawyer stood up to put [Jesus] to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” And he answered, “You shall 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 your neighbour as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have answered correctly;
do this, and you will live.”
But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbour?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him,
passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I
will repay you when I come back.’ Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbour to the man who fell among the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.” (Luke 10:25–37 ESV)
The phrase ‘good Samaritan’ is part of our vocabulary – often used in our media to describe the good deeds done by a stranger. Some countries have laws giving protection to ‘good Samaritans’ so that helping is not necessarily penalised in some way. I think that the parable of the Good Samaritan is one of those icons that world uses to understand or describe or judge Christianity. Summarised or
reduced to ethics or something practical, Christianity becomes a helping religion on the strong teaching of this parable. Of course, helping someone in need is not a bad thing! By all means, be neighbour to those in need of help – but it would also be prudent to know the context of the parable – and the context is interesting – ‘Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’.
What must I do to inherit the Crown Jewels or Bill Gates billions? Simple. Be born into the right family. Only legal heirs inherit. So at first glance the question is nonsense. However the Old Testament people saw the land as an inheritance from the Lord – his gift to them – and were aware that it was his gift and blessing. There was also history to absorb – of rebellion and prophetic calls to repentance – land
given and land taken away and now the people of Israel were living in an occupied land and the Pharisees and the teachers of the law taught that it was through the Law that one showed one’s obedience towards God and became worthy of receiving the inheritance of life with God, especially while the land wasn’t their own. So while the question strictly didn’t make much sense, in its context the lawyer is expecting a law answer – a list of do’s and don’t’s.
The expert in the law didn’t ask his question out of curiosity but to test Jesus quite possibly because Jesus seemed quite care-free and cavalier towards the Law. Jesus bats the question back to the lawyer for his opinion. The lawyer gives a fine answer – Jesus himself gave such an answer when asked what the greatest commandment was – but the lawyer isn’t happy with Jesus’ acknowledgement. He wants to
know whether Jesus understands the Law he does or is this Jesus’ way of being slippery somehow. Is there a barb in Jesus’ “Do this and you will live”?
Can we love God like that and our neighbor likewise? If we can, that’s good but what if we can’t, what then? And so checking Jesus’ pedigree, so to speak, and to justify his own position – because I think the lawyer knew the answer to his own question – he asks “and who is my neighbour?”.
And now comes the parable and with it Jesus strips away the lawyer’s answer. We don’t know the lawyer’s personal details, neither do we have details of the personal bio of the priest or the CV of the Levite but I’m of the view that in real life and in the story these were quite good men – respectable, honest, sincere, who didn’t kick cats or were nasty to their mother-in-law. I regard them as generally
decent fellows but who are trapped in a world of laws, rules, and regulations. And these rules taught mercy and kindness – of course they did – in contexts of need; they taught priority and reverence for God, his holiness, his Sabbath, and for his Word – most of our daily living can be easily done in 6 days – and they taught responsibility for actions – do good and get rewarded – do evil and get punished or
at the very least I will not help you. So under such laws, you assessed, summed up, made judgements about people – and that’s not necessarily wrong either – to see whether it is in yours and their best interest to help. And you start by listening to what is said – what language or dialect? Jew? Samaritan? Gentile? And you watch, observe – clothes, actions, places, their appearance, who they’re with. These assessments help you to work out who is before you, what is happening, and what you are to do.
Jesus’ parable skilfully strips away all the clues used by the lawyer to answer his question and leaves a naked and unconscious man on a road and a priest and Levite struggling between compassion and the purity laws. In fact we don’t know who the man who is beaten by robbers is – except that he is in need – serious need.
The next thing Jesus does with this parable is give a real twist. In a sequence of three with the first two being priest and Levite, the hearers would now be expecting a layman to come along and one does – and perhaps the lawyer is now sweating, mouth dry,
nervous – what if Jesus asks him, “What would you do?”. How is he going to answer and go against the behaviour of the priest and Levite? But Jesus probably both relieves the lawyer while simultaneously intensifying the lawyer’s discomfort – because the layman turns out to be a Samaritan. Now this story is told in a time where for the Jews the only really good Samaritan was probably a dead one! It would be like going to some places in Australia and telling a story of a ‘good Aborigine’ or to a grieving American community and talk about a
The Samaritan operates with the same senses as the priest and the Levite – he also knows laws and regulations – and while he could debate interpretations with the Jewish lawyer, in many of the basics, there were similarities. The Samaritan also made judgements and assessments – he’s prepared to take considerable risks to tend to the wounded in a robbers’ hot spot and also to go to a town – not stated – but I believe assumed to be predominantly Jewish and care for him in an inn and, because the victim, cannot not pay for the inn and is
thus liable for prison until the debt is paid, the Samaritan pays – and then promises more later. If this was a Jewish rescuer, he might have expected to eventually get his money back if this story had a happy ending but the Samaritan’s chances of recompense is well … I don’t know but let me ask you … what would happen, generally speaking, say last century or two ago, if a native American had
brought in a farmer who had been robbed and partially scalped to town and booked a room in the local hotel and cared for him?
Today Jesus’ parable doesn’t really make it’s hearers uncomfortable but back then there would be unease and disquiet – a sense that Jesus is radical – no political, religious, or social correctness – and the lawyer is left to answer the question “Which of the three was neighbour …?” and maybe I’m reading too much in the longer answer – can’t the lawyer even say the word “Samaritan”? – but his “the one who had mercy on him” – is also powerful. Mercy. The neighbour is not other people – it’s me – and I am to be merciful, like a Samaritan on a Jewish road.
Like many of Jesus’ parables, we don’t have a what- happens-next. That’s usually where the ethics part comes in – Jesus said ‘Go and do likewise’.
Well, go on. But that’s not what Jesus’ parables are about. They are not little morals or even earthly stories with heavenly meanings if all those meanings are just gradations of ethics. Parables are windows, moments of clarity where we see humanity or this world and we see – ‘sense’ might be a better word – God or actually Jesus – because he’s the only one left at the end of the parable – in the silence as the words fade. I can imagine the lawyer being pensive and perturbed because his own view of the Law and the neighbour had been thrown a curve and he is left with the strangest of associations – Law, eternal life, mercy, Samaritans – and there was Jesus – enigmatic, subversive – sitting there looking at him.
We can smile at the lawyer’s unease – not a smug smile, more a wry smile – if the lawyer only knew – we hope he did – that the teller of that parable who hinted that God was like a Samaritan helping Jews in fact was more scandalous and shocking than he could have imagined – for this Jesus died on a cross – battered until almost unrecognisable – naked and not half-dead but dead – cursed by God – and yet his followers proclaim him the wisdom of God and the power of God. The scandal of the cross seems a fitting culmination for this parable teller. But not even death could stop Jesus for God raised him from the dead! And the only fitting description of this parable teller is that Jesus is God himself, among us.
Jesus isn’t cavalier with the Law after all, instead he fulfils it perfectly – and that is such a relief for all human beings who know deep down that they are trapped in good intentions but live out selfish and self centredness or live in fear of exposure and finally death. Jesus fulfils the Law for us and gives us forgiveness and new starts each day – baptism, his words, himself in Holy Communion – mercy – a
mercy that never ends – just as life with him never ends – not to live under rules – but to live with him. The parable of the Good Samaritan is only true when we meet Jesus on the road binding our wounds, extending mercy to us, not counting the cost to
rescue us, and guaranteeing payment for all our needs. If that’s not grasped, then whatever else may follow is just another test – human ethics trying to justify itself.
- Luke 10:25 - 37