|Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes at|
For an inductive, small group Bible study approach to the so-called "Good Samaritan" story, check out this link at CrossMarks.com: Parables and Paradise The Good Samaritan
One of the difficulties facing the preacher this week is how to make this very well-known parable speak again to the hearers. The difficulty lies in the fact that many of the people in the pews think that they know what it means. Every time I study this text, I usually come up with some new insights about its message. Hopefully there will be some new insights for you in these notes.
This text comes after Jesus has thanked the Father for hiding "these things" from "the wise and the intelligent" (10:21), and now a "lawyer," whom we would think is wise and intelligent, comes to test Jesus. Will he "get the picture" or will it be hidden from him?
Just before the lawyer arrives, Jesus has blessed his disciples for seeing what they have seen and hearing what they have heard. In the parable, both the religious leaders and the Samaritan "see" the man in the ditch (vv. 31, 32, 33), but who really "sees" him?
This text should not be studied in isolation from what follows -- the story of Mary and Martha (10:38-42) -- our text for the following Sunday. An interesting contrast is presented with these two texts. The lawyer asks, "What must I do? (v. 25) and he is told twice to "continually do this" (vv. 28 & 37 -- present tense in Greek -- all poieo). This emphasis on "doing" could easily become the "busy-ness" of Martha, even though "poieo" is not used of her work, but more "religious" words for "service" or "ministry" -- diakonia/diakoneo both used in v. 40 ("tasks" and "do work" in NRSV). This "doing-ness" is in contrast to the "continual listening" (imperfect in Greek) of Mary (v. 39). In both stories there are unexpected actions -- a Samaritan who cares and helps a Jewish man; and a woman who sits as a disciple and listens and learns. The Samaritan is told to "go and do likewise," while Mary is praised for not going and doing. The Samaritan shows us about loving our neighbor. Mary shows us about loving our Lord. Both are vital in living our lives Christianly.
Luke uses a more technical term for "lawyer" (nomikos, related to the word for "law" = nomos) rather than "scribe," who were also considered experts in the law. Six of the nine times this word for lawyer is used in the NT they are in Luke. The only time it is used previous to our text, we are told: "But by refusing to be baptized by him [John], the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected God's purpose for themselves" (7:30). The image of "lawyers" does not improve through the gospel (11:45, 46, 52; 14:3). The reader would already be a bit suspect of a "lawyer" coming to Jesus.
We are also told that he comes "to test" (ekpeirazo) Jesus. The only other time this word is used in Luke it is Jesus' quote to the devil: "Do not put the Lord your God to the test" (4:12). What is this lawyer doing to Jesus?
If we take seriously the image of inheriting, I think that the question, "What must I do to inherit eternal life?" is really stupid. I would like to think that there is something I could do to inherit some of Bill Gates' fortune -- or even the fortunes of a less wealthy (but much older) person. An inheritance is usually determined by the giver, not the receiver.
Jesus responds to the lawyer's question with two questions of his own. "In the law (nomos), what has been written? How do you read?" I have been in discussions -- some with people on ecunet -- where it has been easy to agree on "what has been written," but the interpretive question, "how do you read?" or "how do you interpret?" has caused great differences. In looking up the Greek word for read (anaginosko), the lexicons suggest that reading was always done aloud and generally publicly. Jesus does this in the synagogue at Nazareth (4:16). Jesus' second question might mean "How do you understand it?" but it may also go further and imply, "How do you interpret the law to others?"
The lawyer answers with the twice-daily repeated shema from Dt 6:5 -- except that he adds "mind" or "understanding" to the Hebrew text -- and he includes a command from Lv 19:18 about loving one's neighbor as one's self. (See also the "great commandment" passages: Mk 12:28-34 and Mt 22:34-40 where the question is asked by a nomikos) According to most of my sources, these two commandments were not combined prior to the time of Christ.
Jesus first responds with a very Lutheran answer, "You answered rightly (orthos from which we get ortho-doxy). The lawyer knows the right answer. He has "read" the Torah rightly.
Jesus then responds with a very unLutheran answer, "Keep on doing (poieo in the present tense = continuous or repeated actions) this and you will live." Does this imply that one can inherit eternal life by "doing" the law -- by loving God and neighbor as one's self? Do works count?
To answer my question, "Yes, works count" -- if one is trying to "justify one's self," which is what the lawyer is seeking to do. First of all, by asking what he might do to inherit eternal life, and secondly, by the comment in v. 29 and the question, "Who is my neighbor?"
I like Danker's expansion on the question: "I am willing to love my neighbor as myself, but don't get me involved with the wrong neighbor." What are the right rules so that I can justify myself? Who do I have to help (and who can I ignore)?
Green (The Gospel of Luke) interprets the question this way:
Whereas Jesus' teaching in the Sermon on the Plain had eliminated the lines that might be drawn between one's "friends" and one's "enemies," this legal expert hopes to reintroduce this distinction. He does so by inquiring "Who is my neighbor?" -- not so much to determine to whom he must show love, but so as to calculate the identity of those to whom he need not show love. By the end of the story, Jesus has transformed the focus of the original question: in fact, Jesus' apparent attempt to answer the lawyer's question turns out to be a negation of that question's premise. Neighbor love knows no boundaries. [p. 426]
Jeremias takes a similar approach. He presents this dialogue:
Lawyer: "What is the limit of my responsibility?"
Jesus' answer: "Think of the sufferer, put yourself in his place, consider, who needs help from me? Then you will see that love's demand knows no limit."
A sin of the lawyer is that he is only concerned about himself. What I do to get myself ahead religiously? This is in contrast to the (despised) Samaritan in the parable who expresses his concern for the other person.
One of the new approaches I gained in my studies on this text is to take literally the meaning of "neighbor," which in Greek (as well as Hebrew and English) has the basic of meaning of "to be near". How often in confirmation class when we talk about coveting our neighbor's stuff, some student says, "I don't want anything that my neighbor has." "Neighbors" are those people who live next door -- the nearest people in the "neighborhood."
Looking then at the three responses to the man in the ditch, the Greek verb used of the first two is antiparerchomai, (vv. 31, 32) which literally has three parts:
In contrast, the verb with the third man is proserchomai (v. 34) which literally has two parts:
Note: it is not a form of erchomai that is used of the robbers "falling upon" the traveler. Their coming near to him is different than that of the Samaritan.
Clearly, the answer to the question, "Who is the one who comes near (or is neighbor)?" It has to be the third person. The other two widened the distance between themselves and the man in the ditch. They would not come near to him. They would not be neighbor to him. The third comes near.
Probably the most common understanding of this text is that we are to act like the Samaritan in the text, rather than the priest or the Levite. He "sees" and "has compassion" (splagchnizomai) on the needy man in the ditch. He "cares" (epimelo - v. 34) for the man in the ditch. He also asks the innkeeper to "care" (epimelo - v. 35). The Samaritan doesn't provide all of the direct aid to the needy man. He is also described by the lawyer as the one "doing mercy" (poieo to eleos).
The verbs used with the Samaritan are worth emulating: to have compassion others; to come (near) to others; to care for others; to do mercy to others. It is not enough just to know what the Law says, one must also do it. To put it another way, it is not enough just to talk about "what one believes," but "what difference does it make in my life that I believe."
In addition, the description of the robbers' work on the dead man indicate that there would be no identifying marks about his status, his occupation, his race. How would the lawyer (or the Samaritan) know if this half-dead man was a neighbor or not? He is a person who needs a neighbor. Who will respond? Who will come near?
Note also that the Samaritan acts not to receive anything for himself (like self-justification). He responds to the needs of the man in the ditch and his actions cost him -- time and money.
A question that needs to be asked, especially with this interpretive approach to the parable, is "Why a Samaritan?"
The idea of being a "Good Samaritan" is so common in our culture, that most people today don't realize that "Good Samaritan" would have been an oxymoron to a first century Jew. Briefly stated, a Samaritan is someone from Samaria. During an ancient Israeli war, most of the Jews living up north in Samaria were killed or taken into exile. However, a few Jews, who were so unimportant that nobody wanted them, were left in Samaria. Since that time, these Jews had intermarried with other races. They were considered half-breeds by the "true" Jews. They had perverted the race. They had also perverted the religion. They looked to Mt. Gerizim as the place to worship God, not Jerusalem. They interpreted the Torah differently than the southern Jews. The animosity between the Jews and Samaritans were so great that some Jews would go miles out of their way to avoid walking on Samaritan territory. Previously in Luke, the Samaritans had refused to welcome Jesus -- the "bad" Samaritans. I'm certain that in the minds of many Jews, the only "good" Samaritan was a dead Samaritan. Note that the lawyer never says "Samaritan." He can't call him a "good Samaritan" (a phrase that doesn't occur in the text). Anyway, we are still left with the question, "Why a Samaritan?"
If Jesus were just trying to communicate that we should do acts of mercy to the needy, he could have talked about the first man and the second man who passed by and the third one who stopped and cared for the half-dead man in the ditch. Knowing that they were a priest, Levite, and Samaritan is not necessary.
If Jesus were also making a gibe against clerics, we would expect the third man to be a layman -- an ordinary Jew -- in contrast to the professional clergy. It is likely that Jewish hearers would have anticipated the hero to be an ordinary Jew.
If Jesus were illustrating the need to love our enemies, then the man in the ditch would have been a Samaritan who is cared for by a loving Israelite.
One answer to the question: "Why a Samaritan?" is that we Christians might be able to learn about showing mercy from people who don't profess Christ. I know that I saw much more love expressed towards each by the clients at an inpatient alcoholic/drug rehab hospital than I usually find in churches. Can learn about "acting Christianly" from AA or the Hell's Angels?
Granskou (Preaching on the Parables) takes the above approach and suggests: "It is a condemnation of smugness" [p. 81].
Green (The Gospel of Luke) reaches a similar conclusion:
"The parable of the compassionate Samaritan thus undermines the determination of status in the community of God's people on the basis of ascription [he had noted earlier that priests and Levites are born into those positions], substituting in its place a concern with performance, the granting of status on the basis of one's actions" [p. 431].
This approach highlights some of the Luke's themes: Since the man in the ditch had been stripped of anything that might identify him by social class, or perhaps even nationality; he is helped simply because he is a person in need. There should be no distinctions about whom we are to help. In addition, the help involved the use of one's resources. For Luke, wealth is not necessarily evil, it depends upon how it is used.
Another answer to the question: "Why a Samaritan?" is that we are not to identify with the Samaritan. A Jew would find that so distasteful that he couldn't identify with that person. He wouldn't want to be like the Priest or Levite in the story, so that leaves the hearer with identifying with the man in the ditch.
Scott (Jesus, Symbol-Maker for the Kingdom) presents this approach most succinctly when he concludes: "The parable can be summarized as follows: to enter the kingdom one must get into the ditch and be served by one's mortal enemy" (p. 29).
He expands a little later: "Grace comes to those who cannot resist, who have no other alternative than to accept it. To enter the parable's World, to get into the ditch, is to be so low that grace is the only alternative. The point may be so simple as this: only he who needs grace can receive grace" (p. 31).
Funk (Parables and Presence) adds to this image.
A Jew who was excessively proud of his blood line and a chauvinist about his tradition would not permit a Samaritan to touch him, much less minister to him. In going from Galilee to Judea, he would cross and recross the Jordan to avoid going through Samaria. The parable therefore forces upon its hearers the question: who among you will permit himself or herself to be served by a Samaritan? In a general way it can be replied that that only those who have nothing to lose by so doing can afford to do so. But note that the victim in the ditch is given only a passive role in the story. Permission to be served by the Samaritan is thus inability to resist. Put differently, all who are truly victims, truly disinherited, have no choice but to give themselves up to mercy. The despised half-breed has become the instrument of grace: as listeners, the Jews choke on the irony. (p. 33)
He concludes his comments on this parable thusly:
... the parable of the Good Samaritan may be reduced to two propositions:
- In the Kingdom of God mercy comes only to those who have no right to expect it and who cannot resist it when it comes.
- Mercy always comes from the quarter from which one does not and cannot expect it.
An enterprising theologian might attempt to reduce these two sentences to one:
In the kingdom mercy is always a surprise. (p. 34)
I have usually taken the second interpretive approach to this text. We are the ones in the ditch and the Samaritan represent God -- God who is both enemy and helper. Our sin makes God our enemy. Yet, in the parable, the "enemy" gives new life to the man in the ditch. The "enemy" expends his resources (apparently unlimited) for the care of the half-dead man.
The problems with the lawyer is that he couldn't see God as his enemy. He hadn't recognized the depth of his own sinfulness. (He wants to justify himself and probably had a bit of pride that comes along with that.) He was too strong and healthy. He assumes that he has the ability to do something to inherit eternal life. He assumes that he can do something to justify himself. He is not helpless in the ditch. He doesn't need God's grace.
A slightly different approach centers on the difference between "doing" and "being." Righteousness can mean doing right things. Righteousness can mean being in a right relationship. The two are not the same. Being smart doesn't mean one won't do some stupid things. Having a low IQ (e.g., Forrest Gump) doesn't mean that such a person won't do some brilliant things. The lawyer wants to be righteous by what he does. Righteousness as a relationship is illustrated by the interaction between the man in the ditch and the Samaritan. There are good deeds involved, by they flow out of compassion, care, and mercy for the other -- not out of "doing the right thing out of obedience to the law or to get something for myself."
I used this text for the funeral services of a 19-year-old who had been killed in a car accident and a 2-year-old who died of a disease. There is evil in the world. We don't know why the man in the parable is attacked, beaten, and robbed, but it happens. We don't always know why young children die. I don't believe that such tragedies are part of God's plan. God not only gets into the ditch with the half-dead man, and with suffering parents, and friends. God also gets into the ditch of the dead. On the cross, God died. There is the resurrection "donkey" who transports us to the heavenly "inn" where there is complete recovery from all pain and suffering -- and it has all been paid for.
I also noted in this sermon that at times we might identify with the innkeeper. In the parable, the Samaritan used the innkeeper to continue the healing process the he had started. The Samaritan promised to provide everything that the innkeeper would need to care for this man. Sometimes God helps us out of the ditch directly. Sometimes God uses other people. Sometimes we may be the guy in the ditch. Sometimes we may be the innkeeper. Or, to use another image, sometimes (actually, all the time) we are the patients in the "hospital for sinners," but sometimes we may also be the staff at the "hospital," offering hope and "cures" for other patients.
I read the following paragraph in The Continuing Conversion of the Church, by Darrell L. Guder. I think that it has relevance to our text and offers another slant on the text.
There are others who are primarily concerned that their experience of worship "meet their needs." However their "needs" are defined, this approach to worship invariably reveals the problematic consequences of gospel reductionism. It is missionally relevant in the way it shows how much we are captive to our culture and its priorities. The "gospel which meets my needs" must be replaced with the good news that reveals needs I did not know I had while providing healing I never dreamed was possible. [p. 155]
It seems clear that part of our text is about meeting needs. There is a wounded man in the ditch who needed help. The "good Samaritan" -- the one who "was neighbor" to him, took care of those needs.
We might also say that Jesus met the needs of the lawyer by listening and talking with him. For some of us, we find great pleasure in discussing/debating issues -- showing off our knowledge and learning even more. Jesus affirms the lawyer's understanding by stating that he answered "rightly".
At the same time, this text also reveals needs that characters may not have known they had. I think that the parable reveals a need among the Jewish hearers to be "healed" of their prejudice against Samaritans.
Jesus also reveals the need of the lawyer (and probably all of us) to stop justifying himself. That is, in part, interpreting (and watering down) the Law, e.g., "who is my neighbor?" in such a way that I can easily keep it. Rather than keeping the law as a "sword" that slays all of our attempts at self-justification.
Related to this, the parable also reveals that strict obedience to parts of the law, i.e., the religious leaders avoiding the possible corpse and thus defiling themselves for worship; is not always obedience to God's greater will, i.e., loving neighbor -- even if he/she is of a different race, religion, socio-economic status, etc. I might rephrase this aspect to say that we need to stop using the law to justify what I already want to do, and allow God to use the Law to bring order and shalom to society, and to convict us of sin and our need for repentance -- which I may not even know I had before being confronted by God's Word.
The gospel is concerned about meeting needs; but it is also concerned about revealing needs that we may not know we have. I find both of these concerns in this text.
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