Monday, April 22, 2013

Through the Bible, Week 34 - The Good Samaritan

The Macro-setting of this parable is the journey from Galilee to Jerusalem, in and around Samaria (Luke 9-19).  The micro-setting is Jesus being questioned by a legal scholar about Torah (10:25-37).  It was the job of legal scholars - "lawyers" - to test the knowledge of itinerant rabbis to see if they were faithful to the Bible.  Jesus passes each of these tests and with each "pass" our trust in him deepens.  
This particular episode is of paramount importance because Jesus goes to the heart of the Torah as defined by “neighbor love” (Lev 19:18, 34 and Deut. 6:5) and then exegetes another story which illustrates a normative form of “neighbor love” which Jesus then uses to define “neighbor” in the most generous terms (2 Chronicles 28:5-15).  These interpretative moves happen in two sets of dialogues.  To see how the parable functions as an answer to the second series of questions and as an elucidation of the first series of questions in the larger dialogue, it is helpful to chart the dialogue between Jesus and his theological interlocutor.  
First Dialogue:  And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying,
 “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”
Lawyer: Question 1
He said to him, “What is written in the law? How do you read it?”
Jesus: Question 2
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 neighbor as yourself.”
Lawyer: Answer to 2
And he said to him, “you have answered right; do this, and you shall live.”
Jesus: Answer to 1

Second Dialogue: He, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus,
“And who is my neighbor?”
Lawyer: Question 3
Jesus replied, “A certain main went down from Jerusalem to Jericho…” Which of these three became a neighbor?”
Jesus: Question 4 (in the form of a parable - a metaphorical & theological "retelling" of 2 Chronicles 28:5-15)
Lawyer: “The one who showed him mercy.”
Lawyer: Answer to 4
Jesus said: “You go and do likewise.”
Jesus: Answer to 3

It is important to see this parable as part of a larger dialogue whereby the lawyer seeks to figure out what he must “do” in order to inherit eternal life.  The question of who is “one’s neighbor” is subsidiary to the prior question of eternal life, but an answer to the later informs the former.  Yet, because the lawyer is seeking to “justify himself” (for apparently not doing this command), Jesus answers the follow up question indirectly in the form of a parable.   The parable itself is an exposition of an OT story about neighborliness.  According to Leviticus 19, which the lawyer quotes, a neighbor is either an Israelite or resident alien.  But the story of 2 Chronicles 28 expands our understanding of neighbor by showing how the Jews’ ancient enemies (and half brothers) the Samaritans treated them with mercy…even providing intimate details of putting them on donkeys and transporting them to Jericho to be cared for.  Jesus takes a significant (but largely forgotten) episode in Israel’s history and brings it into immediate consciousness in the form of this parable.  This lawyer should be glad his definition of neighborliness was not what his ancestors received.  The ancestors to the Samaritans were not busy “defining” neighbor but rather acted as a neighbor - with mercy – to their estranged brother Israelite to the south of them.  

There are several reasons this parable works so well at answering the lawyer's questions beyond its arresting allusion to this foundational story of neighborliness.  One way people identified kinship in a highly stratified society was through dress and speech.  If you were a northerner, you often would dress different and talk with an accent.  But in this story, Jesus has rendered the man beaten, unconscious, and left naked.  The usual identification markers - accent and dress -  are eliminated.  The question “who is my neighbor” is no longer relevant in this instance.  One must find other criteria for neighborliness – and Jesus offers another through his subversive retelling of the original Good Samaritan story in 2 Chronicles 28.  By way of Jesus teaching, the new criterion is “showing mercy” to those in need and his concluding comment is for the lawyer to “do likewise.” 
This is an example of metaphorical theology.  Jesus is telling his interlocutor that the path way to eternal life is paved by mercy – God’s mercy to us first of all and then our reciprocation of mercy to those in need.  This is not only a theme in Luke’s gospel (cf. 1:50, 72) but also Paul’s (1 Cor 7:25 and Eph 2:4) and Peter’s (1 Peter 2:10).  Mercy is the wellspring of grace and the precondition to receiving grace. For the condemned grace is experienced as mercy.  God's grace is every where but the unmerciful don't see it and don't receive it. Mercy is the antidote to this delusion.  "Blessed are the merciful for they shall receive mercy" (Matt 5:7). 

The parable of the Good Samaritan is the first parable told in Jesus’ Samaritan travelogue.  Because it addresses the wellspring of salvation (“what must I do to inherit eternal life”) as well as corrects a misunderstanding of ministry to outsiders and deviants (“who is my neighbor?”) this parable is programmatic of his Samaritan ministry, not merely ad hoc.  That is, as he makes his journey to Jerusalem we will see Jesus expanding the normal definition of "neighbor" and thus extending the parameters of "hospitality" as practiced by fellow Jews.   We will see him engaging, befriending and practicing hospitality with the most unlikely of characters - tax collectors, lepers, and the like.  

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