Monday, 18 July 2011

The Good Samaritan

In previous posts I've talked about Jesus' inaugural sermon in Nazareth, where he reinterprets the Kingdom of God to include Israel's enemies; and the story of the cleansing of the Temple, in which Jesus symbolically clears the Court of the Gentiles for their expected influx.  In Luke 10:25-37 we find a story that reinforces these themes in a different way.

25 On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

26 “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”

27 He answered, “‘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.’”

28 “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”

29 But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

30 In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. 32 So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’

36 “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”

37 The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”
Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”

This is one of the best-known of Jesus' parables, and the term "Good Samaritan" has entered our wider culture as a term for someone who helps people in need.

Jesus uses a rhetorical method that we see at greater length in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) in which he starts from a point of agreement with his hearers based on the Law, and then follows up by turning this law on its head.  The lawyer asks what he must do to inherit eternal life, and Jesus invites him to anwer his own question.  He does so by quoting two verses, the first from Deuteronomy 6:5, and the second from Leviticus 19:18, and Jesus fully endorses his answer : "You have answered correctly.  Do this and you will live".

This is the standard Rabbinic answer to the lawyer's question.  These two verses were seen as a summary of the whole Mosaic law.  As Jesus says in the parallel version of this story in Matthew 22, "All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments."  By endorsing this view, Jesus seems to place himself securely within the Rabbinic tradition.  However, the rabbis were well aware of the difficulty of actually following these commands and they wanted to define them a little more carefully.  This is the purpose of the lawyer's follow-up question, "who is my neighbour?"

You will notice that Jesus doesn't answer this question.  The relevant Rabbinic answer goes something like this: your neighbour is your fellow Jew.  A further question follows: what if I'm not sure the person is a Jew?  The answer is that if you don't know then you can be legitimately excused.  Jesus doesn't answer this question because the problem is with the line of questioning as much as with the answer.  Instead he poses a question of his own in the form of the famous parable.

At its simplest level, the meaning of the parable is clear, and modern readers understand it well.  You should help those in need, whoever they might be.  However, there is a further level provided by the three characters Jesus places in the story.  The first two, the priest and the Levite, are not only Jews, but people whose role and duty is to interpret and enforce the Law of Moses, and to enact it in the Temple.  They should be exemplars of the Law. 

The problem for them is twofold.  Firstly, they are walking along a dangerous road and they see clear evidence of a violent robbery - they are obviously at risk and want to hurry along.  Secondly, the robbery victim has been left "half dead" - he is lying unconsious beside the road.  If he turns out to be dead they will become ritually unclean by touching him, and will not be able to carry out their sacred functions in the Temple until they have served a period of cleansing.  So they do what the Rabbinic interpretation of the law says they can - they assume he is not a Jew, and pass by.

The third character in the story is a Samaritan.  The Samaritans were people of mixed descent who lived in the area just to the north of Judea and followed (still follow to this day) a modified form of the Jewish religion, worshipping at their shrine on Mt Gerazim.  There was a long history of enmity between Samaritans and Jews, which had often escalated into violence.  This Samaritan, unencumbered by the law of the Rabbis, sees a man in need and stops to help him.  What could be more natural and straightforward?  He binds his wounds, puts him on his donkey, and arranges for his care in the nearest inn. 

By the time Jesus asks his question - "Which of the three do you think was a neighbour...?" - it is clear that there is only one possible answer - "The one who had mercy on him." 

Having the Law, at least as interpreted by the lawyers of Jesus' day (who we often mimic), does not make you more godly.  In fact, it is likely to make you less so.  The Samaritan is not merely ignorant of the Law but its active enemy.  Yet acting on his good impulse he is more godly than the priest or Levite acting from their deep knowledge of the Torah.  This is why the priests and Levites, and the temple in which they serve, will be destroyed.  This is why their place of leadership in the Kingdom of God will be taken by Gentiles, Samaritans and Jewish outcasts.  This is why they had Jesus executed.

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