God in the Details: The Good Samaritan (Part II)
Each of the four gospels gives the reader a different perspective on the same theme. God has come in the flesh to inaugurate his Kingdom, redeem Israel for his own sake and remind the people of God that their vocation was to be salt and light, a people through whom all of God’s creation was to be reconciled. The privilege and burden of such an election was a weighty one, but the devout Jewish peoples of Jesus time were waiting in anticipation for their Messiah to come and for the Kingdom of Heaven to be established. This would mark the beginning of what was known as the “age to come,” where eternal life was to be experienced.
Luke’s gospel captures a parable that, like all of Jesus’ teachings, is quite familiar. Like most everything else in scripture, understanding the context Jesus is in will help paint a clearer picture of what is happening. Jesus’ reputation as a teacher, healer and exorcist had made him famous throughout Judea. His pronouncement that the Kingdom of Heaven had now come was surely received with mixed responses. However, in the course and life of his public ministry, Jesus was not only validating his own ministry by his ‘baffling deeds,’ he was also beginning to point the way to his death, resurrection and ascension, which would be the ultimate vindication of his ministry on earth. He had been modeling what Israel should have been all along in her proud but sorted history. Through the life of Jesus, the hope of restoration and the reality of judgment become embodied in a non-contradictory persona. This brings us to Luke’s narrative, specifically, the tenth chapter.
In preparing the disciples for life after his earthly ministry, Jesus sends out the seventy-two disciples, giving them authority in his name (a foreshadowing of things to come) to pronounce and confirm the arrival of God’s Kingdom. He gives them clear instructions and sends them on their way. Upon their arrival back from their journey, the seventy-two disciples were amazed at the power that Jesus’ name had over demonic spirits. Jesus reminds them that the thing to be thankful for is that their names were written in heaven. After this, Jesus gives thanks for the wisdom of the Father who was entrusting the Kingdom to those like little children.
At that moment, Luke tells us that a lawyer, wanting to test Jesus, asks the question, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus, always the teacher, answers the question by engaging with his interlocutor with another question: “What is written in the law? How do you read it?” It is worth mentioning here that when the lawyer is asking about eternal life, he’s not simply asking about going to heaving when he dies, rather, he’s talking about what the requirement is to participate in God’s Kingdom in the age to come. Jesus, mindful of his own vocation and position as Israel’s messiah turned this question back on the sacred texts, which had been part of the Jewish religious life for centuries.
The lawyer answers correctly: Love the Lord your God with all your being and love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus validates the lawyers answer by saying, in essence, perfect, do those two things and you’ll inherit eternal life. However, Luke tells us that for the lawyer that answer wasn’t quite what he was looking for. In order to justify himself, the lawyer seeks a qualification to the answer he gave. Whom should he consider his neighbor to be? Jesus responds with a story.
“A man was going to 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 waw 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 neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?”
The lawyer, no doubt shocked by the conclusion to this story, could only answer, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ This story takes the form of a teaching anecdote that was often used by rabbis. It was always presented in the format of a priest, a Levite and a Jew. To be sure, all the characters in the usual usage of the story were Jewish, but the point was to create a story where the hero was the layman. When Jesus began this story, that the audience would have anticipated that the hero would be just like any one of them. Imagine the anticipation of the conclusion, as Jesus retells this story and the one who was the man’s neighbor was not a part of the religious elite, but a faithful, everyday, devout member of the community. Jesus turns this anecdote on its head by making the hero a Samaritan. (For a quick summary of the tension between Jews and Samaritans, see part one of this series.)
Given their claims to competing sacred spaces and religious traditions, the air would have been taken right out of the room, so to speak. Imagine the shock, at the height of slavery in American history, if this story would have been retold to an audience full of landowners with a slave as the hero. Dr. Craig Blomberg once remarked that Ken Bailey, who dedicated his life to serving Muslims in the Middle East with the gospel, would have never dared retell this story with a Jewish person as the hero. It was that unexpected to those listening to Jesus tell this story. Hopefully, this sheds some light as to the scandal that was unfolding right before the audience’s eyes.
Why would Jesus do this? I’d like to suggest a couple of things. First, he is reminding the people of God that their vocation was to be salt and light so that anyone who would respond could come to know and worship the one true God. Membership into the Kingdom was not a matter of birthright, nor was it a matter of nationalism or ethnicity. The Kingdom was much bigger than that, and as central as the nation of Israel is to the story, the very people who were chosen to model this hope had lost the plot in some very important ways. Jesus is reorienting them to their vocation and towards the purposes of God for his people in his creation. This is a lesson that the church of today should not so easily dismiss.
Secondly, in preparation for his own departure, Jesus is teaching his own followers a valuable lesson. Just a chapter earlier, Jesus is about to enter a Samaritan village, however, the village rejects him. The reason? They found out that Jesus was headed to Jerusalem. Remember, for the Samaritans, proper worship did not take place in Jerusalem and for that reason they rejected a visit from the world’s King and Savior. Upon their rejection, James and John offer to call down fire from heaven in judgment against them. Jesus, understanding his own mission and the mission to come, rebuked James and John upon hearing their offer.
Luke situates his narrative in such a way that the parable of the Good Samaritan follows the Samaritan village’s rejection of Jesus and the disciples’ offer to call down judgment upon them. Imagine what James and John must have felt as they heard Jesus offer this parable in response to the lawyer’s questions. The command to ‘Go and do likewise’ was not just for the lawyer, but a reminder to his own followers that life in the age to come was one that enabled them to see others in the present from God’s point of view. In addition, it brings into a clearer focus what Jesus may have had in mind during his Sermon on the Mount where he instructs his follows to ‘love your enemies’ and ‘bless those that persecute you.’
The economy of God’s Kingdom is a steadfast hope whatever the present cultural climate. In understanding the details of this parable, it’s my hope that the reality of God’s Kingdom comes into an even more dynamic focus. Can we conceive of a reality where those whom we presently view as enemies are now our neighbors? If not, then we find ourselves, like the lawyer in this story, seeking ways to justify our own understanding of spiritual truths. That is a precarious place to live. However, if we are willing to take this on, then we are no longer viewing others from a worldly point of view, as Paul says, and can tend to details of a Kingdom-centered life.
Just as Jesus often used stories that engaged the mind and imagination, leaving the crowds in awe, teaching as one who had his own authority, we too should follow his example in our apologetic, even if it means reframing our points of reference to align more with God’s truth. While showing compassion and mercy to others, like the Samaritan in Jesus’ parable will be an avenue for others to find God in the details, it is equally important to see how the power of God’s Kingdom is working within those who we presently consider our enemies. If the Samaritan in Jesus’ story can do it, I need to as well. Now go and do likewise.