John Michael Gutiérrez, PhD
The Holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to Luke
21 At that time Jesus, full of joy through the Holy Spirit, said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this is what you were pleased to do. 22 “All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows who the Son is except the Father, and no one knows who the Father is except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.” 23 Then turning to the disciples he said privately, “Blessed are the eyes that see what you see! 24 For I tell you that many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.” 25 And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” 26 Jesus said to him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” 27 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.” 28 And Jesus said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.” 29 But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” 30 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. 31 Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. 32 So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. 34 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. 35 And the next day he took out two denarii[a] and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’ 36 Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” 37 He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.”Luke 10:21-37
The Gospel of the Lord
If you have been in/around liturgical communities for any length of time, then, the obvious lectionary induced difficulty is Jesus’s parables are familiar and beloved. Coming once again in the three-year lectionary to the parable named “the Good Samaritan”, there is the strong temptation to assume that I “know” what is happening.
In her study of Jesus’ parables, one of my favorite Jewish teachers Amy-Jill Levine suggests parables are meant “to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.” She writes, “if we hear a parable and think, ‘I really like that’ or, worse, fail to take any challenge, we are not listening well enough”. Miss Amy Jill’s observation “I don’t experience them as afflictions” fits me like a tailored suit. I know many of the parables inside out, upside down and backwards — and, therein the great danger for me – they no longer afflict me. I translate them. I read them. I nod, I assemble lectures. I write sermons. And I move on to the next narrative scene. Too often the parables I love most don’t lay me bare. May the Lord have mercy on me. When I can fight off the pressures of moving on and instead settle into the narrative just a little longer, previously unnoticed details come into view allowing the Bible time to “afflict” my formation.
This parable, in Luke’s wider “journey to the cross in Jerusalem” narrative, is positioned after the 70 “disciples” return from Galilean, Samaritan and Gentile towns/villages where they harvested for YHWH’s kingdom, pronounced Shalom on households housing them and healed the sick and the weak. Pulling them aside upon their return Jesus debriefs them on their kingdom ministry experience (vs. 21-22). “Then turning to the disciples he said privately, Blessed are the eyes that see what you see! For I tell you that many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.” (vss. 23-24)
But a religious authority, a scribe, interrupts the debriefing asking a question clearly intended to investigate the authoritative basis of this ministry “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” (vs. 25). Luke tells us it’s a “test”. Our cultural “in the air” understanding of testing is usually a malicious aim to show up a weakness by setting a trap to catch a person in wrongdoing. But we need to understand “testing” in its biblical theology sense. And that sense has the idea of exploring or validating the character, substance and authority of a person. In the Second Temple Period, any scribe worthy of his stylus would have been obligated to ask testing questions of Jesus.
Scribes were Temple academics trained in Written and Oral Torah, who knew about literature, definition of terms, tradition and various interpretations. And as those of you who participate in Daily Morning Prayer here at St. Stephen’s know first hand, the presence of an academic indicates complications are about to arise. Here’s an amplified version of the scribe’s question: How can I participate in the world to come after the resurrection of Israel? What kinds of choices does one have to make to be a part of the world to come when the Land is renewed? Now the dominant Temple personnel, the Sadducees and we suppose also, the scribes, didn’t subscribe to the resurrection. What is to be understood by “eternal life” is rather vague even in later rabbinic literature. So attempts to systematize or organize it during the Sadducean Period imposes upon it an order and consistency that does not exist. In other words, questions about the “world to come” or “eternal life” were still open for scholarly discussion. This scribe, then, is asking for Jesus’ position on an unsettled topic he considers central to Jesus’ ministry instructions to the 70.
Jesus, putting on his best Jewish rabbi, asks two questions to the one question asked of him. They begin sparing with each other, working out what a nuanced conversation might disclose. And we will hear, as we would say, they are on the same page.
“What is written…What do you read? These questions are Jesus’ test of the scribe to determine if he has given careful thought first to the way the Torah is written and then how it is interpreted. The scribe responds with Israel’s Shema: “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.” (cf. Dt. 6.5). But notice carefully, he omits the covenantal declaration “ Hear, O’ Israel, YHWH is our God. YHWH is one” and then inflates the Shema first with “and with all your mind” and second from Leviticus’s holiness code “and your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19.18).
As usual when Torah is quoted, there is more text we need to hear. The Shema is said reasonably unchanged. But the scribe’s Leviticus quote is scaled way down from a more complete statement embedded in ch. 19. For example, vs. 18 reads “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am YHWH”. And a few sentences down the scroll in vs. 33-34 “When a foreigner resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. The foreigner who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you; you shall love him as yourself, for you were foreigners in the land of Egypt: I am YHWH your God”. In these sentences the “foreigner” acquires neighbor density. The foreigner is declared to be the equivalent of one of the “sons of your own people”, therefore a “neighbor”.
Long story short “Love YHWH, love your neighbor,” says the scribe. Remember, he was wondering about how to “inherit eternal life”. His Torah answer, while good, didn’t specifically address it. And Jesus’ response? Well he could hardly have put it better himself. “You have answered rightly”. Now take the next step. “Do this and you will live” (vs. 28). Jesus is focused on a covenantal obedient way of living in the present age well shy of the world to come.
Those who understand how rabbis converse are in no doubt Jesus’ pronouncement conveys a sense of authority. Luke observes the scribe wanted to “justify” himself. He asks another question “And who is my neighbor?” (vs.29). Trigger Word. Red flag. über -Reformation minded folk consider it a severe theological error to think that anyone can justify himself. I’m going to go out on a limb here and consider the possibility that neither this scribe nor Luke have read Luther, Calvin,Grudem or Piper. So perhaps we can read Luke as meaning he wanted to be clear or have a better understanding. He wants more than Sabbath school theology. We might suspect he expected a definition of “neighbor”. This would have been important for any scribe.
I’m suggesting the scribe does not ask “Who is my neighbor?” out of ignorance. He knows the root idea is “one that comes near”. And based on his Levitical addition to the Shema, he knows his neighbor is both Israelite and foreigner. What he wants is to explore with Jesus how he can practically live and be right with YHWH.
Jesus launches their exploration in the form of a parable broadening the scribe’s interpretation of his Torah quote. If he thinks in terms of obligation he places himself as a person who has neighbors to whom he is obliged. Axiomatic to the covenant’s instruction about love and faithfulness, he doesn’t have neighbors rather he is a neighbor. It’s a covenantal way of being, not a way of obligation. So how he treats his “neighbors” and how he treats the LORD are inescapably linked.
One of Jesus’ most famous parables begins with an act of brutal violence. An unidentified person going down the 17 mile road from Jerusalem to Jericho is beaten, stripped of everything and left half-dead by bandits.
Jesus then introduces two characters familiar to the scribe from the Deuteronomic formula “priest and Levite”(cf. chs. 18-27). Both a priest and Levite are going down to Jericho from Jerusalem. Maybe they’ve completed a temple rotation. Both see the wounded person and pass by, in the end doing nothing to help. In the Second temple period, a priest and Levite, in addition to being temple functionaries, were public health officials. They were tasked with observation and discernment, that is, with coming into contact with and attending to the health and wellbeing of the sick and injured. This parable turns, then, on the observation the priest and Levite could have done what the Samaritan is about to do.
The third character to come down the road is a Samaritan. Now Jesus has the scribe’s full attention. A Samaritan is not, from the perspective of a Jewish academic, totally outside Israel, a complete foreigner. Samaritans are the “break-away’s”, the Leavers”. So Samaritans occupy a much more infuriating place: they are ones who are near; they are like Jews. Jews and Samaritans were in a prejudicial theological-social tug-o-war with each other. This Samaritan, after all, had a priesthood and temple on Mount Gerizim and was bound by the Torah telling him his “neighbor” is not only his kin and countryman but also the foreigner.
At this point, the scribe may be thinking Samaritans live on the other side of the border. This one, who should keep out of this country, is traveling in Judea. It is not likely the half-dead person is concerned with the fine points about who is or is not a neighbor.
So like the priest and Levite, the Samaritan is coming down the road and sees the beaten bloody person. Whereas they “passed by on the other side,” the Samaritan jerks the reins of his animal to a stop. What he sees is “visceral, gut wrenching”. He refuses to pass by on the other side. His actions, described in detail, are oriented toward the man’s long-term wellbeing. He comes near to the man, touching him, binding and pouring oil and wine over the wounds – the sacrificial libations of the altar and the standard first aid remedies used by priests and Levites. He lifts him onto his animal and walks him to a Jericho inn. Extending this act of hospitality, he places himself at personal financial risk.
Jesus questions the scribe: “Which of these three, do you think, came to be neighbor of the man?” The scribe can’t bring himself to say out loud “Samaritan” so he answers with the indefinite: “The one doing mercy to him.” Or in Second Temple speak, “the one practicing covenant fidelity”. And a second time Jesus tells the temple scholar to go and do the same (vs. 37).
Since ch.9.51 where Jesus set his sights on the journey to the cross, Luke has at least two important themes to develop: the theology of the cross and the practice of discipleship.
In today’s and the previous two Sunday’s Gospel readings, the resolve of Jesus to train disciples as he heads toward Jerusalem is picking up momentum. Although this scene isolates Jesus and a scribe, we need to remember the 12, the 70 and many others are standing around listening in.
The discipleship intention of this parable is to continue forming them and us into a community. The parable points at them and us the need to need one another. Disciples can’t do a “neighborly” ministry on their own. Only together can kingdom change be effective.
Embedded in Jesus’ question: “What is written? How do you read?” is a discipleship review of a crucial operating principle. Jesus’ instructions to the 70 for their ministry contained implied tensions for Torah observance. They were going to encounter Samaritans, Gentiles not Jewish folk only. The 35 pairs have just returned from ministry where they encountered issues about being hospitable, being neighborly, being Torah observance, bringing blessing, healing and wellbeing for the sick and weak in practical ways (ch. 10.5-10).
Perhaps like the Scribe, the first –century Jewish folk listening in knew Torah well enough to have the right answers come to mind under questioning. Perhaps they also knew Torah well enough to make it work for them.
Through the instruction to the 70 and through the parable Jesus is asking disciples to form a practice of Torah around the purposes it intends. He’s directing disciples to consider a person adds up to more than the sum of political, religious, racial, cultural, or economic identities. He’s asking disciples to put aside the prejudices they’ve nursed. He’s asking them to leave wiggle room in religious observance to make room for kingdom-altering surprises (10. 21-23).
A disciple’s life is formed in community relationships. In the biblical world-view my only access to meaningful discipleship is through my learning to love someone else. If the Samaritan can become a neighbor and Jesus implies the scribe can become a neighbor like the Samaritan then I can be a neighbor. As Jesus says “Go and do the same”
Lastly, Luke’s wider intent is to present a portrait of Jesus framed in the theological dimensions of the cross. I suggest, then, Luke intends disciples to place themselves into the characterization of the wounded man so that Jesus becomes the Samaritan neighbor. This parable becomes a factor helping disciples to grasp deeply the gut wrenching decision of Jesus. He is determined to go up to Jerusalem to be wounded and die on a cross.
Billy Graham’s father-in-law, L. Nelson Bell was a medical missionary to China. One of his Chinese colleagues told him this story: a man was walking along a path when he stumbled. He fell into a deep mud filled ditch. The more he struggled to climb out, the more he sank into the pit’s grasp. Eventually he heard some footsteps, looking up he saw Confucius and raised his arms for help. Confucius said: “if you had listened to me, you would not have fallen in the ditch”. And walked away. The man renewed his attempt to get out but soon became exhausted. Then he heard other footsteps, looking up he saw Buddha who said: “if you come up here I will show you how to walk”. The man sank in hopeless despair. He heard the sound of other approaching steps. This time he looked up and saw Jesus but before he could lift a hand or say a word Jesus leaped into the ditch and lifted him out.
Finally, allow me to reflect theologically on discipleship. I have been beaten, bruised and left half dead on the road by that bandit – Sin. When I, perhaps you, am trapped in a ditch, what matters is whether anyone will stop to show me mercy before I die. It is Jesus who is viscerally gut wrenched at the sight of my violent wounds. It is Jesus who refuses to pass by on the other side. It is Jesus who is determined to bring me help and healing by paying the price for my well being. Luke is most certainly telling me, perhaps you, in this Gospel Jesus has stretched out wounded hands on the cross to care for my/your wounds and the wounds of others. In the care of his/my/your and our wounded hands there is wellbeing and healing. Because remember the 70’s discipleship instruction “When you enter a house, first say, ‘Peace to this house.’ …. Heal the sick who are there and tell them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you (10.5-9). Because remember Jesus says two times in this parable “Go and do the same”. Amen.