By Ched Myers, the 8th Sunday after Pentecost (Luke 10:25-37; right: “The Good Samaritan” by Paula Modersohn-Becker)
Note: This is part of a series of weekly comments on the Lukan gospel readings from the Revised Common Lectionary during year C, 2016.
The famous Parable of the Good Samaritan is often sentimentalized, but its subversive character and genuine profundity can never be exhausted. It comes on the heels of Jesus’ sending out of the “seventy,” and his long “missionary discourse” (Lk 10:1-24). How different the history of Christianity would have been had disciples in every age followed these relatively simple but incisive instructions to travel with the gospel in a vulnerable and provisional mode, rather than a dominating one! But if the unholy joining of mission and empire has been the first pillar of Christendom’s apostasy, surely the second has been the church’s tendency to define faith through dogma. It is this religious bad habit that Luke addresses in this Sunday’s parable.
We often forget that the parable is actually framed by a conflict story (10:25-30, 36f), in which Jesus engages hostile scribes (as in 7:30, 14:3 and especially his tirade in 11:45ff). Luke sets up the episode as a struggle over “hermeneutics” (how one interprets texts) and “epistemology” (how we know what we know). This is articulated in terms of Jesus’ telling double response to the lawyer’s question:
Lawyer: “Teacher, what must I do (ti poiēsas) to inherit eternal life?”
Jesus: He said to him: “What is written in the law? How do you read it?” (10:25f)
The approaching challenge is identical to that of the rich man in Luke 18:18. The notion of “inheriting the Kingdom” (Gk klēronomēsō) seems to reflect a conceit about entitlement typical of the elite, who presume salvation to be like the intergenerational transfers of wealth they enjoy (which may be why klēronomian in 12:13 evokes Jesus’ diatribe on greed). In contrast, Jesus’ counter-queries posit the difference between exegesis and hermeneutics. It is not enough to know “what is written” (gegraptai); one must also have a critical awareness of “how one reads it” (anaginōskō, almost always for Luke associated with scripture; see 4:16; 6:3; Acts 8:28-32; 13:27; 15:21).
Jesus probes not only the text, but also the lens through which this lawyer interprets it. The latter’s answer addresses only the former, citing the Shema (Dt 6:4f):
Lawyer: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart…”
Jesus: “…You’ve given the right answer; do this (touto poie) and you will live.” (10:27f)
Jesus affirms his “correct theology,” but emphasizes that it is only verified through embodiment. To do is to know in deep Hebrew epistemology; thus the emphasis here is on practice.
The lawyer, however, instead presses on with his interrogation (as lawyers do), offering a kind of courtroom objection: “But who is my neighbor?” (10:29). This reveals “how he reads”: he forever looks to problematize straightforward texts. There is of course a long and lamentable history of such “self-justifying” (Gk dikaioō, a term essential to Pauline theology) hermeneutics “of suspicion” in Christianity. Under the surface here seems to lie an assumption that love of neighbor does not include those outside his ethnic group, which is exposed by the “wrinkle” at the heart of Jesus’ ensuing parable.
The well-known story narrates how a Samaritan (alienated cousins of Judeans who were descendants of the northern Kingdom but much despised) models good behavior toward the victim of highway robbery, while Judean clerics model bad (10:30-35). In the final exchange Jesus again trumps the lawyer’s interrogation with a rhetorical-but-revealing query (as in 7:42):
Jesus: “…Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” (10:36)
Lawyer: “The one doing mercy to him” (ho poiēsas to eleos met’ autou).
Jesus: “Go and do likewise” (poie homoiōs).
Here again is a refrain of the key verb “to do”; the parable makes clear the primacy of practice, in this case of mercy (alluding to the ubiquitous exhortations of the prophets). In this amazing episode, theology, ethics and sociology are all revealed as “hands on” disciplines: To love God is to be a neighbor, and to be a neighbor is to do mercy and justice for and with hurting persons. Case dismissed.
This episode rightly challenges the Protestant dogma of “salvation by faith, not works,” and the theological idealism it has spawned. Yet Luke’s more properly dialectical approach is delightfully demonstrated in the very next story—about Mary, Martha and the “idolatry of doing” (see next week’s comments by Wes and Sue)!