The Bible assignment this week for the Missional Church course involved some interpretive and applicational work on the Parable of the Good Samaritan. I am not a Luke scholar but I enjoyed the onsite class today and am enjoying the ongoing online discussion as well. I feel like I've gained some new insights.
1. When the expert in the Law asks Jesus who his neighbor is, what is he really asking Jesus?
Several people noted that the expert in the Law wanted to "justify" himself (10:29). The sense seems to be that he wants Jesus to reach the conclusion that he is in fact keeping the commandment to love his neighbor. The lawyer is thus asking Jesus who he must love or, as one student put it perhaps more accurately, who he did not need to love.
Several pointed out that the opening tone of the expert in the Law was adversarial. He is "testing" Jesus (10:25). Interestingly, the parallel passages in Matthew 22 and Mark 12 have Jesus giving the answer. But we must bracket our knowledge of those other passages to hear Luke in its own literary context.
Interestingly, the earlier part of the chapter is about the sending of the 72, a number quite possibly symbolic of the nations. So the literary context is perhaps already suggesting that Gentiles are neighbors to this expert. It is indeed possible that the very placement of this story causes the mention of an expert in the Law to have a tone of conflict even as the story opens.
2. When Jesus suggests through the Parable of the Good Samaritan that it was the Samaritan who acted as a neighbor to the half dead man, how does this answer the earlier question of the expert in the Law?
Luke seems to pull a switcheroo here. The question the expert in the Law asks is, "Who is my neighbor?" We might thus expect the story to have the Samaritan as someone the Law expert should help, that the expert in the Law should behave neighborly toward. We might expect the Samaritan to be the one mugged.
The effect of the switch is much more powerful and effective than if the Samaritan had been the one mugged. The effect is to say, this Samaritan, someone you would not say has eternal life because he does not follow the Law correctly, does not worship at the right worship site, whose people from time to time has sided with Israel's enemies, this Samaritan does a better job at loving his neighbor than you do. In a sense, this Samaritan is closer to eternal life than you are! This Samaritan knew how to love his neighbor, even if you don't. There is shame involved here in an honor-shame world.
And of course the person mugged is someone who is to be loved as a neighbor as well, a double whammy. We can understand why a priest and Levite might avoid this bloody person. They no doubt wish to remain clean and pure according to the Law. Yes, they at least seem to be leaving Jerusalem rather than going up. But they are still staying clean, going above and beyond the call of duty in following the Scriptures. The expert in the Law would presumably know this. Jesus is thus not an absolutist on such issues. It is essential to make exceptions to the rules when greater values come into play and trump lesser ones.
So a bloodied man who might make me unclean is the expert's neighbor and the Samaritan acted as a neighbor and is presumably the expert's neighbor.
3. What is the implication of Jesus’ answer for who we are to love and what love means in concrete terms?
Now we move from interpretation to application. We have been asking what the text meant. Now we are asking its significance for us today. I suppose if we are to be careful with the implications, this parable is not exactly a "love your enemies" story. The Samaritan is not the mugger in the story. He is a "good" Samaritan who loves his neighbor. We better get the full blown love your enemy message from Matthew 5.
But the Samaritan was someone who crossed a social boundary line. He was someone who, because of where he was located in the world by geography and genealogy, was not someone a carefully Law-observant Jew might want to love as neighbor. And of course Samaritans were in fact the geographical neighbors of Judea and Galilee.
The parable seems to give us a double whammy answer to the question of who we are to love. We are, of course, to love the unfortunate victim. Fitting in well with Luke's general theme of good news to the poor, the oppressed, the downtrodden is the inference that we should be a neighbor to those who are in trouble and need. The Samaritan, by the same token, implies that we are not to let identifiers like race, gender, or any kind of external identifier stand as a barrier to loving. Some application today would be that we would not let a different skin color or the fact that someone was an immigrant or a Muslim stand as an obstacle to us loving them as neighbor.
Love here seems very concrete. The compassion the Samaritan feels is toward a person in distress, not a hands holding "we are the world" sing along. You can act lovingly toward another person even when you don't particularly like them.
4. Are there any people or people groups in the immediate context of your church that some in your congregation do not think of as “neighbors” in the manner of the parable?
There are a lot of "mugged" people within blocks of my house. They don't know they've been mugged. They make lots of wrong choices. They do drugs or make a mockery of child raising. They do petty theft when it's an easy target. These mugged people pass the mugging along.
But they are themselves slaves, in bondage to forces they have little clue about. They may not even know how miserable their lives are. Being a Samaritan to them, aside from little acts of openness, looks to some prophets with a great vision and special gifts to implement it.