mosaic of ox representing St. Luke

Studying Leviticus 19 18, Luke 10 25-37

We are studying Leviticus 19:18 and Luke 10:25-37 for Sunday, October 20. This is the instruction in the Torah to “love your neighbor as yourself,” and the commentary on that instruction provided by Jesus in the parable of the Good Samaritan, as told by Luke. [Some questions on the text are here.] Here are a few notes on that extremely familiar text:
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BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: We are still in Luke’s gospel.

We are a bit further on since last week. The sermon on the plain is over, Jesus has done a lot – healed Gentiles, raised the dead, of both genders, been anointed with ointment in the home of a prominent Pharisee by “a sinful woman” who just comes in off the street, fed thousands of people with next to no food, etc. Peter has called Jesus the son of God, the Transfiguration has happened, Jesus has “set his face” to go to Jerusalem, and has been entirely clear about the death and resurrection part of the upcoming story. He has also commissioned seventy people, working in pairs, to go ahead of him – an evangelical advance force. And that work seems to be going well (Luke10:17-24). “Just then” (NRSV) the occasion arises for the story of the Good Samaritan.

It seems to come out of left field, honestly.

Right after this, Jesus goes to visit Mary and Martha, which is interesting, in the context of what it means to be neighborly and compassionate.

And then, everything else.   

What we know about Luke’s interest in “outsiders” – Gentiles and others – seems especially relevant to this text, in which the main character is a Samaritan.

Those of us who have hung out at church for any length of time probably know that Samaritans and Jews in 1st century Palestine were antagonistic to one another and that this ethnic identity matters for the story Jesus tells about compassionate behavior. Compassionate behavior counts for much more than ethnic or religious identity. Casting the good neighbor as a Samaritan highlights this point dramatically, maybe uncomfortably, for Jesus’s audience. [Here’s a nice example of the preaching I mean; here’s an example that does something different, that uses the form of the story and analyzes that.]

Something else we have probably heard about is the relationship of Jerusalem to Jericho: Jerusalem is in the hill country, Jericho is in the Jordan River valley, it’s a downhill road, so people talked about “going down” to Jericho. It was known for being dangerous, etc. [More about Jericho, links to a map here.]

And we probably know that priests and Levites had responsibilities in the Jerusalem Temple, and that there were purity laws associated with touching dead people that would have made it impossible for them to do their jobs. We could track those down more specifically later, if we wanted to.

It may be worth noting, though, in passing, that the priest and the Levite both are going the same way (“down”) as the man, and the Samaritan. That is, they seem to have been leaving Jerusalem, not heading there.

Of course this text is in the lectionary! For the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, Year C, alongside the text of Amos seeing a plumbline, and Deuteronomy 30:9-14, letting people know that they can, too, do what the Torah instructs. “It’s not too hard for you!!” We are likely to have heard this story … a lot. From infancy.

Even if we don’t know anything at all about church, or Christianity, or the Bible, or religion, we are likely to have heard this story, in some version, from infancy. And to know what it means to be a Good Samaritan. This story is so familiar it has made its way into contemporary legislation in the form of “Good Samaritan” laws that limit helpers’ liability to be sued for medical malpractice and things like that.

Why am I even writing notes on this text?
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CLOSER READING: This story really does seem to come out of left field. Where did this lawyer come from? Has he been there all along? “Look,” literally, he suddenly stands up to ask Jesus a question.

Understanding that this probably means Luke was cutting and pasting from another source, and this seemed to be the best place to insert this text – it still makes me wonder why here.

What the lawyer says comes across a lot differently in Greek than in English to me, even though I can’t think of another way to translate it into English that is actually English. It’s a matter of tense. In English, it is all up ahead: “What must I do … ?” In Greek, it’s as if the lawyer is looking back at his life, which is already lived and over, and asking what it needs to look like at that critical point to get the inheritance of eternal life. “What, having done it … ?” The perspective is different.

Jesus answers a question with a question. The lawyer knows the right answers – they are the same answers Jesus himself gives in Mark’s and Matthew’s gospels (Mark 12:28-31; Matthew 22:35-40).

Then in v29 the narrator tells us what is in the lawyer’s mind and/or heart, “desiring to justify himself,” he asks the question “who is my neighbor?”

This verse seems critical.

Especially because Jesus does not answer it in the expected way, at all. He doesn’t, for instance, give the lawyer a list of categories, or even a list of principles, by which the lawyer can identify who he is supposed to love that way.

An answer like that would also imply some categories of people whom he is not responsible for loving in that way.

Jesus tells the story, and then asks [literally] “which of these three a neighbor appears to you to have become to the one having fallen among the robbers”? We wouldn’t say it like that, of course, but it seems to me there’s a sense of this “neighbor,” this status of being “nearby,” isn’t just “there,” it’s something that had to be created or to come into being. It was/is intentional, on purpose, and it had/has to do with behavior.

We say “show compassion,” but in v37 the lawyer describes the Samaritan as the one “having made compassion” for the injured man. Again, the compassion is active, creative; it was something the Samaritan felt viscerally in v33, but then it was something he did or made – and in the story Jesus tells, Jesus draws out all the concrete things the Samaritan does to make this point, too: the Samaritan approaches, binds up the wounds, puts oil and wine on them, puts him on the donkey, takes him to the inn, takes care of him, then leaves him in the care of the innkeeper, finances his stay – and notice, leaves himself open to some account padding on the part of the innkeeper, too. It’s simply what the man needs, but it’s also lavish treatment, and it’s for a complete stranger.

The Samaritan made himself close to the man in the ditch. He came near. And then did all that: treated him tenderly, saved his life.

In seminary once, one of our teachers told us that in classical times (when people read the Bible “analogically” or “spiritually” instead of “literally”) everyone knew that the Good Samaritan in the story was really Jesus.

Then in v37, Jesus says, “Go and do likewise.”
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mosaic image of St Luke as winged ox

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