The Parables of Jesus: Part 1, The Good Samaritan

What follows is the first of a series of posts on the parables of the gospels, an attempt on my part to approach these incredibly well-known and well-worn remnants of the Savior’s ministry in something of a new light. I plan to include commentary on such classics as the Mustard Seed, the Vineyard, the Unmerciful Servant, the Talents, and (today) perhaps the most famous and taken-for-granted of all, the Good Samaritan.

In general, I think contemporary Christian and LDS readings of the parables tend to run somewhat afoul on two grounds. First, we read them as simple morality tales. Such a reading imagines Jesus telling His disciples stories, providing object lessons, to make points that really don’t require making, to convey as “morals” to His fables the kind of motivational-speaking, fortune-cookie wisdom that would be obvious to anyone listening:

“Be nice, even when it’s inconvenient.”

“Make the most of what you’ve got.”

“Have faith and hope for great things.”

“Don’t be a jerk.”

“Share and share alike.”

You get the idea… Among other things, this is the commonest kind of reading for the parable under discussion below. My dissatisfaction with such an approach is not based on the presumption that the parables convey no moral or ethical concerns. Indeed, I will argue that they are positively saturated with such concerns, but that accessing the ethical imperatives of Christ’s spoken parables entails a more careful reading than one that merely views the Good Samaritan as an object lesson in charity (as if we really need convincing that what he did was laudable or righteous).

The second tendency we have that limits our reading of the parables is the assumption that parable = allegory. That is, Jesus was speaking in some kind of code — saying something cryptically that He could just have easily have spoken plainly and straightforwardly were He so inclined — and that learning the code is the only requirement for getting at the meaning of the parable. Of recent note, frequent BCC visitor and commenter Jack Welch published an in-depth commentary on (perhaps ironically) today’s selection, the parable of the Good Samaritan. Drawing on early Christian sources and iconography, Jack proffers an “allegorical reading” of the parable, a “Type and Shadow of the Plan of Salvation,” including a chart outlining the relevant symbols in the story and their corresponding referents in the unfolding of God’s plan (the most important of which is the identification of Jesus with the Samaritan). Of course I assume that Jack’s rich exegesis is not meant to be definitive or as an end to further discussion of the parable’s meaning. Indeed, his treatment in some ways exemplifies both approaches outlined here — the symbolic and morality-tale — since he concludes his allegorical reading with an emphasis on the “Eternal Moral Imperative” of the parable: the need to be merciful to friends and enemies, to be neighborly according to the example of the Samaritan (Savior). Still, I believe there are certain shortcomings to such an approach.

For one thing, it presupposes Jesus speaking coded riddles to hearers, few if any of which — including his apostles — would have recognized any of the symbolism encoded in the sayings. Further, the parable, with all its indecipherable nuances, needed to survive circulation as an oral tradition until such time as someone decided to select and edit from such traditions and string them together in written form as what we now know as the Gospel of Luke (part 1 of a 2-part letter, the second of which is found in the book of Acts), preserving in the process those relevant details that could be looked upon retrospectively (Jack’s sources begin with Irenaeus and Clement, a century or so after the parable would have been spoken by Jesus) as emblems of a christological narrative. Perhaps more significantly, such a reading pushes to the margins the likely experience the people who heard the Savior teach, their understandings of a parable whose fabric was drawn from their own day-to-day lives, and, by implication, the meanings likely intended by the Master for His hearers.

The analytic I use here to reconstruct such possible hearings and understandings is drawn, in part, from the work of three important scholars of the gospel parables: John Dominic Crossan, William Herzog II, and (going back another generation to the granddaddy of parables scholarship, a major influence on the other two) Joachim Jeremias. Two keys underlie the approach taken here.

First, the importance of real-world context. Here I presume that Jesus chose stories and characters from the familiar world of the lives of His hearers, not just to lend timeless tales an intimate context, but because the characters, actions, and social processes would themselves carry meanings not lost on the ears of those “with ears to hear.” What it meant to be a day laborer or a vineyard owner in a commercializing, monetizing, and increasingly stratified agrarian economy is not, I argue, irrelevant to the larger meaning of the parables. My readings presume that some basic understanding of the social actors and politico-economic processes referred to in the parables — understandings taken for granted by Jesus’ first hearers — is necessary for getting at the core meaning and purpose of this powerful pedagogical style.

Second, I assume (and here in particular I follow Herzog’s analysis) that part of the purpose of deploying language and stories that drew so liberally from the life world of the mostly impoverished peasants and laborers that constituted Jesus’ Galilean audience was that these salient, memorable speech events enabled those hearers to see that world in a different light, calling forth into full conscious awareness the ruling ideologies unconsciously imbibed by those thereby oppressed, enabling them to be articulated, questioned, and overturned in an effort to establish a kingdom whose governing imperatives and modalities of power are antithetical to those manifested in the world we now live in.

To the parable (at last!):

Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto a treasure hid in a field; the which when a man hath found, he hideth, and for joy thereof goeth and selleth all that he hath, and buyeth that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto a merchant man, seeking goodly pearls: Who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had, and bought it (Matthew 13:44-46).

Okay, I know — that’s not even the right parable! But these two brief parables of the kingdom illustrate what I consider to be central to any proper understanding of strategy behind parabling in Jesus’ ministry. Among other things, a major purpose of Jesus’ earthly mission is to proclaim the kingdom and its advent, heralded by His presence in the midst of His followers.

In both parables, an item of untold value is found, “all” the actor’s existing property is sold, and the means for acquiring the item are purchased. This is the pattern, find-sell-buy, underlined by the main verbs of both stories. In each case, writes Crossan, the actors’ “past-present-future is rudely but happily shattered,” as the advent of something utterly new and the imperative of acquiring it reverses pasts, dominates presents, and redirects futures, dictating the time and history of its acquirer. This is the conversion spoken of in scripture, entrance into the kingdom, the space and time of God’s sovereign rule. Those who would arrogate to themselves the prerogative of sovereign control over their own time, plans, projects, or lives will find such strategies, no matter how well-intentioned, to be idolatrous challenges to the ultimate, free, and utterly unpredictable Sovereignty of God.

The parable of the Good Samaritan is not a morality tale. Jesus is not telling us to be “good Samaritans.” Of course that seems like the simplest reading, but the parable itself has imbued the word “Samaritan” with such positive, altruistic, mythic overtones that it has concealed from modern Christian readers how utterly shocking it likely was to 1st-century Jewish-Palestinian ears. It was simply not shocking (or even remotely original) to be told the importance of being nice, even to enemies. Indeed, if the imperative of merciful action even to those whom we are disinclined to serve, and even when otherwise pious men find justification for not serving, were the purpose of the parable, a Jew aiding a Samaritan who fell among the thieves would have made a far more effective object lesson. This is not to say that the Samaritan’s actions are not admirable or worthy of emulation. They are. But to identify such an obvious conclusion as the primary purpose of the parable is to reduce the Master Teacher to a rather uninspired and uncreative preacher of run-of-the-mill, lowest-common-denominator ethics, a trader in trite, self-evident platitudes with nothing more original to say than “helping people who need help is the right thing to do.”

This parable was a way of shattering the paradigms of its Jewish hearers, holding up their view of the world with all its assumptions and smashing it before their eyes. Think of the worst stereotyped epithet imaginable. Now, imagine a Teacher speaking as one having authority telling you a plausible narrative in an easily conceivable setting that forces you, linguistically and conceptually to speak the unspeakable, think the unthinkable — to string together two words that simply do not belong together: “good” and “[insert epithet of choice].” If we want to understand how the Savior’s words invaded and overthrew the paradigmatic universes of those who heard them, we might imagine Him telling General Conference attendees the parable of the Good Temple-Square-Megaphone-Preacher; telling a group of Christian soldiers in Baghdad the parable of the Good Insurgent; telling DKL the parable of the Good Obama Supporter (you get the picture).

Jesus likens the speaking and hearing of this parable to the Kingdom, to its incursion into the lives of His disciples, to the advent of God’s Sovereignty on earth. If we really seek truth and value revelation as a source of it, we must be prepared to be told things that we can’t even imagine, things that fundamentally challenge all our assumptions about who the good guys and bad guys are, about the way the world works. By speaking this parable with authority, Jesus actually gave His hearers the experience of the Kingdom, of God making His divine presence felt in the world, of something utterly not of this world.

This is the approach I plan to take with my analysis of parables in this series — to suggest at once plausible and defensible yet unconventional and even mildly shocking readings of familiar texts, in hope of revisiting them with fresh eyes, prepared, as we explore heretofore unexplored possibilities and understandings, to hear in the process the voice of God and experiencing His sovereignty in our lives.

Comments

  1. sister blah 2 says:

    including a chart outlining the relevant symbols in the story and their corresponding referents in the unfolding of God’s plan

    Ever since Dave Eggers’ Heartbreaking Tale…, I can’t look at a chart of symbols and referents without cracking up giggling. The moral of this parable is that the more “cultured” I get, the more immature and silly I become, or in other words, Woe unto you, ye learned people!

  2. good post brad, it reminds me of keirkegaard,

    They have made Christianity too much of a consolation and forgotten that it is a demand.

    We have sanitized much of Christ’s message and made it palatable to our world views. Its good to be reminded how radical the kingdom truly is.

  3. Randall says:

    Brad,

    I appreciate your analyses and connection to our time. For a 21st Century Mormon, Christ might have offered the jarring parable of the Good FLDS Polygamist or the Good Former Arkansas Governor.

    I share your belief that Christ is softened and molded in modern Christianity. His message is so broad that is has both: 1) been incorporated into all aspects of western daily living, and 2) largely been lost because people cling only to the parts that fit their perspective and preferred Christ narrative.

    Christ, the philosopher, truly is all things to all people.

  4. This is great Brad, thanks a lot. I think the early saints probably had a greater appreciation of how radical the experience of God’s sovereignty in their lives could be. Today we seem to be trying to assimilate with society (more so than the early church at least). Any ideas as to how we might have a more ‘radical’ experience?

  5. Bradley,

    Good stuff. Note the question to which this parable was the answer. Not “should I be good to my neighbour?” (duh!), but “who is my neighbour?” The person you hate is your neighbour.

    I can’t help thinking of Willem Dafoe’s Jesus screaming at the high priest, “GOD IS NOT AN ISRAELITE!”

  6. Yeah, good work, and especially nice to cut away from the allegorical readings.

  7. Brad,

    I am only at the point in the post where you start to deal with the parable, but I couldn’t help but be struck by how closely the first half of this post parallels the approach Harvey Cox takes with parables. He taught a course called “Jesus and the Moral Life” where one of his main focal points was the parables, and he spent most of his time exploring “why” the parable had significance in that time to those hearers. He then assigned the students to construct a modern parable that would have the same significance for them in their lives.

    It wasn’t focused on “the moral of the story” or the “symbols of salvation” but rather simply on how they interacted with the world around them. It was a very *practical* reading of the parables, and it was fascinating to see how many of the students just couldn’t “get it” in that form. Many of their “modern parables” were nothing more than a reworking of the moral they had been taught for each parable.

    Anyway, back to the post.

  8. StillConfused says:

    Living in a neighborhood where acts of kindness toward me come from the non-Mormon neighbors, this parable hits really close to home for me.

  9. I think the most important point is the “utterly shocking” bit. Thus, that to get the tale one has to imagine (first) how utterly shocking it was to the relevant 1st century listeners, in order to (second) transpose the story into something similarly shocking for ourselves. Without the shock there’s no real meaning for us, it’s simply a tale applying to distant worlds. Despite the frequent injunction to liken the scriptures to one’s own life, the NT seems to me to be mostly interpreted in cultural Mormonism as a condemnation of certain groups of Jews. Until one sees that the condemnation might apply to ourselves as well, we miss the point. The same thing is true of historical (or contemporary) events more generally; as long as something is safely distant in time and space, then it is simply exotic entertainment at best or boring fact at worst. That’s why I won’t let my students read the Galileo story as the blind and oppressive Catholic church, as they’re inclined to read it; I insist that they understand why it was so shocking in its time, why they almost certainly would have joined those condemning Galileo, and that to grasp this they must find something in their own world that would be equally shocking to them. When they do that, then they get the Galileo story.

  10. Finished the post; back to Harvey Cox, since his approach seems to be much like what you describe:

    His favorite way to describe the effect of hearing a parable live was to invoke what he called the “Zen slap”. He talked of the way that Zen Buddhism employs stories that seem like charming vignettes – until they take a sudden turn and slap you in the face, making your head jerk back and causing you to say, “What did you just say? No, you didn’t go there, did you?”

    I’m looking forward to these posts.

  11. Brad, I like your proposed approach to these parables.

    Christianity in general, and Mormonism in particular, seems to be based on creative re-readings of past scripture. Early Christians took Jewish writings and found Christ in them. Mormons take OT, NT, and any other writings and find restoration doctrines in them.

    I’m fine with the idea of using past writings as a launching point for new revelations and new ideas. But it sometimes pays to step back and ask, “What did this passage originally mean to the person who spoke/wrote it and the people who first heard/read it?” I look forward to more posts in this series.

  12. Can I give just one example of a original meaning vs. re-reading, to highlight why I like Brad’s approach to the parables?

    Imagine someone tried to convince you that the Family Proclaimation does not really mean what it says. That it sounds like a straightforward statement of the church’s position on gender roles, marriage, and families, but in reality it is a sort of coded message intended for saints that would read it hundreds or thousands of years in the future.

    You’d tell the person they were crazy, right? There seems to be no reason to believe that the Proclaimation is anything different than what it claims to be on its surface.

    However, some future generation of saints might read a copy of the Proclaimation and use it as inspiration to address problems that we in our generation have not yet dreamed of. One might even argue that the Lord knew of the future uses of the Proclaimation when he inspired our current leaders to write it.

    So it is with our modern applications of Isaiah, or Revelations, or Romans, or possibly even the Book of Mormon. I find it hard to believe that the primary purpose of Isaiah 29 was to prophecy of Martin Harris’ visit to Charles Anthon, or that [pick your favorite chapter of Revelations] is primarily a prophecy of [pick your current favorite sign that the second coming is near]. Why would those authors publicly teach things that had no meaning to their contemporaries?

    We can find profound meaning for our lives in the parables and prophesies of the past, but it pays to consider what those writings originally meant to the people who first wrote and read them.

  13. One more comment:

    For a great modernized rendition of the Good Samaritan parable that complements this post nicely, I recommend this essay from Winter 1991 Dialogue by Neal Chandler, titled “Book of Mormon Stories that my Teacher Kept from Me.” See pages 15 – 17.

  14. So the fact that it was a good Samaritan was the main point that Christ was communicating, not that we should be kind to everyone? Sort of like someone telling us a story about an good Iraqi who helps an American?

    Could it also be that this was a preparation for the Jews to help them accept the gospel being taught to the gentiles after Peter’s vision (Acts 10)?

  15. One of the most insightful, concise comments I have ever heard about the Sermon on the Mount was the following, paraphrased from memory:

    “Jesus taught that we are blessed if we are different than what the society around us expects us to be.”

    I like the approach to parables that emphasizes why they would have challenged the status quo expectations of their time – like the beatitudes and the “It has been said of old . . . but I say unto you” statements of Jesus.

  16. Brad, as one whose NT and OT understanding is fairly minuscule, I appreciate the work that you have put into this and look forward to more.

  17. An analog of the good Samaritan to today’s culture, hmmm, maybe the “good Nazi”?

  18. as one whose NT and OT understanding is fairly minuscule, I appreciate the work that you have put into this and look forward to more.

    What J. said. Thanks.

  19. Thanks Brad, this was great. I’m really looking forward to your series of posts.

  20. If we want to understand how the Savior’s words invaded and overthrew the paradigmatic universes of those who heard them, we might imagine Him telling General Conference attendees the parable of the Good Temple-Square-Megaphone-Preacher; telling a group of Christian soldiers in Baghdad the parable of the Good Insurgent; telling DKL the parable of the Good Obama Supporter (you get the picture).

    I’m sure I’m not understanding correctly, but two things. First, isn’t this how this parable is generally being taught today? (That is, don’t just be good to each other, but be good to icky people too, and remember that “icky people” is a generalization.)

    Second, I think that’s how most of us see the parable, exactly like the examples you give, like the Good Temple Square Megaphone speaker. I think we are generally pretty good at saying, at the least, that while we often think of Megaphone Preachers as “bad,” we generally acknowledge that not ALL of them are bad, and that even the BAD ones have some good in them.

    Speaking metaphorically, of course, and not about Megaphone Speakers in particular. Maybe it’s just that I don’t find your present day examples “utterly shocking” enough?

  21. Dug, I am not sure you’re understanding correctly. It’s not really about being good to each other.

  22. Steve, I agree, I’m not understanding correctly, which is no surprise. But what I think I’m missing is the “utterly shocking” part. Which part is that?

  23. What’s utterly shocking, I think, is the notion that salvation comes from sources that we utterly despise.

  24. RE #22,
    …and that participation in God’s Kingdom entails recognizing Him not just in the people we look up to or who conform to our existing notions of power and propriety, but in the despised Other.

  25. Yes –exactly. Thanks, Brad.

  26. I once sat in an EQ lesson where the message of “Love your neighbor” was applied to two notorious killers on death row at the Utah State Penitentiary. One of the quorum members was a guard at the penitentiary. I remember he at first was shocked, then silent, before saying “I never thought of it that way”.

    I suspect that was what the Savior was trying to do, to stretch paradigms in powerful new directions that they (or we) weren’t willing to go on their own. I’m looking forward to this series.

  27. Parables are like an onion. They have many layers. The first layer would be the simple concept of help your neighbor no matter who they are or their station in life. If a single person understands just that simple notion we have all moved a little closer to the Kingdom.

    If you want to peel away the layers and reach for the deep meanings, great, please do. This also helps us all move a little closer to our Savior and the Kingdom.

    The Savior’s parables were designed to reach as many people as possible and touch them at their current level of understanding.

    When we say be a Good Samaritan in this day and age it means be good to each other as Jesus has commanded us.

  28. My understanding is that the Samaritans were extremely despised. I don’t think the examples of the obnoxious preacher or Iraqi go far enough.

    If I had to choose an example of a classification of people that everyone loves to hate, I’d venture an example of “The Good Pedophile”

  29. divaqs,
    That’s why I chose “Good Insurgent” instead of “Good Iraqi.” The “Good Anti-American Muslim” in about October 2001 I think roughly approximates what “good Samaritan” would have sounded like to the parable’s original hearers. The good Abortion-Doctor, the good Sex-Offender, the good Neo-Nazi, the good Terrorist — again, the idea is pretty clear.

  30. Divaqs, please tell me that your first name is Vlade.

  31. another random example — the parable of the “Good Vlade Divac” to any self-respecting basketball fan.

  32. Randall says:

    To many of us, that would be the parable of the good Greg Ostertag.

  33. Are the “good insurgent” or the “good pedophile” the most comparable titles? I’m not sure if Jesus’ parable would have been the same if it were the “good adulterer” or the “good murderer,” vs. the good Samaritan (though a good but different lesson on repentance and withholding judgment would have been amplified). The Samaritan’s title, although looked on with derision, scorn, and inferiority, was not inherently sinful (though perhaps some Jews thought otherwise). These other proposals all carry an inherent sinful nature about them (though perhaps not insurgents – I don’t know how God judges their intentions). Maybe the good North Korean general, or something like that, would be better. I think the radical, paradigm-changing nature of the parable is a means, but not the end of the parable. Is it necessary to take the _ultimate_ extreme in order to get to the point? Do we lose some things if we go to far? I could be wrong on all of this – just some thoughts.

  34. Agreed, JT. What Jesus was doing was using a scorned category of person.

  35. Randall says:

    Given the geographic and political nature of the Samaritans and Jews, perhaps a comparable contemporary parable would be the Good Undocumented Immigrant. Both are imbued with a sense of marginalization, undesirability, cost to society, but not necessarily clear sinning (i.e. the church doesn’t allow for baptism interviews to include questions about lawful presence in the US).

  36. Ooo – that’s my current favorie, Randall (34).

  37. Eric Russell says:

    The parable, as it’s written, doesn’t make sense to me. Kierkegaard’s reading is the best I can think of, even though, as he acknowledges, it turns the lawyer’s question on its head:

    after having told the parable of the merciful Samaritan, Christ says to the Pharisee (Luke 10:36), “Which of these three seems to you to have been the neighbor to the man who had fallen among robbers?” and the Pharisee answers correctly, “The one who showed mercy on him”—that is, by acknowledging your duty you easily discover who your neighbor is. The Pharisee’s answer is contained in Christ’s question, which by its form compelled the Pharisee to answer in that way. The one to whom I have a duty is my neighbor, and when I fulfill my duty I show that I am a neighbor. Christ does not speak about knowing the neighbor but about becoming a neighbor oneself, about showing oneself to be a neighbor just as the Samaritan showed it by his mercy. By this he did not show that the assaulted man was his neighbor but that he was a neighbor of the one assaulted. The Levite and the priest were in a stricter sense the victim’s neighbor, but they wished to ignore it. The Samaritan, on the other hand, who because of prejudice was predisposed to misunderstanding, nevertheless correctly understood that he was a neighbor of the assaulted man.

    By the way, of course this is a morality tale – a morality tale of the most high kind.

  38. RE: “Good insurgent,” “good megaphone preacher,” “good abortion doctor,” “good Greg Ostertag,” etc. —

    In the Dialogue essay I linked to in #13, the modern day Good Samaritan is an “aging hippie . . . a kind of middle-aged adolescent with a pony tail and an earring, who played lead guitar in a local rock’n’roll band and drove a rusting VW van covered with bumper stickers promoting abortion rights, gay liberation, legalization of marijuana, and the making of love not war.” He winds up helping out a man with “money and credit cards, a dark blue blazer, and a late model car with a George Bush bumper sticker.”

  39. I still favor the comparison of ‘The Good Pedophile’, since an oft told thing in Gospel Doctrine is that the level of despise for the Samaritans was so high that Jews would avoid not only living near them, but would go to great lengths to avoid going anywhere near where they live. As if, the very proximity posed a threat to the Jews.

    To me that fits, since there is such an uproar in my area (Seattle) anytime a sex offender half-way house is going to be located anywhere near someones neighborhood, and their is general panic whenever a new sex offender moves into anywhere close.

    If I had an Iraqi move next door, I’d probably have no problem greeting him and getting to know him and his family. If I had a former terrorist move in next door, I’d probably have absolutely no idea.

    Even among the sex offender category, I can think of no other group more despised or loathed by our society than pedophiles. To me, this would be the shocking twist to the parable that would turn everything on its head… that Jesus expected us to even love those viewed as pedophiles, our neighbors.

    The way I would envision the story is that of a despised and loathed pedophile, who having gone through intense treatment and recognizing the depth of his wrongs and fulfilling a lifelong desire to live his life in service to others to make up for his wrongs, but still unable to even find a home he was allowed to live in, so living under a bridge, finds someone beaten, robbed, and left for dead…. someone others passed by on the road, perhaps for hours…. and so on….

  40. Chad Too says:

    “Good King Wenceslas,” perhaps?

  41. #38, I seem some real merit in the pedophile argument here. My dad was a psychiatrist and had been sexually abused as a young boy, and who also spent significant time working at the prison counseling, you guessed it, pedophiles.

    He often had stories to tell of how these men were good men, who had wonderful hearts and insights and lessons, good men with a serious illness.

    We had some over for dinner after they were out of prison.

  42. I really, really love the parable of the Good Samaritan in Cleveland that CE references. What’s so shocking about the parable is the people who passed by the injured man, including a high councilor and a general authority. Chandler says that putting the parable in the context that Jesus was telling it is not only to take the people we despise and attribute to them a godly nature, but to take the people we most respect and admire (the priest and the Levite) and expose their feet of clay.

    The story as Jesus tells it would have made the good Jews of his day very, very uncomfortable. I can imagine the shock if someone were to plug Elder Ballard into the story as not stopping to help the injured man, because he’s running late, and besides, is he going to help the next guy down the block? And so he’s inspired to chance his stake conference talk to speak about the importance of the Word of Wisdom.

  43. By the way, of course this is a morality tale – a morality tale of the most high kind.

    Not sure what you’re arguing here. I specifically qualified and defended my claim on this one. Are you taking issue with the specifics of my argument that we not read this as an object lesson in correct behavior?

    As to the parable as an answer to the lawyer’s question “who, then, is my neighbor?” my sense is that it isn’t an answer at all. The surrounding discourse presented as the context for the parable (Luke 10:25-29, 37) is present in Mark’s gospel but the parable itself is not. In the absence of a plausible reason why the Markan author would have consciously omitted the parable itself but preserved the surrounding context, this makes the story within which the parable is embedded here suspect as the actual context for the parable’s original speaking. In other words, it is highly doubtful that Jesus originally spoke this parable in answer to the question “who is my neighbor?”.

    Further, as an answer (as your comment suggests) it is hardly adequate and, in fact, confuses rather than settles the question. The neighbor, in the context of the exchange between Jesus and the lawyer and the question in question [ :) ], is one to whom something is to be done. That question is a Lukan insertion, present in neither the Markan nor Matthean accounts of the exchange (Mark 12:28-31, Matthew 22: 34-40). The answer to the question (v. 36), proffered by the lawyer, “he that showed mercy,” is logically inconsistent with the question. This pulls the parable, sandwiched between question and answer, in contradictory directions. Is the neighbor the one to whom mercy must be shown or the one who shows an admirable example of merciful action? It is highly unlikely that the (weak) literary unity of this extended Lukan pericope is a product of its portraying an authentic, historical exchange in which Jesus offered the parable as a suggestive and provocative answer to a loaded, lawyerly question.

    The long and short of it is, I’m of the opinion that Jesus did not speak this particular parable in response to any question about neighbors (itself a response to a discussion of great commandments and the basic requirements for eternal life), nor did He conclude it with a take-away moral identifying the Samaritan as a neighbor. Identifying the Samaritan as “Good” in the face of examples of not-so-Good examples from pious, respected leaders in the Jewish community was more than enough to unsettle the worldviews of His hearers. Calling the Samaritan “neighbor” hardly adds to that effect.

  44. The strength of our resistance to the notion of “the Good Pedophile” may be evidence of the appropriateness of the comparison.

  45. Latter-day Guy says:

    @43 …or it may just be evidence that it is not an equivalent case. Pedophiles make themselves outcasts in the community by choosing to commit heinous acts. In fact, “Good Pedophile” is a contradiction in terms on a wholly different level than “Good Samaritan.” No one is born a pedophile; plenty were born as Samaritans.

    There have been several enlightening possibilities suggested as analogous characters to the GS, but Pedophile is not one of them.

  46. The Samaritans made themselves outcasts through their idolatry and perversions of the ways of the Lord — at least that’s what much of Jesus’ original audience would have said. The point of the post, remember, was to understand how that audience would see Samaritans: as “loathsome sinners.” Most of that audience probably would not have seen them as “mostly good people who just happened to be born under unfavorable circumstances,” as we might today.

  47. Latter-day Guy says:

    Sorry, it still doesn’t square. One could be a Samaritan without involving anyone else. Being a Samaritan is victimless, pedophilia by definition requires a victim. Make the character the Good Drug/Porn Addict and I’d agree with you, but child molestation is a different type of crime.

  48. How about the good Tanner? For many Mormons, how about the good homosexual activist?

  49. I’m not trying to assert the moral equivalence of worshipping a false god and molesting a child. I think the latter is much worse, obviously. The equivalence would lie not in the acts themselves but in the feelings of the righteous towards the sinners.

    I don’t think the point of the story was that the Samaritan was misunderstood and he wasn’t a sinner after all. He was a sinner. He was an idolater — a very serious sinner indeed in the eyes of Jesus’ audience. The point appears to be that even though the Samaritan was a sinner, he was a truer neighbor to the injured man than the ostensibly more righteous Priest and Levite were.

    Just as molesting a child is one of the most reprehensible acts we can imagine today, to many Jews in Palestine 2,000 years ago, worship of a false god — especially by a quasi-semi-demi member of the House of Israel like a Samaritan — was probably one of the worst sins they could imagine.

    So when Jesus’ audience heard that a Samaritan — an unrepentant, heinous sinner by definition — helped an injured man after a Priest and a Levite just left him, they were probably just as shocked as we would be if we heard a story where a Stake President and a High Councilman passed by an injured man and a convicted child molester helped him.

    And it’s probably worth thinking about why Jesus would tell the story that way.

  50. Brad,
    Nice job. I do have a few questions about the function of the parable in this reading. I don’t want to dispute at all that the commonly-assigned moral of this story would have been obvious. Would it still be fair to characterize it like one of the inevitable tithing, home-teaching, steps of repentance, or don’t look at pornography talks that we all more or less have memorized? In other words, is the morality tale still there as a frame for the zen-slap? Is He pulling some sort of rhetorical rope-a-dope?
    Second, is it fair to read Christ’s intention here as an attempt at a culture shift? Israel, since Moses, had more or less defined itself by its separation from the other, hadn’t it? I’m thinking of 42,000 Ephraimites and a word for grain.
    Third, is it Crossan who examines the role of cultural and physical purity (in addition to spiritual) in the New Testament paradigm?
    Finally, you’ve given us a nice lynchpin for understanding the shock of Christ’s parable. Could you give me a similar comparison to wrap my head around his intent? Is it accusatory (“You ‘chosen’ ones know the ethic, but you don’t act.”)? Is it ironic (like Colbert interviewing feminists in a morning-show-cooking format)? Is He employing sensationalism? Is He asserting His preeminence over Old Testament traditions?

  51. I served my mission in France, and within the mission boundaries was the large Bourges cathedral (built, I believe, in the 11th or 12th century). I noticed something very interesting about the stories depicted in the stained glass windows. One series depicted scenes from the parable of the Good Samaritan. Running parallel to the depictions, however, were scenes from the Fall of Adam and Eve. Our mission president, a good friend of Jack Welch, shared with us an article published by Welch in which he closely examines these depictions in the Bourges cathedral as well as examining the apparently common understanding in the middle ages of the parallel between these two stories (a certain man – Adam – went down from Jerusalem – the holy city/Garden – and fell among thieves – the fall – etc.; the priest and the Levite – those of the Aaronic order – have no power to redeem in and of themselves, but the Samaritan – one who is despised – is a type of the Savior; Welch goes into further detail).

    As for the continuing debate on which class of people would be the best modern-day Samaritans, I still like illegal immigrants. Though I see divaqs point about the “good pedophile.” Perhaps this makes it even worse – the Samaritan was viewed with the same disdain as modern-day pedophiles, but without necessarily committing any heinous sin. As for a nationality or ethnic group, I also thought of – for those who live or have lived in Europe – gypsies. Or, if you are a French member of the National Front (a la Jean-Marie Le Pen), any foreigner, especially Algerian or other North African.

  52. A man with his name forever emblazoned on the sex-offender registry for an act of pedophilia — even a totally repentant one whose act was in the distant past — suffers a stigma and societal loathing likely not dissimilar from 1st-century Samaritans in Israel.

    So our modern equivalent involves an Apostle and Bishop Burton passing by and a convicted pedophile with an “I’m pro-choice and I vote!” bumper-sticker stopping to show mercy.

  53. Ann (#41)–

    I have to admit that the essay left me sympathizing with the bishop, high councilor, and GA who passed up the man in the gutter. When I lived in a smaller city, with no children and little responsibility, it was easier to stop and help anyone I passed who seemed to be in need. But now I live in a big metropolis, and I have persistent family and work responsibilities. It would be nearly impossible to stop and help every car stopped by the side of the road. It would be risky to even try and pull over in some cases. Plus there are so many others around who could stop and help. I still stop to help whenever I can, but it doesn’t seem very significant. And in the end, I sort of understand the actions of the priest and the Levite (and the bishop, high councilor, and GA from Chandler’s essay).

    But that only underscores the significance of the fact that the Samaritan (and the hippie) did stop and help.

    Also, notice how Chandler’s GA sort of wants to stop and help, but seems to feel bound by concerns of time, safety, and “higher” responsibilty. I can imagine that a church leader might sometimes regret how the administrative aspects of their calling encroach on their ability to personally minister to those in need.

  54. Following up on CE’s point (51) about the GA in Chandler’s essay, the priest and/or who was traveling to Jerusalem may have had a good reason to not stop – under the Mosaic law, by helping this man with obvious “flows,” he would have become cermonially unclean, thus negating his ability to serve in his priestly duties, which may have been in the temple later that day.

  55. JT — Exactly. Very analagous to a GA on his way to preside at stake conference priesthood meeting.

  56. Right JT and CE. Dr. King said the following about not stopping:

    Now you know, we use our imagination a great deal to try to determine why the priest and the Levite didn’t stop. At times we say they were busy going to church meetings–an ecclesiastical gathering–and they had to get on down to Jerusalem so they wouldn’t be late for their meeting. At other times we would speculate that there was a religious law that “One who was engaged in religious ceremonials was not to touch a human body twenty-four hours before the ceremony.” And every now and then we begin to wonder whether maybe they were not going down to Jerusalem, or down to Jericho, rather to organize a “Jericho Road Improvement Association.” That’s a possibility. Maybe they felt that it was better to deal with the problem from the casual root, rather than to get bogged down with an individual effort.

    But I’m going to tell you what my imagination tells me. It’s possible that these men were afraid. You see, the Jericho road is a dangerous road. I remember when Mrs. King and I were first in Jerusalem. We rented a car and drove from Jerusalem down to Jericho. And as soon as we got on that road, I said to my wife, “I can see why Jesus used this as a setting for his parable.” It’s a winding, meandering road. It’s really conducive for ambushing. You start out in Jerusalem, which is about 1200 miles, or rather 1200 feet above sea level. And by the time you get down to Jericho, fifteen or twenty minutes later, you’re about 2200 feet below sea level. That’s a dangerous road. In the day of Jesus it came to be known as the “Bloody Pass.” And you know, it’s possible that the priest and the Levite looked over that man on the ground and wondered if the robbers were still around. Or it’s possible that they felt that the man on the ground was merely faking. And he was acting like he had been robbed and hurt, in order to seize them over there, lure them there for quick and easy seizure. And so the first question that the Levite asked was, “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?” But then the Good Samaritan came by. And he reversed the question: “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?”.

    That’s the question before you tonight. Not, “If I stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to all of the hours that I usually spend in my office every day and every week as a pastor?” The question is not, “If I stop to help this man in need, what will happen to me?” “If I do no stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them?” That’s the question.

  57. Brad, it’s curious that after vigorously arguing against Eric Russell’s comment that this parable is the highest form of morality tale you now quote MLK who seems to be equating the parable with a morality tale.

  58. KLC,
    That’s King’s reading, not mine. The point of the quote was how King addressed the question of the justification of not stopping for the priest and Levite.

  59. I tried to post this earlier, but I think it got lost – I’ll try it again.

    While in France as a missionary, I was able to visit the large Bourges cathedral (one of the largest in the country, built in the 12th/13th centuries). Interestingly, the stained glass windows depicted various Christian stories, including the parable of the Good Samaritan. What was interesting about it is that in the same window, running parallel to it, is a depiction of the Fall of Adam and Eve. Our mission president shared this article written by his colleague, John Welch, with us in a zone conference. It describes how traditionally, especially in the middle ages, the parable of the Good Samaritan was seen as allegorical (a certain man – Adam – went down from Jerusalem – the holy city/heaven – and fell among thieves – the Fall – and so on; the priest and Levite did not have the power to redeem, but a Samaritan – one who was despised, Jesus – did). I found it very interesting, even if that wasn’t the direct message Jesus was teaching.

  60. Here is an interesting allegorical take.

  61. Sure it’s King’s reading, but I’m pretty sure that he didn’t place it here on BCC. If you disagree with his reading why did you quote it? And how is addressing the question of whether you are justified in not stopping to help someone in need not a moral question?

    I’ve enjoyed your comments about parables in real world context but I think you err when you use phrases like “run afoul” and “limits our reading” when referring to alternate interpretations. They place your favored analysis above the others instead of alongside them.

    King gives a thought provoking analysis of moral decisions drawn from the moral tale of the Samaritan. Welch writes a thought provoking and laudable article, considering where it was published, enlightening his intended audience about an approach to this parable that was once common in early Christianity but has now been eclipsed by more personal interpretations.

    I’m not running afoul of anything when I use the Good Samaritan as a story of moral choices in a Deacon’s quorum lesson. I’m not limiting anyone’s reading when I take that Ensign article and open up a new way of seeing this parable to the adult students in a Gospel Doctrine class who may have never heard of it before.

    Someday I may well use the idea of real world context that you have explained so well here at BCC in another lesson. But that won’t be because I have finally found the only correct interpretation of this parable, the only one that doesn’t run afoul and limit my reading. It will be because the audience and the teacher might find value in another approach to a well known piece of scripture.

  62. As long as we’re continuing the debate on which group would be most analagous to the Samaritans, illegal immigrants is still holding strong at number one for me. I do, however, see divaqs (38) point on the “good pedophile.” Perhaps this actually makes it even worse – they were despised as much as a pedophile without actually committing a heinous sin of such personal nature (though perhaps the idolatry spoken of that I know little about could be similar in the eyes of a 1st century Jew).

    For those who live or have lived in Europe, perhaps gypsies/Bohemians could be similar. Or, if you are a French member of the National Front (a la Jean-Marie Le Pen), then any foreigner would be analogous, especially if the foreigner is Algerian or of other North African descent. (I actually knew of members of the church in France who supported him, in large part because he was pro-life).

  63. How about an approach that says “parables = symbols”? I prefer to look at these as having multiple meanings and applications, much as any literary device or symbolic piece of architecture or art. There are many meanings to symbols, and are available to multiple interpretations on multiple levels.

    To limit these parables to a single specific reading is in contradiction to even what the Savior perhaps intended when he used these. The Good Samaritan can simultaneously mean “be kind to your neighbor”, can teach us about the fall and atonement, and also disabuse of our own false assumptions and paradigms.

  64. kevinf, have you been reading Nephi again?

  65. LOL, Ray, yes, aided by my decoder ring. But it’s dark here in this fog by this dirty river. I think there’s some light from the windows of some big building nearby, so I am going to move closer.

  66. Eric Russell says:

    Brad, great response! You answered questions that I was about to ask.

    Alas, I find it entirely unsatisfactory. I don’t see any reason that the story’s absence in Matthew or Mark has any bearing on whether the parable in Luke ought to be read in the context that it’s given. If the parable within its context is suspect, I don’t see why the whole parable itself wouldn’t be equally suspect.

    Clearly, something is missing in the account, but it seems to me that we are obligated to deal with the text that’s presented us. As such, I find creative interpretations such as Kierkegaard’s to be much superior to the outright dismissal of whatever aspects of the text don’t work with our preferred reading.

  67. Eric, you just like the name Kierkegaard!

  68. Eric Russell says:

    That’s correct, Steve. And when uttered in my presence I insist that it be spoken with the correct Danish pronunciation.

  69. It rolls off the tongue like the sweetest lutefisk.

  70. KLC,
    In spite of the fact that I have paid homage to both morality-tale (King) and allegorical (Welch, whose analysis I described as “in-depth” and a “rich exegesis”), I stand by my assertion that limiting our reading of this parable (and others) to such approaches is, uh, limiting. It is also inadequate for one specific reason. I have argued in specific terms and for specific reasons against the likelihood that the Savior either meant for or expected His hearers to interpret this parable in symbolic/allegorical terms or as an object lesson in moral behavior (i.e. as an answer to a question about being neighborly, see comment #42).

    That the actions of the third man were morally superior to those of the first two goes without saying, and holding them up as such would hardly have been original or remotely thought provoking. It is the identity of the (obvious) do-gooder here, the person capable of mercy showing it in deed, as a despised, dehumanized other that is significant for this parable. Again, I have outlined detailed arguments for why Jesus meant this parable as neither an allegorical rumination on His mission and the Plan of Salvation or as an object lesson in moral and upright behavior or an example of neighborliness. So yes, I am treating a reading that likely reflects the intended meaning of the Savior as superior to readings that likely do not. If you take issue with my arguments that the readings I treat as problematic reflect interpretations not originally intended by Jesus for the parable’s hearers, I’m all ears.

  71. If the parable within its context is suspect, I don’t see why the whole parable itself wouldn’t be equally suspect.

    FWIW, this is exactly the reason why most Historical Jesus Scholars (except, of course, Crossan, who has invested so much in his own reading of it) reject this parable altogether as an original saying of Jesus. I personally take a more middle ground. I have no reason not to accept this parable as originating in the ministry of Jesus, but I do find the Lukan context for its speaking suspect. Not just because of its omission in the other synoptic accounts, but more still because of its confused and disjointed inadequacy as an answer to the question “who is my neighbor?”.

  72. When the Church filmed a version of this parable, they went to great trouble to depict a dangerous setting–a setting frequented by thieves. I thought it was brilliant. As the priest and the Levite walked quickly away, the fear ws apparent in their eyes.

    Bruce and I chose to return our foster son to state care when we realized our other children were in danger. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. The social worker begged us to keep the young man, told us we were his only hope, etc. But how do you deal with somebody pulling a knife on your children? Even now, our kids identify the worst year of our family life as the year we offered this foster care. The pressure was huge, and the danger omnipresent. And though whenever I share this (which I do rarely), people assure me I did the right thing, that parable makes me wonder…

    I confess here that I have an intense desire for certain Church leaders to really hear the calls of some wounded members. (It’s not hard to guess which group I might be referring to.) I sense a level of fear, that making a statement which would comfort those who have been robbed of their good names and sometimes of their dignity, might be “dangerous territory.” I wonder if they are so concerned about the OTHER children–the descendants of pioneers–that they will never repudiate disparaging remarks once made about the darker ones.

    But the day I told the social worker we couldn’t continue to foster–wasn’t I doing the same thing?

  73. Steve Evans says:

    Margaret, if it were just you taking care of the child by yourself, I could see things being more analogous. But with your own children and a clear duty to protect and raise them, it’s unquestionable that you did what needed to be done. That doesn’t mean that your compassion for the foster child can’t be mixed with regret, but don’t doubt your choice.

  74. Brad, the only issue I have with your argument is that I was not present at the original oral presentation of the parable. I am a reader of the account 2000 years removed so my purposes for reading that account and the uses I make of that account are not limited solely to their historical context. Whatever may have transpired in the original presentation doesn’t limit what we do with them in Sunday School in 2008 or how we apply them to our own lives.

    As a purely historical argument I can’t fault your analysis, although I would question why the understanding of Christ’s audience must dictate that this parable could not also have an allegorical component as part of its original intent.

  75. I would question why the understanding of Christ’s audience must dictate that this parable could not also have an allegorical component as part of its original intent.

    Agreed. Which is why I’m not dismissing allegorical readings out of hand. I’m simply foregrounding and preferencing what I consider to be the most likely understanding the Savior intended to convey to His original hearers — an interpretation vastly underrepresented in contemporary Christian and LDS thinking, and (being the likely original interpretation) the most important one.

  76. Brad, I agree that your interpretation is underrepresented in contemporary LDS thought. I also agree your interpretation carries valuable insights that add to our understanding of ourselves and Christ’s message.

    I don’t agree that this likely original interpretation must be the most important one to me or anyone else in 2008. That it would be most important to those who sat at Christ’s feet and heard it from his mouth I think is probably true, but that prime importance died with the ones who experienced it.

  77. Kevin Barney says:

    Brad #30, when I was YMP, my young men thought I looked like Vlade Divac (who was still playing back then), and so their affectionate nickname for me was “Vlade.”

  78. KLC,
    You can’t be saying that Christ’s intended message is subordinate to you fitting it into your Sunday School lesson, so what’s the problem? Is a fresh look at the parable problematic?

  79. blt, you’re right, I can’t be saying that. Go back and read through again and see if you pick what I am saying the second time.

  80. Swisster says:

    Regarding choice of epithet in “Good _______.”

    If I’m trying to fill in that blank, am I being more true to the parable if I include a despised race or ethnicity in the label? Or is it just important that the category of person is despised for any reason? How do I know?

  81. KLC,
    Thanks for the smarmy reply. Regardless, you did say that you “don’t agree that this likely original interpretation must be the most important one to me or anyone else in 2008.”
    I have to disagree. Historical context is everything.

  82. blt is mostly right that historical context is everything—it’s only almost everything. It’s everything when it’s about getting the story and context right in the first place, to be sure you get what it meant to the participants. But it’s got no life unless it connects to you in another place and time as well, and that’s where the act of transposition, and the historian, has to come in. Not a superficial comparison, but a genuine transposition, just like taking a piece of music and putting it in a different key, or writing it for another instrument. The point of the transposition is to show that the original is essentially the same as the new creation, it just has a different form.

  83. blt, after several paragraphs of thoughtful discussion between Brad and me you come in with a two line riposte that seemed to show you either did not read or did not understand what I wrote and you expect me to take you seriously?

    I spent several posts telling Brad exactly what the problem is and said more than once that I had no problem with fresh looks at a parable, either his analysis, or MLK’s or Welch’s.

    But to reiterate, your use of the phrase “Christ’s intended message” in #75 as well as your comment that “Historical context is everything” in #78 are exactly what my problem is.

    Christ’s oral message to that small group of people 2000 years ago is an historical curiosity. As such it is subject to critical analysis and as such it’s historical context is indeed everything. But by being included in a scriptural canon which we accept as inspired that incident now transcends history and its interpretation transcends historical analysis.

    To me it is conceivable that Christ’s intended message to the group 2000 years ago that heard his voice may be entirely different than his intended message to those that read the same words in the Bible. Given that there are two audiences for this parable, one historical and one scriptural, and that there may be two intended messages, one historic and one scriptural, it seems erroneous to make definitive statements about a parable based only on history, such as your “historical context is everything” and Brad’s interpretational hierarchy of correctness.

    I’m not negating the value of an historical approach to parables, just putting it alongside other approaches instead of above all the rest.

  84. While I find it interesting to understand the historical context for the parable and to surmise what message may have been intended for Jesus’ immediate audience, I believe the allegorical interpretation is equally compelling and applicable for us today.

    By favoring any single interpretation, don’t we by default limit the significance any other interpretation? As KLC states, can we not treat all possible interpretations with equal importance?

    Certainly there is plenty to learn from these rich parables. Just when I think I understand I find (usually from others such as those that contribute here) that there are still angles that I never considered. I look forward to more posts on the parables….

  85. KLC,
    Good point and sorry. For the record, I was having a wonderful discussion with you . . . in my head.
    Here’s the funny thing. I agree completely that the parable of the Good Samaritan (thanks, guys, I can’t even write that without thinking of Vlade Divac) is extremely useful, both as a morality tale and as an allegory.
    Be that as it may, I think that Brad’s post might merit pause. Haven’t we–Christians–done violence to Christ’s teachings in the past? Case in point–the crap about Christ’s camel and the eye of the needle being some sort of midget gate in Jerusalem. Or, for example, the “I never said it would be easy, I only said it would be worth it, but I really said ‘my yoke is easy and my burden is light'” debaucle.
    After reading both Crossan and Brad’s post, I have come to the conclusion that I need to tread lightly in jumping to conclusions about Christ’s message, because I am worried that I might, in assigning why I think feels right about my interpretation, neuter a much more radical, harrowing and ultimately salvative (word?) message.
    It’s not like this doesn’t happen often. Gandhi was a rebel; nothing less, but he is looked upon now as some sort of deluded hippy that lucked out on the timing of WW2. Helen Keller was an avowed socialist, not just an amazing handicapped person.
    Don’t we owe it to the Son of God to check ourselves, and consider whether we’re sanitizing his message.
    What do you think?
    For the record, I really hope we aren’t, because I really dig the MLK interpretation of this story.

  86. Correction: “in assigning WHAT I think feels right about my interpretation”

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 9,516 other followers