Written November 17, 2011 for my New Testament Studies class at Fuller Theological Seminary
The following study explores Luke’s parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37) through the interpretive lens of race relations in the United States. Although the race relations between 1st Century Palestine and 21st Century America are vastly different, Jesus’ address to Samaritan-Jewish relations still holds truth for the Church’s call of discipleship and racial reconciliation. In this paper, the author argues that the Samaritan story can help challenge racist and prejudiced worldviews by understanding that Jesus redefines neighbor not as the person on the side of the road, but as the listener (i.e., you/us).
The form of Luke 10:25-37 makes up two separate pericopes, the lawyer’s question (10:25-28) and the parable of the Good Samaritan (10:29-37). While Esler argues one must examine the entire section to appreciate the full meaning of the Samaritan story (332), for brevity’s sake, this essay focuses on the latter. Both Nolland and Green agree that the Samaritan story’s form follows the exact pattern of the lawyer’s first question (590; 427). Green (427) outlines it thusly:
Identification of the Lawyer’s Motive v25 v29
The Lawyer’s Question v25 v29
Jesus’ Answer and Counterquestion v26 v30-36
The Lawyer’s (Appropriate) Reply v27 v37a
Jesus’ Final Word, in the Imperative v28 v37b
Based upon the lawyer’s question in 10:25-28, the Samaritan story delineates how one loves their neighbor while 10:38-42 discusses love of God (Nolland 589). This story follows Luke’s Sermon on the Plain (6:17-49) as Jesus repeats that loving one’s neighbor makes no distinction between friend and enemy (6:27-36).
The Samaritan pericope fits into both the New Testament and the book of Luke through its themes, in particular, discipleship and salvation. Just as Jesus challenges the lawyer to “go and do likewise” (New Revised Standard Version, 10:37), disciples are called to “hear and do the word” by following Jesus Christ and joining in his Kingdom activities (Achtemeier et al. 166).Concerning salvation, Luke flips the Judaic definition on its head. Salvation is no longer defined by one’s honor or status in the community via obedience to the Law; rather, it is through the “experience of the redemptive purpose and faithfulness of God by calling [disciples] to continued fidelity and witness in their service of the Kingdom of God” (Achtemeier et al. 149). This redefinition of salvation is but one example of how Luke’s writings cause “Great Reversals” through the reign of Christ (Gonzalez 4). Just as salvation’s definition is reversed to let in the poor, unclean, and Gentiles who were formerly excluded, so also Jesus returns (or reverses) to God’s definition of ethics and justice: “justice requires a reversal of conditions for the excluded and oppressed” (Gonzalez 5-6).
The first four verses that precede the Samaritan pericope, commonly known as the “Love Commandment,” can be found also in Matthew 22:34-40 and Mark 12:28-34. The Samaritan pericope, however, is only in Luke. All three “Love Commandment” passages portray a Jewish official, highly educated in the Law, asking Jesus about the greatest commandments. The resultant answer is based off of Deuteronomy 6:4-5 and Leviticus 19:18. Esler argues Luke probably cited Mark in order to build his case, but the two diverge as Luke gets situated within “a framework of conflict” between Jesus and Lawyer (333). To this divergence we now turn.
29 The Lawyer begins by asking “Who is my neighbor?” in order to justify himself. But why does he need to justify himself? Most commentators argue two reasons: first, to gain respect and honor in the eyes of others as an authority in the Law; second, to state that he has fulfilled the Law of loving his neighbors (Green 429; Nolland 594). He may be justified in the former reason, but for the latter, it depends on who defines “neighbor.”
The Lawyer’s interpretation of “neighbor” is a fellow law-abiding Israelite. McKenzie argues that his earlier declaration of the shema (10:27) is an expression of ethnic and religious pride; he tries to limit who is his neighbor by defining the ethnically or religiously acceptable as Jews who keep the Law (94). Gentiles, Samaritans, and sinful Jews are all excluded. His need for self-justification and his neighbor-question are attempts to draw lines between his peers and his enemies so that he will not have to love the latter (McKenzie 96).
30-32 Jesus proceeds to give his definition of “neighbor” in the form of a parable. His introduction of the protagonist as “a certain man” is a brilliant rhetorical move so as to hide his ethnic and religious social location from both the Lawyer and the story’s passer-bys (429). After the man gets attacked and robbed, his nakedness and “half-dead” state are important. Knowles claims that in 1st Century Judaism, clothing distinguished one’s ethnicity and social status, so his nakedness represented his religio-ethnic ambiguity (155). Furthermore, because he was naked, one could see if he was circumcised or not (Esler 338). If uncircumcised, he was a Gentile; but if circumcised, he could be a Jew or a Samaritan (Williamson 1062). Esler also assumes that his half-dead state “meant that he was unconscious and unable to answer the priest if he had asked [the man] whether, if circumcised, he was Israelite or Samaritan” (339). They would be unable to find out if he was their “neighbor” or not.
As the story unfolds, the priest arrives, followed by the Levite. Their actions are the same: “they came → saw → passed by on the other side” (Green 430). While no explicit motivation for their inaction is given, there are two main interpretations. First, the priest and Levite assumed the half-dead man was a corpse, and because the corpse law (Lev. 21:1-4) defiled priests, they ignored the man (Esler 340). Others think they saw the man’s circumcision status, ultimately couldn’t figure out his ethnic identity, assumed he was Samaritan, and thus did nothing (171). What’s important is that for whatever reason, whether ethnic hatred or religious sanctity, they were inactive.
33-35 With the arrival of the Samaritan comes the parable’s climax and twist. The Samaritan’s arrival is so astounding because it plays off of and subverts the Judaic tradition of a tripartite social hierarchy. The pattern of “Priests, Levites, and all the people” is said to be the full composition of Judaic socio-religious order (Gourgues 710). When the Lawyer hears the failure of priest and Levite, he naturally expected the final character to be a common Israelite. Had the final player been an Israelite, Jesus’ message would have been anti-clerical; if no one helped in the end, it would have “shamed the entire Jewish community for their lovelessness” (Nolland 598). Instead, the twist comes in the form of the most unexpected person: a Samaritan. This serves to deeply undermine Jewish prejudices and hatred towards Samaritans, while conversely challenging them to embrace Jesus’ new world order (Hays 171).
The Samaritan’s actions follow the same as priest and Levite, except instead of passing by, he is “moved with compassion” (Green 431). Nolland calls compassion the “ability to identify with another’s situation and then act for their benefit” (596). The Samaritan addresses the victim’s immediate needs, and supports him so long as his needs continue, even to the point of getting taken advantage of by the innkeeper (596). Because the victim is naked (i.e., humiliated and stripped of his social status as Knowles argues), the Samaritan’s compassion is a “willingness to share this dislocation” (Knowles 170). It was because the Samaritan’s lived experience as an oppressed ethnic minority that he was able to sympathize with the victim’s pain and see from his vantage point; that was the integral aspect of why he had compassion and took action (Nolland 597). Park says the same thing: “Only the deeply wounded can see and understand the inmost wound of a sufferer” (136). But if one has not personally experienced said wounds, it is their responsibility to put themselves in the shoes of the victim in order to gain empathy (Esler 349; Nolland 598).
36-37 Jesus’ counter-question shifts the focus of the Lawyer’s original question. The Lawyer originally wanted to know the limits of who he was bound to love by the Law. Jesus changes this by forcing the Lawyer to admit that the neighbor is not only the victim/recipient in need, but also the agent, the one who extends help (Gourgues 713). In a reversal of roles, the Samaritan “becomes the very model of neighborly love” (713). The imperative becomes a principle of ethical behavior towards others rather than a law that differentiates people (Esler 344); it is a call to “go and become a neighbor to those in need, no matter how alien they may be” (Gonzalez 139-40). In those regards, Jesus’ parable effectively chips away at the Lawyer’s prejudice towards his enemies, those he deems inferior. Although he cannot bring himself to say, “The Samaritan was the worthy neighbor,” still his “the one who showed him mercy” response is an acknowledgement that he accepts Jesus’ words and subsequently questions his own exclusivistic perspective as slightly suspect. It is a small victory against the deeply engrained bias the Jews have harbored towards the Samaritans for centuries, perhaps even millennia. The power of breaking down such a firmly rooted worldview to create a new community lay in the words of Jesus: “Go and do likewise.”
While the U.S. may boast of its current racial lenses of post-racialism and multiculturalism, proclaiming racism is a thing of the past, racial minorities aren’t so quick to celebrate. Sure, it’s a sort of racial progress that white Americans will stop at nothing to prove themselves as devoid of racial bias (Harris-Perry 3). And folks of color have received significantly more representation and acknowledgement in different sectors of society. But, as Harris-Perry goes on to argue, the more subtle danger in this racial discourse is that to accuse one of racism, the accuser must prove “beyond reasonable doubt” that racial bias exists in the person’s heart, which is near impossible. So the logic goes: “If one cannot produce irrefutable evidence of clear, blatant, and intentional bias, then racism must be banned as a possibility” (1). This not only “misses the point about how racism works,” it also can be disrespectful and hindering towards those who are actively working against racism.
Jesus’ words, therefore, bear great responsibility on today’s shoulders. Christians do not so easily change their perspective and begin seeing other races as neighbors. It is not that simple. Even though multicultural lingo abounds, America’s racist ethos lies sedimentary on people’s hearts. Coinciding with action, there needs to be an active awareness, confrontation, and discussion about America’s racial worldviews that have been shaped for generations. Then we can begin a real relationship of reconciliation and affirmation.
Thus, I have emailed this paper to several of my contacts to start the discussion. I hope that by dialoguing about this issue more openly, honestly, and reverently, we can come to challenge our own prejudices (as the Lawyer did), heal our wounds (as the Samaritan did), and accept one another in love and compassion (as Jesus did). Perhaps we can even love the robbers in the story and “see who they are, why they rob strangers, and how such robbery can be prevented in a systemic way” (Park 137).
Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan was a powerful tool for racial reconciliation. In this paper, I argued how the Samaritan story can help challenge racist and prejudiced worldviews. Once we begin to realize that we cannot define “neighbor” because we become too restrictive and selective, we can instead see how Jesus defines the universal neighbor as one who does instead of receives. In our initiative and action, Christ is able to break down whatever barriers exist in our hearts that separate us from others. It is in this realization that true awareness and dialogue can occur, which can lead to reconciliation, healing, community formation, and justice.
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Esler, Philip F. “Jesus and the Reduction of Intergroup Conflict: The Parable of the Good Samaritan in the Light of Social Identity Theory.” Biblical Interpretations 8.4 (1999): 325-357. Web. 10 Nov 2011.
Gonzalez, Justo L. Luke. Louisville, KT: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010. Print.
Gourgues, Michael. “The Priest, the Levite, and the Samaritan Revisited: A Critical Note on Luke 10:31-35.” Journal of Biblical Literature 117.4 (1998): 709-713. Web. 10 Nov 2011.
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Harris-Perry, Melissa. “The Epistemology of Race Talk.” The Nation. 26 Sept 2011. Web. 14 Nov 2011. < http://www.thenation.com/blog/163629/epistemology-race-talk>.
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Knowles, Michael P. “What was the Victim Wearing? Literary, Economic, and Social Contexts for the Parable of the Good Samaritan.” Biblical Interpretations 12.2 (2004): 145-174. Web. 10 Nov 2011.
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Nolland, John. Luke 9:21-18:34. Word Biblical Commentary 35B. Dallas, Tex.: Word Books, 1993. Print.
Park, Andrew Sung. Racial Conflict & Healing: An Asian-American Theological Perspective. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1996. Print.
The New Revised Standard Version Bible. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2007. Print.
Williamson, H.G.M.W. “Samaritans.” New Bible Dictionary. 2nd ed. Ed. J.D. Douglas, F.F. Bruce, J.I. Packer, N. Hillyer, D. Guthrie, A.R. Millard, D.J. Wiseman. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1982. Print.