Thinking Biblically: The Gospels – Reading the Parables

Thinking Biblically: The Gospels – Reading the Parables


     Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus.“Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”  

        But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”  He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.” 
- Luke 10:25-37

Luke 10:25-37

This is one of the most popular stories in all of scripture, one which has not only formed so many people within the church, but has even nestled it’s way into the larger culture.  There are hospitals, international charities, even some laws that take their name from this story.  Yet, while we all know a part of what this story means – this is, on one level, a story about the importance of being kind – very often, the main point of the story is lost.  So let’s dive deep into this well of ancient, divine, wisdom, to see how this old familiar story speaks fresh into our lives.

 Remember, the fist step in a deep dive into scripture is to ask “What is the genre?  What type of literature is this?”  The story of The Good Samaritan is a parable. Parables are a type of wisdom literature which use metaphor and simile to express deep spiritual truths, and they are very often challenging, either in that they are intentionally vague so that you have to really, really think about them, or because they are shocking and  challenge deeply held preconceived ideas of the hearers.  Parables use familiar things, people, places, situations, etc, to convey deep and unfamiliar truths. 

Very often they have an element of shock value.  A great example of this is the parable of the tax collector and the pharisee, in Luke 18.  In the end, the pharisee, the person who did everything right – who worked all day, and studied and prayed all night, who followed every law and did everything the right way – walked away guilty, while the tax collector – the enemy, the co-conspirator with the violent, oppressive, perverse pagan empire – went away justified.  Identifying the shock factor is often the key to understanding the parable.  When we look at the historical context of this parable, the shock factor comes into view.

Samaritans where of a different ethnicity, nationality, and religion than Jesus and his audience.  They were “other “ on every level.  And there was a great deal of bad blood between the two groups. They were like the Hatfields and McCoys, but with the added dimension of being of different nationalities, and ethnicities, and having different religious beliefs.  To Jesus original audience, the Samaritans were the ultimate outsiders.   With this in mind, let’s take a look at what causes Jesus to tell this parable. 

On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,’ he asked, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?‘What is written in the Law?’ he replied. ‘How do you read it?’ He answered, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[ ‘You have answered correctly,’ Jesus replied. ‘Do this and you will live.But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?‘ – Luke 10:25-29

Jesus told this story in answer to the? question “And who is my neighbor?”  That’s the question that the parable is concerned with.  While the parable does how us what love looks like, that’s not it’s central point.  Jesus’ central point is about who we are called to love.  And notice that the Luke says that the man wanted to justify himself.  The legal expert wanted to justify himself by limiting the people he had moral obligations towards, and Jesus completely shatters that attempt.  Jesus responded to the question “Who is my neighbor?” by telling a story about a person who was different that his hearers, on every level, who was of a different ethnicity who was from a different place, who had different religious beliefs, and was on the opposite side of a cultural conflict that went back a very long time, helping someone just like them.  This most shocking of heroes saw someone who was completely different, completely “other”, and who was on the opposite side of a long cultural conflict, in pain, and helped up, bandaged his wounds, took him to a place to rest, and payed for his bill. 

In Matthew 22:36, Jesus is asked what is the greatest commandment in the law.  Jesus answer was this: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”  A natural question arises from this: Who is my neighbor?  Jesus answered that question in the parable of the Good Samaritan, and His answer is clear: everyone.  Love your neighbor as yourself applies to everyone, across national boundaries, across ethnic boundaries, across religious difference and cultural conflicts, everyone.  There is no one that we are justified in being unkind toward, or even refusing to help when we see they are in need when we have the capacity to do so,  because they are other or on the other side.

This parable speaks powerfully and counterculturally into our world today. In a world where people’s lives and allegiances are increasingly defined more and more by what they hate and who hate, Jesus’ message of love across differences speaks defiantly. The message, as it applies to us today is as clear as it is challenging. Love your neighbor who looks different than you. Love your neighbor who lives in a different place – under a different flag – than you do. Love your neighbor who believes differently than you. Love your neighbor who votes differently than you. Love everyone.

I have been horrified in recent weeks, by both the celebrations of the death of the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the comments expressing hope for the death of Donald Trump. Both are wrong and are wrong in the same way, and for the same reason. Both defiant are acts of rebellion against the love of God that crosses all divisions, and that command of God that we love across all divisions. We are called, we are commanded, by God, to love all our neighbors – whomever they may be, wherever they may be, whatever they may believe – as ourselves. This means, when they are hungry, we are to feed them, when they are thirsty, we are to give them something to drink, when they are sick, we are to take care of them and pray for them, and when they die, we are to grieve them.

As we gather with Christians all around the world on this World Communion Sunday, to remember Our savior who died for everyone, and meet Him in the sacrament, may we remember his command to love all people as he loves them, may it sink into our bones and nestle it’s way into our hearts, become part of our very identity. May we be beacons of God’s love, across difference and division, today, tomorrow, and every day. Amen.


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