The Good Samaritan

I’m preaching on Luke 10:25-42 soon and during my prep I came to the conclusion that the popular/ethical/moral interpretation of this parable isn’t very satisfactory.

A number of reasons:

  1. it doesn’t deal well with the details of the text (see below)
  2. it doesn’t fit well into the context of Luke 10 (most scholars/commentators get around this by saying that it starts a new section; however the και ιδου at the start suggests otherwise (see below).
  3. it leaves us with the difficulty that Jesus’ answer to the lawyers question “how can I inherit eternal life” is “go and love your neighbour” which contradicts the rest of Scripture!

What led me to these issues are some of the peculiarities of the text itself.

Firstly, the context: Jesus has just sent out the 70/72 (10:1-16; the precise number doesn’t affect our exegesis). They return (10:17-24). The next section is introduced with καί ἰδοὺ. The phrase is used 25 in Luke (or 26 times, if 24:49 is included). It is possible that the phrase can introduce a new section (see a possible example at 23:50. Nolland calls it a new section but recognises that “this function [of the phrase] is not paralleled in Luke” [p583]); it seems more common, though, that the phrase is used to introduce a new scene or character in an ongoing plot (e.g. 5:18; 7:37; 8:41; 9:30; 14:2; 19:2). Certainly, the phrase doesn’t necessitate the start of a new section or a change in submit.

Key to understanding Jesus’ purpose in using of the parable of the Good Samaritan is understanding the conclusion that he draws from it. This we find in v36. After finishing the explanation of the parable and after giving a surprising level of detail about the Samaritans care for the robbed man; Jesus asks the lawyer:

“Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” (Luk 10:36 ESV).

This is a very interesting way to phrase the question. Note that Jesus does not say,

 “Which of these three loved his neighbour?”

Rather, in response to the lawyers question: “And who is my neighbor?” (Luk 10:29 ESV); Jesus forces the conclusion that it is the Samaritan who is the neighbour, not the man who was robbed.

The usual interpretation which takes the mean of the passage to be a call to “love your neighbour,” if taken to its logical conclusion, calls us to love those who are kind and merciful to us. Since the merciful Samaritan is identified as the ‘neighbour’ and we are to love our ‘neighbour’ then we are to love those who are nice to us and help us. This, of course, is entirely the opposite to the conclusion usually drawn from an ethical/moral interpretation!

Another significant point for consideration is the lawyers description of what the Samaritan has done to the robbed man:

He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” (Luk 10:37 ESV)

“Mercy” (ἔλεος) is not a common word in Luke. It occurs only here and in 1:50, 54 58, 72, 78. Similarly the cognate verb (ἐλεἐω) occurs in 16:24; 17:13; 18:38, 39. The one common denominator between all these uses (which is not explicit in 10:37) is that mercy is an attribute/action of God. He alone is said to show (noun) or do (verb) mercy. (Neither the noun nor the verb occur at all in Acts).

A final issue with the traditional interpretation is that it does not deal adequately with the initial question of the lawyer:

And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” (Luk 10:25 ESV)

To claim that Jesus simply ignores this question does not do justice either to Jesus’s teaching or to Luke’s composition (why bother to record this question is Jesus does not engage with it). Furthermore, it contradicts the rest of Scripture to claim that eternal life is inherited by our dealings with other people.

Given all these factors I think the traditional understanding of the parable needs to be held loosely. That Jesus is calling for people to “love their neighbour” and be kind to everyone does not deal with the intricacies of the text. Neither does such an interpretation fit with the context. The context before hand (the sending of the 70/72) and the following passage (Mary and Martha, vv38-42) deal with a person’s reception of Jesus and their response to his teaching (and the teaching of his messengers/missionaries/disciples). So a parable insisting on loving other people is alien here.

Although I haven’t yet figured all the details out, I posit that this parable is a call to love God/Jesus as the way to “inherit eternal life” (v25). Since Luke only understands God as the one who shows mercy, and since the merciful Samaritan is identified as the true ‘neighbour’; then there is an intimate connection between the two OT quotes at the start of the parable. To love God and to love your neighbour are not independent commands (which might explain the words immediately following in Leviticus 19:18:

You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD. (Lev 19:18 ESV)

Much more work to do before next Sunday (22/4/12); but needless to say, I am not satisfied with the ethical/moral interpretation.