In the #Luke2Acts Bible study on Twitter, we recently studied Luke 10, with the parable of the Good Samaritan and Jesus’ visit to Mary and Martha. Rereading these accounts a number of things struck me. I thought that I would post a few remarks here for others’ reflections.
One of the things that has long intrigued me about the parable of the Good Samaritan was the specific geographical references—Jerusalem, Jericho, and Samaria. These details became even more interesting to me when, a few years ago, they jumped out at me from a reading of 2 Chronicles 28. Today, with some help from Bronwyn Lea, I think that I got a better handle on the connection.
2 Chronicles 28 describes the sinfulness of king Ahaz of Judah. On account of Ahaz’s sin and the sin of Judah, they were delivered into the hands of the king of Syria and the king of Israel. The king of Israel gains a massive victory over the king of Judah and takes an immense number of Judahites captive: ‘And the children of Israel carried away captive of their brethren two hundred thousand women, sons, and daughters; and they also took away much spoil from them, and brought the spoil to Samaria.’ I have highlighted some of the significant details in 2 Chronicles 28:9-15:
But a prophet of the Lord was there [Samaria], whose name was Oded; and he went out before the army that came to Samaria, and said to them: “Look, because the Lord God of your fathers was angry with Judah, He has delivered them into your hand; but you have killed them in a rage that reaches up to heaven. “And now you propose to force the children of Judah and Jerusalem to be your male and female slaves; but are you not also guilty before the Lord your God? “Now hear me, therefore, and return the captives, whom you have taken captive from your brethren, for the fierce wrath of the Lord is upon you.” Then some of the heads of the children of Ephraim, Azariah the son of Johanan, Berechiah the son of Meshillemoth, Jehizkiah the son of Shallum, and Amasa the son of Hadlai, stood up against those who came from the war, and said to them, “You shall not bring the captives here, for we already have offended the Lord. You intend to add to our sins and to our guilt; for our guilt is great, and there is fierce wrath against Israel.” So the armed men left the captives and the spoil before the leaders and all the assembly. Then the men who were designated by name rose up and took the captives, and from the spoil they clothed all who were naked among them, dressed them and gave them sandals, gave them food and drink, and anointed them; and they let all the feeble ones ride on donkeys. So they brought them to their brethren at Jericho, the city of palm trees. Then they returned to Samaria.
How might this possible background illuminate the Parable of the Good Samaritan? The captives of Judah and Jerusalem are like men who have ‘fallen among thieves’. Judah has suffered a great loss of life and many of those remaining will be weak and badly wounded. The half-dead man from Jerusalem in Jesus’ parable corresponds to the men of Judah crushed and plundered on account of their sin.
Oded the prophet came before the army returning to Samaria and informed them of the jeopardy in which they were placing themselves on account of their sin. The Judahites were their brethren, members of the same covenant people. This serves to expose the true significance of the question of the ‘neighbour’ in Jesus’ parable. The question ‘who is my neighbour?’ is inextricably connected with the question of the membership of the people of God.
In his treatment of this parable, N.T. Wright reminds us of the question that is hovering in the background: who are the people who will inherit the kingdom (cf. Luke 10:25)? The question of the neighbour is the same question from a different perspective: who are my fellow heirs? The common reading of the parable argues that everyone is to be treated as a neighbour without distinction. However, while the scope of ‘neighbourly’ concern should embrace all within it, I would suggest that the ‘neighbour’ never quite becomes a generic reference to another human being: the fellow covenant member is always the neighbour in a more pronounced sense.
In Leviticus 19:18, the original call to love one’s neighbour as oneself, the ‘neighbour’ is paralleled with ‘the sons of your people,’ suggesting a particular reference to the fellow Israelite (the same treatment is to be extended to the foreigner in verse 34, but the foreigner is not thereby identified as a neighbour). The fellow covenant member is a neighbour in a manner that the outsider, stranger, or enemy is not. In Ephesians 4:25, for instance, we speak truth to our neighbour because we are members of one another. The neighbour bond that exists in Christ is stronger than that which exists with those outside of Christ. While we seek to do good to all men and some measure of neighbour-bond extends to every other human being and living creature, those within the body of Christ are given special recognition in this regard (Galatians 6:10).
In identifying the Judahite captives as the brethren of the men of Israel, Oded was making clear that they were the nearest of ‘neighbours’ within the bond of the covenant. The way that the men of Samaria treated their covenant ‘neighbours’, the Judahites—the people to whom they had the most immediate and most pronounced of duties—was a matter that could provoke the anger of YHWH and that could lead to covenant judgment upon them. Those who refuse to recognize their brethren will find themselves removed from the family.
In the actions that followed the prophetic rebuke of Oded, the men of Samaria expressed their kinship with the Judahites. The Samaritan in Jesus’ parable does the same. He places the man upon his own animal and pays for him out of his own pocket. In the despised Samaritan and the half-dead Judahite, we see the two halves of the divided kingdom in 2 Chronicles 28. As in 2 Chronicles 28, through the ‘neighbourly’ act of the Samaritan(s), these two parties are being restored in the familial bond of the covenant.
The priest and the Levite are both men who serve in the worship of God. They avoid the half-dead man, presumably because they don’t want to be rendered unclean by potentially having contact with a corpse, as this might exclude them from their religious duties for a period of time. In this action, those pursuing covenant membership and identity through adherence to the fine points of Torah and Temple worship fail to recognize their covenant brother and come under the judgment of the covenant as a result.The religiously compromised Samaritan, by contrast, has compassion upon the half-dead man. He pours on oil and wine, treating the half-dead man as he would a sacrifice. His act of mercy is a truer sacrifice than the compassionless ceremonial purity of the other two men. The half-dead Jew is one of Christ’s own ‘brethren’: those who recognize Christ’s brethren are members of the family too (cf. Matthew 25:34-46).
Through this allusion to the Old Testament, Jesus is presenting the restoration of the broken covenant family. The Samaritan outsider becomes a family member and ministers to his half-dead Jewish brother. They are the true neighbours in the covenant. Meanwhile, the presumed sons of the kingdom—the priest and the Levite—exclude themselves and come under judgment.
The lawyer questioning Jesus probably expects an answer to the question of the identity of his neighbour that clearly delineates one group from others. However, Jesus’ answer does not present us with a static set of neighbours and not-neighbours. Rather, he offers a picture of a dynamic process of the restoration and new formation of neighbour bonds, of the inclusion of the ‘outsider’ and the restoration of the half-dead ‘insider’. The neighbour bonds are established and maintained through the expression of mercy. We are members of the covenant people of God as we participate in Christ’s merciful work of restoring the deep breaches between us and others, as we bring in the alienated and restore the wounded.
The story of Mary and Martha which immediately follows this parable explores many of the same themes. This story is too often read in terms of the typical double-bind placed on women: the expectation to serve accompanied by the judgment that they should be ‘more like Mary’. This, however, is not really the point. The story needs to be read alongside the parable that precedes it. Both are shaped by theme of inheritance: the lawyer wants to know what to do to inherit, while we are informed that Mary has chosen the ‘good portion’ (cf. Psalm 16:5-6).
Like the priest and the Levite, Martha is preoccupied with offering the ‘bread’ of God and, as such, represents those who seek the covenant inheritance through sacrificial observance. The Samaritan appreciates that compassion is more important than sacrifice and Mary that the One who dwells in the temple is greater than the service of that temple. Martha, like many in the gospels, judges Jesus’ followers for failure of expected service, while missing the fact that God has visited his people and that he must take priority.
The inheritance belongs to those who recognize their wounded or alienated brethren. The inheritance itself is the presence of Christ—God among us.