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Gospel: Luke 10:25-37

25 Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,’ he said, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ 26He said to him, ‘What is written in the law? What do you read there?’ 27He 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 neighbour as yourself.’ 28And he said to him, ‘You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.’

29 But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbour?’ 30Jesus 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. 31Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33But a Samaritan while travelling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. 34He 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. 35The 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.” 36Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ 37He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’

Why is there a priest and a Levite in this story? I've heard moralising sermons reproving the priest who was on the way to temple service and couldn't risk becoming unclean.  This is a thinly disguised antisemitism  for it ignores the fact that, in this story, everyone is going down to Jericho; that is, any religious service in the temple was already completed.

The priest and the Levite stand for us. They are supposed to be people— us— at our best. The fact of their Jewishness is simply incidental. They are meant to be exemplars of the way of being of their people; we would tell such a story using exemplars of our religion or our way of being. The priest and the Levite knew what was law, and they knew who was neighbour. Nothing which the lawyer said and which Jesus affirmed would have been news to either the priest or the Levite.  Indeed, they were a bit like the students in the "Samaritan experiment." Surely seminary students would understand what God wants and will act accordingly!!  

Just as the lawyer sets out to test Jesus, the parable, and the setting for the parable, test us.  I express it like this because, as the reader, we are responding to not only the parable which Jesus told, but we are responding to, and drawing conclusions about, the lawyer and his interchange with Jesus. I think for much of my life I reflexively assigned him the role of an unworthy person who did not follow Jesus, and who wanted to avoid what Jesus had to say. But what we decide about him, the way we read him, as Jesus might put it, will say something about us.  Will we make him our 'victim'; that is, a scapegoat who is the one at fault in this reading, so that we can stand at one remove from it, and avoid the fact that these are archetypal human stories which include us; that is, stories about us— both the story of the Samaritan, and the story of the lawyer.

Luke is clear that the lawyer asks a question to "test Jesus."  But is that test set in order to trip Jesus up; the gospels do have people asking questions to trap Jesus? (eg Mark 12:13 and Luke 20:20, 26) Or is the testing question intended to discern if Jesus has something worth paying attention to? I'm more inclined to the latter understanding.

James Alison says

one of the factors which blinker us in our reading of the Scriptures is our modern presupposition that the authors of these ancient texts, and thus the texts themselves, are somehow primitive… [but, in fact,] … ancient authors, such as those alive at the time of Christ, were well aware of something we moderns have come to pride ourselves on knowing: that texts can be made to mean more or less whatever it is that you want them to mean. Therefore, for ancient readers, even more than the question “What does the text say?” the question was: “How do you read it?” or “What is your interpretation of it?” And that meant, as they well knew, “Who is your rabbi? Through whose eyes do you read this text?”  (Essay Two, Jesus the Forgiving Victim)

Jesus and the lawyer are not at a point of hostility. The lawyer's question is not, as Davis suggests, "disingenuous." Here are two men taking the measure of each other, working out just where the conversation might go, and wondering what their relationship will be. They are rather like two people meeting in a café and determining if they can work together.

Far from hostile, when Jesus turns the question back on the lawyer, the lawyer does not say, "You are avoiding the question." He answers.  And they find, as we would say, that they "are on the same page"; that is, they 'read the same way,' or with the same eyes, when it comes to understanding where a life worth living (that is, eternal life) comes from. This man, who is "not an attorney of the secular law, but an authority (in some way) of the biblical law" (Davis) understands and distils the law exactly as Jesus does, for Jesus says to him, "You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live…" If this text were in the Gospel of John, Jesus might say to him, "You have given the right answer; do this, and you will find life in all its fullness." (cf John 10:10)

But then, Davis is correct, I think. In this probing and assessing conversation Jesus, who has already claimed a certain authority by reflecting the question back to the lawyer, now makes an unmistakeably blunt claim to authority over the authority on the biblical law:  Do this and you will live.  The teenager serving the coffee at that moment might register a gentle voice— compassionate and polite, even if firm, but those watchers who understand how the rabbis converse are in no doubt that Jesus lays claim to a greater authority than that of the lawyer. As Davis says, the lawyer's question in reply to Jesus is "defensive". In his testing of Jesus, he realises he is the one who is found wanting. In 'the conversation under the conversation,' Jesus has said, "You know how to live. Do it."

Because of the church's long struggle to find a balance between the insights of Paul and the author of James, Luke's phrase "wanting to justify himself" receives an unwarranted moral overlay from many of us: Only "bad" people, only "less spiritual people," would seek to justify themselves— right?  But seeking to justify ourselves— wanting to be seen as in the right, as belonging, as innocent… in a world full of blame, is our natural behaviour. We want to belong. We want to be accepted. We are fear-full of being declared the one who doesn't measure up, the outsider, the guilty one. This man who suddenly knows his authority is lacking and sees that his failure to live as he should has been exposed,  wishes to be right before God. If I should judge him at this point when he is fully engaged in relationship with Jesus, then I am the one not right with God, for I am not even aware that I also need to ask, "Who is my neighbour?"  let alone aware the fact,  that I completely misunderstand the depth of the question "Who is my neighbour," for like the lawyer, I already know who my neighbour is. It's living as neighbour that I cannot manage.

Luke presents us an  unrehearsed conversation where the lawyer consciously and fluently conflates two widely separated verses from Torah. His answer seamlessly melds Deuteronomy 6:5, the Shema, "5You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might." with Leviticus 19:17, "… you shall love your neighbour as yourself." 

Leviticus 19 has a lot to say about neighbours.  Love of neighbour is paramount: "you shall fear your God: I am the Lord." It becomes exactly clear in this text who one's neighbour is.  I have emphasised some of the text.

13 You shall not defraud your neighbour; you shall not steal; and you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a labourer until morning. 14You shall not revile the deaf or put a stumbling-block before the blind; you shall fear your God: I am the Lord.
15 You shall not render an unjust judgement; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbour. 16You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbour: I am the Lord.
17 You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbour, or you will incur guilt yourself. 18You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbour as yourself: I am the Lord.

The lawyer knows exactly who his neighbour is! It is his people, his family, his town. He doesn't need to ask this question of Jesus. In law, so to speak, it is clear who his neighbour is. He is defensive not because he does not understand Jesus, or see what Jesus' gospel is about; he is defensive because he understands too well. In the conversation under the surface, he is essentially saying, "I know I must love my neighbour as myself… but how can anyone do that!?" This is because loving the Lord "with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might" implies much more than the 'neighbourliness' of Leviticus 19. The lawyer will hear Jesus' parable because, even if he has not been able to articulate it, the law has being prodding him to see that even Samaritans are neighbours.

Rather than expose some moral weakness in the lawyer, his question places Israel's age old argument over righteousness on the table between him and Jesus. Does God desire mercy or sacrifice— do we have mercy and regard and compassion for those who are not neighbour, or do we keep the law… which is what Hosea called sacrifice? (cf Hosea 6.6) He seek to justify himself because he cannot see how he can live out his answer; practically there must be a limit to who is neighbour, yet Hosea and the Shema imply there is not.

While Hosea had never read his Girard, he nonetheless knew that mere cultic keeping of the law was not enough. With James Alison today he understood that "concentrating our attention on [sacrifice] leads to a certain habitual blindness towards [steadfast love.]"1 The lawyer and Jesus are circling a key issue about what it means to be righteous. We can read here not a man seeking to trick Jesus, or trap him, but one who is deeply troubled by the enormity of what God asks, and then know that we are free to bring the same question to Jesus ourselves.

Jesus' breathtaking reply to the lawyer is given extra power for the readers of Luke. For we have a backstory not available to the lawyer. In Luke 9, "a village of the Samaritans" did not welcome Jesus. And in Luke 10, Jesus says of any town which does not welcome the 70 whom he sent out, "I tell you, on that day it will be more tolerable for Sodom than for that town." Sodom was destroyed by fire from God. (Genesis 18-19) When the disciples want to call down fire (like Elijah did at Mt Carmel) they are thinking of Sodom, whose sin, traditionally, was inhospitality. (This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy. Ezekiel 16:49 In the case of Lot, the men of Sodom sought to violate the sacred call to hospitality and attack his guests. 2) The disciples were also thinking that Jesus was of the same mindset of Elijah, an understanding which the variant reading of Luke 9:56 utterly rejects: ‘You do not know what spirit you are of, 56for the Son of Man has not come to destroy the lives of human beings but to save them.’

So Jesus is choosing as his main character alongside the priest and the Levite, a person who is not only socially outcast, but one who is from the very group which has not welcomed him, the very group against which he would not allow violence to be done. Someone I read noted the humour of the story Jesus constructs— "it just happened" by chance that a priest was going by. But there is nothing accidental about the choice of the Samaritan or of the priest. One we expect to be the paradigm of virtue, and the other we expect to be inhospitable and hostile. In fact, we get the reverse of what we expect.

What the story says, in brief, is that what the lawyer fears is, in fact, true. There is no limit on mercy. The one who has mercy in this story, the one who is neighbour, is the one who, according to law, was not required to have mercy. He was the one who stepped outside of his kin and outside of his people. (cf Lev 19:17-18) And not only that. He left the traveller in the care of an innkeeper carte blanche! "I will repay you whatever more you spend."

I once read the lawyer being paraphrased as saying, "Where are the boundaries to my being neighbour? Surely there must be a boundary somewhere; surely there is a limit to what is expected of me?" In the story of the robbed and beaten man, and his neighbour, Jesus is saying, "There are no boundaries if you wish to enjoy life in all its fullness."

Why does it say of both the priest and the Levite and "when he saw him, he passed by on the other side?" Obviously, the repetition of that phrase is a deliberate emphasis of the point, but why does it say that,  but say of the Samaritan that he "came near him; and when he saw him…?"  Is there a way of being that does not come near people, and therefore cannot really see them as human? And what is the way of being that comes "near" people?

In his reflections upon inheriting eternal life, Alison comments that

"Inheriting eternal life" is a more interesting phrase than it might seem to those of us whose first reaction is that it is a simply another way of saying "what must I do to go to heaven?" Inheriting is what the ultimate insiders did (in those days, sons, but not daughters) and "eternal life" was a way of referring to the life of God. So St Luke frames the parable as a discussion of what it looks like to become an insider in the life of God. (Forgiving Victim pp528 Essay 12)

And then he says:

So here is the first hint of the shape of being on the inside of the life of God, what it's like to become sensitive to where Jesus is and what he's doing now: there is something ineluctable [that is: unavoidable or inescapable] about what is at its centre. The human pattern of desire is such that we either create goodness by displacing victims, or find ourselves being made good by moving towards them. (Essay 12, my emphasis.)

What is it that causes the priest and the Levite to pass by on the other side?  In the end: fear. Fear of the cost of compassion, which is fear of the cost of being neighbour. As virtually every commentary says, that could be as real as the fact that the bandits may still be nearby, and so the priest and the Levite fear for their lives.  Paul Nuechterlein sums Alison very well

The other emphasis in reading the parable from the perspective of the Samaritan, in the life of God, is that he doesn’t seem as afraid of death as we normally are. “Gut-wrenched” compassion moves the Samaritan to a different attitude toward death — which is essentially an effect of the Resurrection. It ultimately changes the entire way we look at creation. 

The "entire way we look at creation" is another way of saying "eternal life," or life in all its fullness."

Let me try to put this together. Alison says (in the context of a longer essay) that our natural inclination is to "create goodness by displacing victims." Goodness in this context is safety, meaning, inclusion, and acceptance. Goodness in this context is our attempt to create eternal life; that is, a more abundant life than the hostile and frightening world in which we have found ourselves. It is our wanting to justify ourselves before our peers and before our God.

The reason we should not condemn the lawyer is that if we condemn him we condemn ourselves, because we all justify ourselves. It is do this or die. Justifying ourselves, making ourselves right with our peers and our God (who we imagine to just like us, albeit more powerful) is what gives us our place in the world.  And we gain that place by displacing others.  We are the ones who are in, not out. We are among the good, not the bad. We are right, not in error. We are right and acceptable to God,  not unclean. "Goodness or badness according to "sacrifice," then, is what enables us to be good by contrast with some defiling other." (Alison)

What the life of Jesus shows us is that if we live outside this binary system, then we are the outsider, the one who is more likely to become a victim anytime it needs to be clarified who belongs or does not belong in order to settle some question of rivalry or power.  And the more pressing the need to settle an issue, and the less safe people are feeling in the world, the more likely it is that the victim will become a victim who really dies.  This is what happened to Jesus. 

And the reason Nuechterlein can say the Samaritan has "a different attitude toward death," is that by being neighbour, the Samaritan makes himself vulnerable. He makes himself a natural target as an outsider who does not follow the mores of the society. Understand this: in the minds of the listeners, what is truly scandalous in this story is that the Samaritan stops to help a Jewish man. The natural reading of this story is to be confronted and scandalised by that fact, not to praise the Samaritan.  Jesus is saying to the lawyer that if he wishes to inherit eternal life, he should love his neighbour without reserve. He should be like a Samaritan, a scandalous outsider. A neighbour, one might say, looking at the Greek word, is simply a person to whom we have come near. The word for neighbour comes from the word for near. (adverb from plésios; from pelas (near))

Because he was the sort of man who came near people and saw them, rather than one who saw people and moved away from them, the Samaritan was moved with compassion. (He did not pity him, but was moved with pity.) This is what we inherit when we "inherit eternal life." This is the scandal of our faith. We don't create this or generate this in ourselves, it is given. We are chosen and it is given to us. What must I do to inherit eternal life: Accept the gift.

The imagery behind being "moved with compassion," is both terrible and inspiring. I'm quoting some heavily edited words from Paul Nuechterlein, who says

The noun form splagchna was used in the earliest Greek literature to designate the inner parts of the sacrificial victim ripped out during a ritual blood sacrifice. If the heart was cut out during the ritual, for example, it was called a splagchna, not a kardia.

We might say that the way we live without God rips our heart out. Paul says the word, "was never used in the pre-Christian Greek world to mean mercy or compassion as it came to mean in the later Jewish-Christian writings." There,

splagchna began to be used to translate Hebrew words having the sense of the seat of feelings. More generally, it is used to translate a Hebrew word that has the connotation of having one’s entrails stirred up — in other words, a visceral response. But its usage includes more positive feelings like mercy and compassion. The middle voice form episplagchnizomai is used in Prov. 17:5 to mean “to be merciful.” ...

It is that middle voice meaning that came to have a specialized usage in the Synoptic Gospels, with that verb form found only there...  And it is only used either a) to describe an emotion of Jesus, or b) by Jesus in a parable to describe the response of compassion by a major character therein....

Another example of this usage is Matthew 20's story of the two blind men for whom Jesus was moved with compassion. Paul goes on to remind us of

the Girardian notion that Jesus subverts the old world of sacrifice into the new world of self-sacrifice. Is the Synoptic use of this word [episplagchnizomai ] — used only for or by Jesus — reflective of such a transformation? In Jesus Christ the emotions that make necessary the purging through the sacrificial institutions — anger, blood-lust for vengeance — are transformed into the emotion that underlies serving in the Culture of God, namely, compassion. The “impulsive passions” behind the making of sacrificial victims are transformed into a compassionate reviving of victims. The latter is especially true of Luke’s usage, i.e., compassion for the raising of a widow’s dead son, the return of a “son who was dead but now is alive again,” and a man violently beaten and left for “half-dead.”

He makes a stunning observation:

Eugene Petersen, in his The Message, has the perfect translation of esplagchnisthe given our discussion: “his heart went out to him.” It is not only a picturesque metaphorical rendering of compassion, but it also more literally interprets the sacrificial origins of the Greek word. The heart going out of the sacrificial victim was, of course, a literal occurrence. Further, we once again clearly see the Gospel reversal: instead of the heart coming out of the sacrificial victim, compassion means one’s heart going out to the victim.

To be compassionate when we are afraid, and when we want to distance ourselves from people, is heart-wrenchingly difficult. But when we are able to come near them; when our fear has been lessened, then our heart goes out to them.  Do you notice how it happens of its own accord? He does not choose to be compassionate; the Samaritan's heart goes out from him of its own accord. This is because he has the heart of Christ.

It is here that the lawyer shines a searching light into my own heart.  Earlier in Luke, a Pharisee said to himself about Jesus, "If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him— that she is a sinner." Jesus tells him a story of two debtors, one forgiven ten times the debt of the other.  (Luke 7:38-48) And then Jesus asked

Now which of them will love him more?’ 43Simon answered, "I suppose... the one for whom he cancelled the greater debt."

I suppose... in these words we can see Simon drawing back from the woman and beginning to pass by on the other side of the road.  His response is grudging, and indicates he will not take the lesson.

But when Jesus asks the lawyer who it was that was neighbour to the victim, the lawyer is unhesitating: the one who showed him mercy.

The lawyer is drawing near, except... the lawyer does not say that the one who was neighbour was the one who was (ἐσπλαγχνίσθη) "moved with pity," whose heart went out from him. He says the Ὁ ποιήσας τὸ ἔλεος μετ’ αὐτοῦ, "the one who showed him mercy." It is not the word "mercy" (ἔλεος) that concerns me here, but poiēsas (ποιήσας). The root meaning of poiēsas is "to do or make." It is about me and my doing. And when it is up to me to do mercy, I pull back.  But when my heart goes out of me, I cannot believe what I can do!

How this works for us— this doing that is us, but is also not of us— is one of James Alison's key insights. Nuechterlein quotes more from Essay 12 of Jesus the Forgiving Victim. (Note that the first sentence is one of those profound and dense Alison statements that may take a moment or two to become clear!)

However, what we have in Jesus' resurrection is a fully human set of eyes for whom death is not, a real human life story that is a living out at the anthropological level [that is, at the human level] of the deathlessness of God. Because of this, that life is able to get alongside us and into us in the same way as the pattern of desire of the fine art connoisseur, and we start to be able to look at creation, at everything that is, through those same deathless eyes. The pattern of desire of the deathless one opens our eyes to what really is in the world, without us having to run away from, be run by, death...

In the next paragraphs, not quoted by Nuechterlein, Alison says

As we carry on watching [the Samaritan], it seems that part of this gut wrench which he is undergoing is sensed as a tremendous privilege. He is finding himself on the inside of the life of God! So he is quite unconcerned about sensible limits to goodness. He is just delighted to find himself on the inside of this adventure. He doesn’t try to palm off the wounded one on the innkeeper. He seems to realize that he’s found a centre to his life and activity that is worth sticking with. Rather than saying to himself “How little can I get away with and still be a decent person?” which is what I find myself thinking whenever I’m in an analogous situation, he seems to realize that he is being given something good by sharing the life of this victim.

This fits exactly with my experience. My wife and I were one of the very first clergy couples to train together in our Synod, if not the first. Everything we did was a struggle; college, presbytery and synod staff all kept saying, "We've never done this before." Now (not to take anything away from the many couples who have followed us) the situation is almost routine. There is someone to follow. And likewise, I find that the exhausting, and sometimes terrifying ministry to those who are the victims of society, is also "being given something good." Despite the fact that, as Alison also says, while the Samaritan

seems to realize that he is being given something good by sharing the life of this victim[, and that] this means that he owns the situation — makes it his own[, it also] of course means that he allows the victim to be the one who owns him.

Despite sometimes feeling owned, I find I am living in a kind of glory in the sort of situations which normally would terrify and paralyse me.

But it is always given... inherited.  I do not do it. It is drawn out of me. When Jesus says to the lawyer, "Go and do likewise," he is using the same root verb as the lawyer: ποίει, so there is a "doing" going on. But it is not my doing.

I'm going to hazard a guess about what it is that allows God into our lives so that our doing becomes a giving of the heart that we don't have to do.  I think the lawyer was afraid. He knew he had to be neighbour and could not see how one can do that and survive. So he went to Jesus with his fear, he let his need and fear show instead of lording it over Jesus and others. I think in some sense all Samaritans have done this. Certainly, it is only with the admission of my fear that I have felt the reality of God moving my heart out of me.

 Andrew Prior (2019)

Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!

Also on One Man's Web
Luke 10:25-37 - The Economy of God: : A cost benefit analysis, or the gift of life? (2013)
Luke 10:25-37 - Dancing Like a Samaritan (2016)


1 The "steadfast love" of Hosea 6:6 is translated from the Hebrew.  In Matthew where Jesus says I desire mercy not sacrifice, he is quoting the Greek of the Septuagint: Ἔλεος θέλω καὶ οὐ θυσίαν. Eleos, the word for mercy, is the word the lawyer uses when he says of the neighbour that it is the one who showed mercy.  The quotation for Alison is worth reading in more detail:

One of the things the parable takes for granted in the midst of contingency is the centrality of victims. Victims appear in two valencies in our story: sacred victims, of the sort to be found in temples, and which inspire certain attitudes towards blood and corpses; and contingent victims, who are to be found in the midst of violent human interactions. We might, following the passage from Hosea (6.6) at which we looked in Essay 8, call the human attitude towards the first sort 'sacrifice' and the human attitude towards the second sort 'mercy.' Concentrating our attention on the first sort of victim leads to a certain habitual blindness towards the second sort. While attention to the second sort leads to a certain sort of insight concerning the first sort. What is in common is that those involved in both valencies, the priest and levite on the one hand, and the Samaritan, on the other, are drawn by a pattern of desire which is intimately involved with a victim. (Jesus the Forgiving Victim, Essay 12. The book is instantly available in eBook form, and some key parts of it which relate to this week's text are quoted by Paul Nuechterlein at the Girardian Lectionary.)

2   I am following the view roughly outlined here in Wikipedia

Within the Christian Churches that agree on the possible sexual interpretation of "know" (yada) in this context, there is still a difference of opinion on whether homosexuality is important. On its website, the Anglican Communion presents the argument that the story is "not even vaguely about homosexual love or relationships", but is instead "about dominance and rape, by definition an act of violence, not of sex or love". This argument that the violence and the threat of violence towards foreign visitors is the true ethical downfall of Sodom (and not homosexuality), also observes the similarity between the Sodom and Gomorrah and the Battle of Gibeah Bible stories. In both stories, an inhospitable mob demands the homosexual rape of a foreigner or foreigners. As the mob instead settles for the rape and murder of the foreigner's female concubine in the Battle of Gibeah story, the homosexual aspect is generally seen as inconsequential, and the ethical downfall is understood to be the violence and the threat of violence towards foreigners by the mob. This Exodus 22:21–24 lesson is viewed by Anglicans as a more historically accurate way to interpret the Sodom and Gomorrah story.

Scholar in history and gender studies Lisa McClain has claimed that the association between Sodom and Gomorrah with homosexuality emerged from the writings of 1st century Jewish philosopher Philo, and that no prior exegesis of the text suggested such a linkage.



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