Monday, December 16, 2019

Ruth Krall, "The Good Samaritan: Pious Parable or Subversive Instruction?"

Vincent van Gogh, "The Good Samaritan," original in the Kroller-Muller Museum in Otterlo, The Netherlands, uploaded to Wikimedia Commons for online sharing.

I'm privileged to be able to offer readers another set of essays by Ruth Krall, entitled "Compassionate Peacemaking: Healing the World's Wounds One at a Time." Part one of this series, which has the series title "Bearing Witness," consists of four essays. The essay I'm publishing today is the first in the "Bearing Witness" series. It's entitled "The Good Samaritan: Pious Parable or Subversive Instruction?"

Ruth's essays bear witness to the struggle to repair the world at a time in which that struggle seems overwhelming to many of us — and, for this reason, the essays strike me as timely and important. For those who observe Christian liturgical seasons, they seem especially appropriate during this Advent time, when people of Christian faith meditate about darkness and light, in hope that light will prevail and darkness cannot overcome it. 

What follows is Ruth's Good Samaritan essay:

Compassionate Peacemaking: Healing the World's Wounds One at a Time

Part One: Bearing Witness

The Good Samaritan: Pious Parable or Subversive Instruction? (i)

Ruth Elizabeth Krall, MSN, PhD

In Memory: Nelle Katherine Morton, MRE, DHL 1905-1987
Role Model, Wise Elder, Mentor, Friend

Holy Scripture as Our Beginning Place 

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? 

Jesus 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 lover 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, And who is my neighbor?

In reply, Jesus said: A man was going from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So, too a Levite, when he came to this place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was   and when he saw him, took pity on him. He went to him, bandaged his wounds, poured on oil, and wine. Then he put the man on his donkey, brought him to an Inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. "Look after him," he said, "and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have." 

Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of thieves? 

The expert in the law replied, The one who had mercy on him.

Jesus told him, Go and do thou likewise.  

Jews and Samaritans: Historical Memory

It is important to note that I am not a Biblical textual scholar; nor am I a Biblical anthropologist; nor am I an ordained minister. As a pastoral thealogian I am dependent, therefore, on others' writings when I seek to contextualize, to understand, and finally to exegete Christian scripture. I read and interpret the Bible as a member of the laity.  

From the account of Jesus and his encounters with a Samaritan woman (John 4:4-42), we learn that during Jesus' lifetime, Jews and Samaritans did not ordinarily engage in social encounters with each other. At a great distance in time, it appears to us as if Jesus was breaking a long-standing cultural taboo when he chatted with a Samaritan woman at a local village well — asking her for a drink. Not only that, as a direct consequence of their conversation, Jesus was invited to stay overnight in her village as its guest — which he did.  

In the world in which Jesus lived, some contemporary scholars suggest that the relationships between Jews and Samaritans had been estranged for a long time — centuries of animosity. Samaritans, at times, harassed Jewish travelers on the road between Galilee and Judea. Samaritans were viewed with covert suspicion and overt hostility. There are historical instances when Jewish individuals and groups vandalized Samaritan villages and destroyed that community's religious temples. Samaritans, in their turn, vandalized sacred Jewish sites and buildings. Zangenberg comments that Samaritans were viewed with suspicion and hostility by Jews in and around Jerusalem (ii). In reading about this history, it is important to note that the animosity, enmity, hostility, harassment, and acts of physical violence were reciprocal. Not only did the Jews disdain and distrust the Samaritans, the Samaritans also distrusted and disdained the Jewish people. 

McCloskey, following in the footsteps of Roman Catholic scholar Father John (Jack) McKenzie, writes that:

The fact that there was such dislike and hostility between Jews and Samaritans is what gave the use of the Samaritan in the Parable of the Good Samaritan such force. The Samaritan is the one who is able to rise above the bigotry and prejudices of centuries and show mercy and compassion for the inured Jew after the Jew’s own countrymen had passed him by (iii).

As we begin, it is also important to note that priests and Levites were both hereditary members of the Jewish temple caste system. Both groups of individuals served the temple in some manner or other. In other words: they were culturally and ethnically seen as set apart for the work of God (iv). They, and their work, provided a kind of purity guarantee that the people believed (indeed, were taught to believe) protected the welfare of the political state, its rulers, and its citizens. To guarantee God's continuing favor, avoiding cultic impurity was essential for the priests and for other servants of the temple. Priests, in particular, were forbidden to touch the dead and the dying (see Numbers 19). Purity codes for Levites were somewhat less strenuous and more ambiguous. They were expected to clean the temple, care for and prepare the sacrificial animals, and provide sacred music for worship during public religious ceremonies.  

In this story's narration by Jesus, he does not deal with motivations — but with actions. Nor does he describe cultic expectations and behavior. It was the actors and their actions that Jesus details — not their acculturated and embodied motivations. We can assume that Jesus, his interrogator, and his listeners all knew the socio-cultural taboos and were well aware of the historical animosities between Jews and Samaritans that are deeply embedded within Jesus' parable.  

As twenty-first century residents of the Judeo-Christian legacy, we inherit the story. But we live in a different century and inside very different world-views. Of necessity, we each bring our own inherited worldview and its cultural blinders to our understanding of the parable's meaning. To understand Jesus' story we must, therefore, first interrogate it and, secondly, interpret it.


Jesus used this parable as a teaching methodology.  Perhaps he was also using it as a public reprimand.  What we know is a quite simple story. The Gospel writer, John, recorded the story (90-110 CE) and thus helped a young and growing Christian community to remember it.  

We know from the four Gospels that Jesus — as a wandering mystic and spiritual teacher — was often at odds with the temple authorities and the religious-political leaders of his nation (cf., John 2:11-12) (v).  He disobeyed cultic teachings (cf. Mark 3: 1-6; Mark 2: 26-27; Mark 2: 23) and taught his followers by parables, example, direct action as well as by his specific instructions about how they were to live their everyday lives.  

His teaching attracted many (Jews and non-Jews) to him. Yet, Jesus lived inside his Jewish community and his consciousness was saturated with its teachings and cultic practices. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, therefore, we hear themes lifted from Jewish scripture (the Torah) written down centuries earlier:

Deuteronomy 6: 5: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your strength and your neighbor as yourself. Deuteronomy 10: 18b-19: The Lord your God….loves the stranger providing him with food and clothing. You too must love the stranger.
Leviticus 19:16:  Do not do anything that endangers your neighbor’s life.
Leviticus 19: 18b Love your neighbor as yourself.

We can see (and often do see) the narrative of the Good Samaritan as a simple teaching — Take care of the wounded ones you encounter. It is essential, I think, to see it also as a rebuke to the spiritual legalism and rigid liturgical orthodoxy of his historical era (a non-compassionate legalism that, for example, disallowed members of the temple staff [priests and Levites)]to touch or to care for the body of a wounded and dying man).   

Jesus seems to be saying to his legalistic interrogator: When it is dangerous to you; dangerous to your personal status; dangerous to your personal safety; dangerous to your religious ideology; dangerous to your religious reputation as a faithful Jew, dangerous to your self-understanding: the demand for compassionate care of the neighbor is the trump card of God’s teaching about proper living in community. This command to care for the neighbor takes precedence over the purity laws of your profession; it takes precedence over the political realities of your nation-state and its surrounding culture; it takes precedence over legalistic and orthodox religious teachings and cultic practices in your temple.  

The Parable of the Good Samaritan — placed inside its own historical context — becomes a dangerous and subversive narrative because it demands that (1) we pay attention (we are obligated by our faith to stop and actually see); (2) we challenge our cultural conditioning (to hate and to ignore the wounds of those we hate); (3) we actively embody compassionate love for the hated stranger (we go to the wounded ones and address them as fully human); (4) we carefully assess and address their life-endangering wounds (we touch and cleanse their wounds as gently as we know how); and finally (5) we provide them (these hated strangers) with safety and care inside our communities while their wounds heal.  

The naked man abandoned and left to die: this man has been isolated from his full humanity by the bandits who beat him, stole his clothing and other items and then left him— alone — to die.  In Jesus' story he has also been ignored — thus abandoned by — the priest and Levite who both noticed and then ignored his plight — leaving him unattended and uncared for.  

In Jesus' narrative, it is the hated other, the Samaritan traveler with his donkey, who sees the victimized man, recognizes him as fully human, cares for his wounds, rescues him, restores him to life, and surrounds him with continuing care.  

Given the prejudices and animosities inside Jewish and Samaritan communities and inasmuch as the Good Samaritan stopped at a wayside inn known to him, it is likely that the inn-keeper and the inn's staff members were also members of the Samaritan community. If this is so, then the Good Samaritan engages members of his own community in providing continuous care to this gravely wounded man who did not belong to their kinship network and ethnic community. The wounded man (this stranger, this enemy of the people), having no kin rights, was, nevertheless, cared for with compassion.  

If, as the text seems to imply, it was a Jewish man who was assaulted by thieves, then Jesus is telling us a subversive story by applying Jewish cultic law to all human relationships. He does this in an era of pre-existing and enduring cultural and historical enmity between Jews and Samaritans. It is not only a teaching tale of human compassion; it is also a subversive instruction to care for the enemy with the same care we show to our family, friends and neighbors. By his story, Jesus expands the sense of the human community now to include the hated and disdained other as well as to our immediate family and culturally similar neighbors. Perhaps the story even implies that we are to make the hated stranger part of our kinship and friendship networks.  

The implicit command is to provide care to each suffering individual — left by our respective cultures to suffer and perhaps to die unattended.    

Jesus' interrogator seems to have recognized this subversive element in Jesus' teaching by insisting that Jesus clarify Jewish law —Who, in fact, is the neighbor? 

Rather than getting into a debate about the minutiae of Jewish cultic law, Jesus chooses to tell a simple story of violence, rescue, and healing. Then, as a good teacher, he asks his interrogator to interpret the story. Boxed into a corner of his own making, the legal scholar answered that the neighbor to the abused and abandoned one was, indeed, the hated other — the Samaritan. The Samaritan, who saw, stopped, paid attention, and provided knowledgeable help to this dying man — the victim of others' violence and abandonment — becomes the spiritual standard for ethical and moral behavior in times of violence and intercultural disdain. 

In Jesus' tale, the Samaritan becomes the neighbor because he cared for the culturally hated and religiously ignored stranger. 


i. Luke 10: 25-37 NIV.

ii. Zangenberg, J.K. (Undated). "The Samaritans." Bible Odyssey. See also, McKloskey, P. (Undated).  "The Rift Between Jews and Samaritans." Franciscan Media.

iii. McCloskey, ibid.

iv. Stokl, J. (Undated). "Priests and Levites in the First Century C.E." Bible Odyssey.

v. Chaffey, T. (August 16, 2011). "When Did Jesus Cleanse the Temple?"  Answers in Genesis.

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