The Politics of the Good Samaritan (On the Way to Jerusalem)

Jesus tells the parable of the good Samaritan on his way to Jerusalem (Luke 9:51).  In this post, I would like to articulate how this illuminates some political features of Luke 10:25-37.  This is Part Two of a series on thinking about politics by way of interpreting this passage.  For a closer reading of the text itself, see Part One.

Two themes of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem that I think illuminate the parable of the good Samaritan are 1) Jesus’ growing conflict with Israel’s elites, and 2) his formation of a community of disciples.

Conflict with Temple Leadership

Those who say the cross has nothing to do with a conflict with worldly powers have not read the Gospels carefully enough.

At the beginning of Luke, Simeon had told Mary and Joseph, “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed” (Luke 2:34).

Jesus’ conflict with fellow Israelites comes to the foreground after his departure for Jerusalem.  The conflict takes on a new foreboding significance in this section, as Jesus has just predicted that he will be rejected and handed over to death by the Jewish leadership in Jerusalem (Luke 9:22, 44). 

At the end of Jesus’ journey, Luke narrates how Simeon’s omen is ironically fulfilled in Jesus’ return to the Temple, where he confronts the Temple leadership and is handed over to be killed by them (Luke 19:45-48; 21:5-9; 22:47-53, 66-71).

Jesus’ identification of the two who fail to obey the Law in Luke 10:25-37 as Temple staff should probably be seen in this light (Green 430; Elliot 221).

The Temple had become the central base for the redistribution of wealth from the Palestinian countryside to Rome and other cities.  This economic arrangement was so onerous that it lead many peasants to take on debt, eventually forcing them to sell their land to wealthy aristocrats and their family members into slavery (Elliot 230, 235).

The Temple also was the centerpiece of the system of social stratification based on ritual purity.  Priests and Levites were considered the holiest people in Israel because of their relation to the Temple, while Samaritans were considered to be among the least holy (Elliot 221; Neyrey 279).

It is on the way to confront this center of power that Jesus insists on mercy for the downtrodden, and makes a Samaritan – and not the Temple staff – the one who fulfills the Law, and so who is holy like God (Leviticus 19:1-18).  This is a radical political critique if there ever was one.

Formation of The Way

However, Jesus is not merely a radical opponent of the political establishment.  In fact, the hospitable love shown by the Samaritan to a stranger in Jesus’ parable would have been a challenge to peasant families, just as much as it was a challenge to the Temple.  In the first century, peasants typically shared with their family members as they had need, but prudently withheld generosity and mercy from everyone else (Oakman 173, 74). 

Rather than align himself with peasant families as they existed, Jesus told the crowds that he was forming a new family that will be built around hearing and doing God’s word (Luke 8:21; Green 396, 400). 

Some scholars have noted that it is not accidental that this new family is called “the Way” in Acts (9:2; 18:25; 19:9, 23; 22:4; 24:14, 22) and that Jesus teaches his disciples while he is on the way to Jerusalem.  (Green 398-400).  On his way to Jerusalem, Jesus teaches his disciples what it means to be “the Way.”

In Luke 10:25-37, Jesus is inviting the lawyer to become one of his disciples.  Jesus’ insistence that the lawyer act on his knowledge of the Law is an invitation to become part of a family built on hearing and doing the word. 

The parable of the good Samaritan teaches us two things about this family.  First, this family is to be compassionate and merciful to anyone and everyone.  Second, it is a family where those labeled as outcasts and enemies in the larger political world are recognized as sisters and brothers.

On the Way to the New Jerusalem

The parable of the good Samaritan challenges us as individuals to put the love we read and speak about into practice.  I hope I have made clear that it also challenges us to be a more loving and inclusive church, and to confront the powers in our world that exclude and exploit the downtrodden.  Of course, as followers of Jesus heading for the New Jerusalem, we take his lead in Jerusalem and confront the powers of the world with a cross and not a sword.

The Crucifixion of Peter in Rome, by Jan Luyken

Taking this challenge seriously will involve some hard introspection about where our ultimate loyalty lies.  Our nations, while they provide safety and prosperity, are in the business of defining who our neighbors are, telling us who we may pass by, and even who we may rob and leave half dead.

The idolatry of the church as it presently exists means that it will be a formidable challenge to bring the lessons of the good Samaritan to bear on the actions of our nations.  While nations are treated by most Christians as institutions worthy of ultimate sacrifice, the church is treated as a lifestyle choice perhaps worthy of the sacrifice of some personal time on Sunday morning.

If we are to become a church that follows Jesus to the cross, Stanley Hauerwas has it right: “We must be the kind of community that can draw on the character of convictions that expose the sentimentalities of the world – not the least of which is the assumption that nation-states have the right to qualify our loyalty as members of the church” (105).

Sources

Elliott, John H.. “Temple versus Household in Luke-Acts: A Contrast in Social Institutions.” The Social World of Luke-Acts. Eds. Jerome H. Neyrey and Bruce J. Malina. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1991.

Green, Joel B.. The Gospel of Luke. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997.

Hauerwas, Stanley. Christian Existence Today: Essays on Church, World and Living in Between.  Eugene: Oregon: Wipf & Stock, 2010.

Neyrey, Jerome H.. “The Symbolic World of Luke-Acts: ‘They Turn the World Upside Down.’” The Social World of Luke-Acts. Eds. Jerome H. Neyrey and Bruce J. Malina. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1991.

Oakman, Douglas E.. “The Countryside in Luke-Acts.” The Social World of Luke-Acts. Eds. Jerome H. Neyrey and Bruce J. Malina. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1991.

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