Tuesday, June 10, 2014

A NON-Anti-Semitic Reading of The Good Samaritan

Just as there are countless loopholes in any legal code if you want to find them,
there is no end to finding racist or tribal-centric interpretations of Holy Scripture.

But sincere readers of all historical and religious texts want to find out
first and foremost what the original speakers and hearers, writers and readers,
meant to say, and wanted us to conclude.

It is those sincere truth seekers and God seekers that I want to address here,
to provide some contexts, templates and tools for interpretation
that will be both authentic and beneficial for the study of
the great parables of the Master.

Traditionalist Interpretations:

For those who see spiritual value in the parable of the Good Samaritan,
but who don't necessarily hold to doctrines of Divine Providence,
the story can have all the appearance of an unfortunate choice of words.

For it lends itself quite easily to exploitation by anti-Semites and racists,
and has been used aggressively to teach racist stereotyping in a way
that must be recognized as completely foreign to the historical Jesus.

These sincere listeners accept its historical context,
but find that the spread and universalizing of the story
has had a dramatically tragic result, in that
the passage now takes on racial and political connotations completely unforeseen,
and which turn the original meaning inside out and overturn its purpose.

Racial / Political Interpreters:

Others, some understandably lacking the ability to see its original context,
or assuming a wider application of some of its incidental features,
have taken the opposite stance:

These would claim that the parable was not fully or properly understood
in its own time, but rather, its full meaning and implications were actually
meant for our own 'modern' times, and therefore it forms a legitimate
template for racial stereotyping and genetic theories to be applied to
groups of people today, in the same terms Jesus apparently used then.

Thus the behaviour of characters representing types and categories are
held to be reflecting real traits to be associated with those groups.

Problems with Interpretation:

Both positions have some serious drawbacks and difficulties.

(a) Those holding a historical interpretation but recognizing the
anachronistic racial stereotyping inherent in 'modern' applications,
can see little practical value in the story as it comes to us,
because it is too vulnerable and susceptible to abuse and ideological agendas.

(b) Those applying the story to modern times and racial stereotypes,
fail to properly account for its historical context and the underlying identity of Jesus,
and cannot construct a credible or even plausible scenario to explain
how it could be "out of sync" in its own time, and so inapplicable for centuries,
while suddenly and vividly illustrating racial stereotypes and traits today,
or how this could possibly fit into any Biblical time schema or Divine Plan.

In other words, those holding a traditional view fail to show any applicability today,
while those applying it racially today fail to show any historical continuity.

Both approaches fail to give God and Jesus the credit of a lasting and
universal meaning, and evolving plan and vision of the future beyond
the scene 2000 years ago.

We would argue here that a key to a comprehensive and viable interpretation
of the Story of the Good Samaritan can be found,
and the result is an improved understanding of the parable and its
application both at the time of Jesus and for today.


For purposes of examination, we will simply present here
a modern but traditionally based translation,
and only delve into translational issues as they arise:

Luke 10:25-37

New King James Version (NKJV)

The Parable of the Good Samaritan


25 And behold, a certain lawyer stood up and tested Him, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”
26 He said to him, “What is written in the law? What is your reading of it?
27 So he answered and said, “ ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind,’[a] and ‘your neighbor as yourself.’”[b]
28 And He said to him, “You have answered rightly; do this and you will live.”
29 But he, wanting to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
30 Then Jesus answered and said: “A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, who stripped him of his clothing, wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead. 31 Now by chance a certain priest came down that road. And when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32 Likewise a Levite, when he arrived at the place, came and looked, and passed by on the other side. 33 But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was. And when he saw him, he had compassion. 34 So he went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine; and he set him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 35 On the next day, when he departed,[c] he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said to him, ‘Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, when I come again, I will repay you.’ 36 So which of these three do you think was neighbor to him who fell among the thieves?”
37 And he said, “He who showed mercy on him.”
Then Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”


  1. Luke 10:27 Deuteronomy 6:5
  2. Luke 10:27 Leviticus 19:18
  3. Luke 10:35 NU-Text omits when he departed.

We note here that the order of composition of the Gospels generally,
Mark, Luke, Matthew, John, with some scholars dissenting from this order on some passages,
or offering alternate theories not widely held.

So the parable first appears here in the Gospel of Luke,
and this is held to be the 'original version' of the teaching and context.

The first observation we want to make is that this circumstance itself bears notice:

(1) This piece of material is not 'Lukan' in style,
but is rather heavily 'NT Jewish' in content and form.
It is not therefore a creation of Luke or a result of Lukan editing.

Instead it forms a unit or fragment of earlier Jesus tradition (possibly 'Q')
that Luke has incorporated in his gospel. (one of Luke's purposes was to
include and preserve as much of the earliest materials that were available to him).

(2) It would not be historically honest or credible to attempt to separate the story itself
from the context and place in which it occurs.

That is, the background of Jesus preaching intimately to a religious Jew is as old and
as authentic as the rest of the passage, and so any interpretation of Jesus' intent
must be seen through this lens.

A First Look at the Narrative:

The 'meta-context' of this narrative is Jesus travelling from village to village in Palestine,
with His disciples going ahead of Him into each village to announce and prepare His own arrival there (Luke 10:1).
The mention by name of various towns from Lebanon/Galillee to Judaea,
also indicates His travels through the Northern areas of Palestine toward Jerusalem:
Chorazin, Bethsaida, Tyre, Sidon, Sodom, Capernaum (Luke 10:13-15).

Its worth mentioning that Jesus does stay within the region of greater
Palestine throughout His ministry , although He Himself is a kind of
'man of the world', having grown up in Egypt during Herod the Great's reign. (Matt. 2:14,20).
In Jesus' time there was a thriving population of Jews/Israelites in Egypt,
mostly in Alexandria and the Northeast, estimated to be over a million people.

Again, while some racist groups have difficulty even believing that Jesus
Himself was a "Jew", and make much of the fact that He was apparently
a Galilean (John 7:52, from Nazareth in Galilee Luke 1:26, Matt. 2:20), the NT plainly identifies Him as
a Jew (tribe of Judah, House of David Matt. 1:1) born in Bethlehem (Luke 2:4, kingdom or tetrarchy of Judaea).

Thus Jesus is approached by a 'lawyer' (teacher of Torah, and possibly
an arbiter or local justice for Jews in that town). The word 'lawyer'
is perhaps misleading
for modern readers, as in this case, the office
is held by someone who must obviously be a Jew or Israelite, and
who spends a lifetime studying Torah (Law of Moses), and who
specifically interprets the Law code and all religious matters for Covenant Jews.
Thus, he would not merely be adjudicating criminal or civil matters,
but also most aspects of religion and tradition as well.

Its worth noting that although the narrative here certainly doesn't present
the 'lawyer' as perfect, loyal, or a role-model, it gives no racial or tribal
signals or connotations
either: This 'lawyer' doesn't attempt to justify
Jews as a 'race', or even lawyers, but rather simply, himself.

Whatever negative connotation we wish to give to this, its not racism,
or even tribalism which is highlighted by Luke/source, but simply
personal justification in regard to sin and obviously Covenant.
Even lawyers are not being stereotyped here, unless this happens
inadvertently in the total context of the gospel as a unit.
This particular lawyer, seems by his own actions to be displaying
positive traits generally, namely an openness to consult Jesus and
a public honouring and recognition of Jesus as a Rabbi or authority.
At best, the narrator notes some personal pride or defensiveness.

Jesus' response is equally telling, as personal race or ancestry is ignored,
and performance is emphasized, with an indication that this action
is imperative to salvation. Jesus happens to be speaking to a Jew
who claims to be within a Covenant with God, but doing is everything,
and this view of 'duty/performance' (i.e., 'Mitzvah') is about as Jewish
as one can possibly imagine!

In some sense the lawyer then, is defending both himself and his office,
which he identifies with himself, while Jesus acknowledges both
the office and the teaching, but seems to give the lawyer himself a luke-warm

This is consistent with Jesus' uniform position elsewhere,
in that Jesus acknowledges and demands respect for the God-given authority of
"the seat of Moses" (Matt. 23:2),
but nonetheless feels free to hold to a high standard
and criticize those who sit in that seat.

As a group or class, Jesus gives 'lawyers' a low score,
but this lawyer working within the lines is given an apparent pass.

Of course, the parable Jesus tells sets an even higher standard,
and this lawyer is instructed to follow this newer standard.
Again, Jesus moves throughout much of His ministry among the local population.

For the most part, Jesus is interacting with local Galileans and Jews,
and His speeches are given to and heard by those of Jewish (Israelite)
heritage. Of course, throughout this ministry there is the presence of
Roman soldiers and officials, and on various annual occasions,
Jews from other parts of the Roman Empire (i.e., Greek speaking Jews,
from Alexandria and Antioch and Rome) would also visit Jerusalem
and interact with Jesus (John 7:35, 12:20).
Jesus also apparently deliberately stepped outside normal boundaries
and expectations, to minister to marginalized groups such as the Samaritans (John 4:5-43),
and Syro-Phoenicians (Mark 7:26).

In these interactions, Jesus did honour and praise loyalty, love
and commitment, charity and concern,
and showed great compassion to those suffering and in need.
Although apparently acknowledging the existence of racial and tribal
boundaries and issues, Jesus openly expanded those narrow concerns (John 4:9-10, 21, Mark 7:27-30)

One is hard-pressed to fit Jesus' open attitude into the box of racism and
tribal concerns. He clearly has in mind a ministry extending far beyond
the borders of Israel and the Jews, and this has in fact O.T. precedents. (e.g., Naaman the Syrian, 2 Kings 5:1 etc).

Its in this historical context that Jesus' remarks about a Priest and a Levite,
and his novel introduction of a Samaritan into His story must be placed.

Jesus is talking to Jews, attempting to force them to expand their horizons:
The Samaritan isn't presented as a racial stereotype,
as if Samaritans were notorious do-gooders,
and by the same reasoning, Jews are not being presented as careless jerks.

Jesus' point rather, is that by 'switching the roles' and appealing to
universal attitudes about right and wrong which the crowd already held,

one could see a Samaritan as a good guy, and Jews, by their exclusionary
practices as the 'bad guys'.

Jesus hasn't suggested here that all priests were cads, or all Levites were
too selfish to help another human being in need.

The very choice of a story about a dangerous situation, in which
a man was clearly overwhelmed and left for dead makes clear that
life and times in occupied Palestine was a dangerous scenario at best,
and that other individuals with possibly no more resources than the
victim of the bandits were equally vulnerable to assault.
Thus delaying to help the man by the road intrinsically required risk-taking,
and those passing by and/or hurrying off were motivated as much by
fear as they were by a desire to avoid involvement.

Taking the right path in a dangerous world required courage
as well
as compassion, and the rationalizations of those who turned away
were not without cause, sometimes unspoken.

Jesus' story needs a hero
, and has one,
and the command to "do likewise" is an inspiring demand for a hero.

Jesus acknowledged the difficult situation of His hearers in
an occupied and militarized state, and indeed asked for heros,
but He backed this request with His own personal example of courage.

We must recognize therefore that the REAL Jews in the story,
are in fact the followers, God-seekers, and listeners who hear Jesus.

These listeners know immediately that abandoning the robbery victim
was ethically a poor performance, in spite of difficult circumstance.

Those Jews were able to grasp Jesus' point that Samaritans are people too,
who will be judged by God on the same basis of good and evil and sin as Jews.
No Jew listening to Jesus' parable, and for whom it was primarily told,
would mistake it as a slur against Priests, Levites or Jews, or
some kind of special claim about Samaritans.

The clear intent of the parable, both for ancient Jewish listeners,
and for all people today, is this:

Take courage, and do the right thing. You already know what it is.

To walk away with some other non-sequitor such as racial profiling,
is to completely miss what Jesus really said to His own hearers,
and what Jesus wants to tell us today.
The Jews who listened to Jesus knew right from wrong,
and understood what Jesus' parable meant.

An often overlooked part of this parable as told by Jesus,
is that there IS indeed hope, both for the victim,
and for those who take those risks and put themselves in danger and
even take on real economic hardship for their 'neighbours'.

The Good Samaritan wasn't himself robbed.
The danger is not infinite or overwhelming.
There is room for the hero to succeed, and so Jesus' story
has indeed a happy ending.

The Samaritan was indeed out of pocket and perhaps put himself
in jeopardy as a debtor, even vulnerable to exploitation by the inn-keeper.
But what is that compared to saving a life?

Jesus further suggests not to be so attached to money,
as if God couldn't compensate or deal fairly with the hero of the story.

Jesus also makes many seemingly miraculous or exaggerated promises
about money.

But we suggest that whether or not you believe Jesus,
you can't turn him into an anti-Semite using passages like this.

What Jesus really suggests, is that any and every listener can be the hero in their own story.