Notes on the Parable of the Good Samaritan, Part 2
Context—Mercy and Justice
When it comes to understanding a passage of scripture, there’s nothing more important than context. In real estate, it’s all about “Location! Location! Location!” In hermeneutics, it’s often about “Context! Context! Context!”
My hermeneutics professor in college pounded this into our brains by repeating over and over, “Context! Context! Context!” When I teach hermeneutics, I repeat his mantra to my students, “Context! Context! Context!”
What’s the context of the Parable of the Good Samaritan? The story begins with a question. A lawyer asked Jesus a question. (I could tell some lawyer jokes at this point, but I’ll refrain).
This particular lawyer stood up and started a conversation with Jesus. The text says he stood in order “to test” Jesus, which could also be translated as “to tempt Jesus.” In the gospels, there are occasions where lawyers are good people with good intentions. But in this case, the lawyer’s motive for asking the question was to entrap Jesus.
However, his opening question was still a good question. The question was, “Teacher (Rabbi), what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Lawyers typically asked rabbis this question. They also asked, “What is the greatest of all the laws?” They wanted to know the alignment of the rabbi—conservative or liberal. Once they discovered where the Rabbi stood in relation to the Law, they would then trap the Rabbi with a followup question.
Regardless of the lawyer’s intent for asking the question, Jesus considered the question and started a dialogue with the lawyer. He answered the question with a question. Jesus wasn’t a teacher who spat out answers without causing people to think. He answered questions with questions. He engaged people in conversation. Jesus asked, “How do you read what is written in the Law?”
The lawyer answered, “Love God and neighbor.” That’s a good answer. That’s a summary of everything in the law.
In essence Jesus says to the lawyer, “That’s a great answer; now make sure you knowledge and your actions mesh together.” Jesus says to the lawyer, “Do this and you will live.”
The lawyer wasn’t satisfied with Jesus’ answer. He hadn’t trapped Jesus yet. Instead, Jesus had challenged him to make sure his life matched his intellect. The lawyer felt the need to vindicate himself, so he asked another question in an attempt to ensnare Jesus. He asked, “Who is my neighbor?”
This question often trapped Rabbis. That’s because some Rabbis believed that anyone in need was your neighbor, but others taught that only people of the covenant community (i.e. other Jews) were their neighbors.
Sirach 12:4-5 states, “Give to the devout, but do not help the sinner.” In Qumran, the Essenes segregated themselves from the Jews of Jerusalem. The members of Qumran did not believe people outside their community were their neighbors. They were only obligated to help other Essenes. 1 Qumran Scroll 10:19-21 reads, “My anger I shall not remove from unjust men. … I shall have no mercy for all those who deviate from the path. I shall not comfort the oppressed until their party is perfect.” In other words, the Essenes only showed mercy to other Essenes.
Where did Jesus stand on this issue? Who does Jesus say is our neighbor?
Jesus answered the lawyer’s question with a parable—then parable of the good Samaritan. Jesus told the parable, then he asked the lawyer to answer his own question. Jesus asked him, “Who proved to be the neighbor in the story.” He didn’t give the lawyer the answer. He made the lawyer find the answer in the story.
The lawyer answered, “The one who showed mercy.”
That lawyer answered correctly. A good neighbor is anyone who shows mercy/justice to people in need. The OT term is Hesed. It means “love, mercy, justice.” A good neighbor engages in social justice.
The parable of the good Samaritan is a parable about social justice. The good neighbor is the person who demonstrates justice and helps people who are in need.
But it’s not enough just to recognize who is the good neighbor. Jesus adds, “Go and do likewise.” These four words challenge us to be a good Samaritan for others.
“Let justice roll.”