RVL tells the story of being in class in a Jewish university. The rabbi taught the Parable of the Good Samaritan, as taught by Rabbi Yeshua (Hebrew for “Jesus”), and he declared this the greatest parable ever told! The Jewish students who heard the parable, many of whom had just heard it for the first time, were astonished and amazed at the teaching.
The rabbi asked RVL to explain its greatness to the class, as RVL is a disciple of Rabbi Yeshua. But RVL did not see the point the rabbi wanted to make. You see, RVL had never heard this story from the Old Testament —
(2 Chr 28:8-15) The Israelites took captive from their kinsmen two hundred thousand wives, sons and daughters. They also took a great deal of plunder, which they carried back to Samaria. 9 But a prophet of the LORD named Oded was there, and he went out to meet the army when it returned to Samaria. He said to them, “Because the LORD, the God of your fathers, was angry with Judah, he gave them into your hand. But you have slaughtered them in a rage that reaches to heaven. 10 And now you intend to make the men and women of Judah and Jerusalem your slaves. But aren’t you also guilty of sins against the LORD your God? 11 Now listen to me! Send back your fellow countrymen you have taken as prisoners, for the Lord’s fierce anger rests on you.”
12 Then some of the leaders in Ephraim — Azariah son of Jehohanan, Berekiah son of Meshillemoth, Jehizkiah son of Shallum, and Amasa son of Hadlai — confronted those who were arriving from the war. 13 “You must not bring those prisoners here,” they said, “or we will be guilty before the LORD. Do you intend to add to our sin and guilt? For our guilt is already great, and his fierce anger rests on Israel.”
14 So the soldiers gave up the prisoners and plunder in the presence of the officials and all the assembly. 15 The men designated by name took the prisoners, and from the plunder they clothed all who were naked. They provided them with clothes and sandals, food and drink, and healing balm. All those who were weak they put on donkeys. So they took them back to their fellow countrymen at Jericho, the City of Palms, and returned to Samaria.
Ponder the parallels. In the parable, the Jew who was robbed by bandits was on the road to Jericho. He had been left beaten, naked, and half-dead — much as the Judeans had been left by the Samaritans of the Old Testament.
In the parable, the Samaritan provided the beaten man food and drink, dressed his wounds, and carried him on a donkey. In the Old Testament story, the Samaritans gave their prisoners food and drink, dressed their wounds, and carried them out on donkeys.
I’ve just checked the six commentaries on Luke on my shelves, and not a one mentions the parallel, even as an interesting coincidence. But there are far too many parallels for this to be a coincidence. What is Jesus’ point in making this comparison? Surely God means for us to think about it.
Well, as cool as this point is, RVL did not offer an explanation in his lecture — at least not as revealed in my notes or memory. But maybe we can figure this out.
We begin by pondering the story from 2 Chron 28. At that time, Samaria was the capital of the Northern Kingdom, known as Israel, in contrast to the Southern Kingdom, known as Judea, with Jerusalem as its capital. Israel was deep into idolatry, so deep that God was about to let the Assyrians carry the Israelites in the Northern Kingdom into captivity. Ephraim was a large tribe within Israel, and sometimes the two kingdoms are referred to as “Judah” and “Ephraim” — after their dominant tribes.
Israel waged war against Judah, threatening to destroy Judea and enslave its people. Of course, God couldn’t let this happen. After all, the Messiah was to come from the tribe of Judah, to sit on the throne of David.
Remarkably, despite this great victory and the deep sins of the Northern Kingdom, the word of God’s prophet was enough to bring repentance. Israel returned their plunder and prisoners, and Judah was not incorporated into idolatrous Israel.
Consider the parallels —
- The soldiers of the idolatrous Northern Kingdom, which had conquered Judea = the Good Samaritan
- Judean prisoners = the beaten and robbed traveler
- God’s prophet Oded and the leaders of Ephraim = the conscience of the Good Samaritan
In the parable, the Levite and the priest walked by “on the other side,” likely to avoid the risk of becoming unclean due to touching a corpse. Under the law, a priest or Levite could not perform his duties if unclean. Indeed, they couldn’t enter the temple if unclean. Therefore, the rabbis had concluded that they should not touch anyone near death, for fear that the sick man might die while being touched.
Therefore, the priests and Levite considered it more important to serve God in the temple service than to serve a fellow Jew who was near death. But a Samaritan had learned the lesson God taught in 2 Chron 28. He knew that God wants his people cared for — loving them so much that he sends prophets to insist that their wounds be bound and that they be fed and clothed and returned to Jericho on a donkey. To do otherwise would be to bring “the Lord’s fierce anger” down upon him.
The Samaritan had read the scriptures and knew the heart of God. The priest and Levite had read the scriptures, too, but they missed the most important part. They missed the fact that they could miss a rotation in the temple but they couldn’t ignore the needs of their “fellow countrymen” and not be “guilty before the Lord.”
You see, Jesus says, even the Samaritans, as evil as they had been and as much as you look down on them today … even the Samaritans understand who their neighbors are and what it means to love them. God told them.
And yet, Jesus implies, the Jews, for all their desire to honor God through keeping all the rules exactly right, have missed the most important rules: “Love the Lord God with all your heart and all your mind and strength” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.” How could you truly obey those commands and not act at least as well as the Samaritans acted in 2 Chron 28?
Church of Christ application
The priest and the Levite doubtlessly felt justified in walking by on the other side. They didn’t lack compassion. They gave generously to the temple treasury to support the poor! But God had commanded them to touch no unclean thing, and as leaders in the worship of God, they had to be especially scrupulous to take God’s commands with the utmost seriousness. Remember Nadab and Abihu! Remember Uzzah! God wants his worship handled exactly right.
But Jesus accuses them of overlooking the very commands essential to their salvation. Remember: Jesus taught the parable in response to the question, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus wasn’t just accusing them of bad exegesis. He was warning them against the Judgment that is to come.
In the 20th Century Churches of Christ, we split over how to support orphans homes. Some even taught that it’s sin to use church funds to care for non-Christians, even the unbaptized orphaned children of Christians. (It’s entirely true.) Even today, some teach that we shouldn’t care for the poor because we’ll always have the poor with us.
When Hurricane Katrina hit near my hometown, thousands of evacuees landed in Tuscaloosa, and the churches in town banded together to find shelter and food for those who’d lost everything. Except the Churches of Christ. They (my congregation excepted) refused to work with other churches in town. They did in fact provide relief to people on the coast — if they were members of the Church of Christ.
The Good Samaritan loved his neighbor — and so would inherit eternal life — because he cared for someone different from him. The Jew and the Samaritan had similar but different religions. The Samaritan worshipped God on Mt Gerizim, not in Jerusalem. He denied the inspiration of all the Old Testament other than the books of the Law. But he worshiped God and he was a good neighbor, and so he was justified, in contrast to the Jews who had the right scriptures, the right place to worship, and all the right rules. They just didn’t have the right heart.
And because they had a wrong heart, they read the scriptures incorrectly. Exegesis — understanding the text of the very words of God — begins with having hearts that love God and your neighbors. If you don’t have those laws written on your hearts, you’ll get the scriptures wrong. Indeed, you’ll have no trouble finding proof texts for all kinds of ridiculous things — even finding permission to walk by on the other side to keep yourself pure.