- Amos 7:7-17 & Psalm 82
- Colossians 1:1-14
- Luke 10:25-37
First Reading: Amos 7
This weekend we begin a series of several readings from the prophetic books of Amos and Hosea:
- Amos 7:7-17
- Amos 8:1-12
- Hosea 1:2-10
- Hosea 11:1-11
Amos and Hosea are important as the first of the famous “eighth century (BCE) prophets” whose public activity distinguished them from other prophets who worked under the auspices of the palace or the temple. Both men were active in the northern kingdom of Israel, although Amos seems to have come from the southern kingdom of Judah. While they stood out from their peers on the public payroll, they are our earliest examples of the “Hebrew prophets” whose words have been a sacred treasure for generations of Jews and Christians over more than two millennia. The exact relationship between the prophets and the books that now bear their names is unclear, but their prophetic activity resulted in the formation of texts that would later become part of the Bible. The books would, in time, give these prophets of ancient Israel a legacy that continues to our own time.
The passage from Amos this week represents the classic conflict between the “freelance” prophet and the religious officials employed in the state cult. The sacred violence encoded in this ancient story will rightly offend modern sensibilities, but the more profound challenge is to our self-serving assumption that theological training and ministerial status within the church or academy make us better placed to discern what the Spirit is saying to the churches. The story celebrates the dignity of the religious amateur; someone with no personal interest in the survival of the religious institutions, but an authentic relationship with the Sacred. Such “outsider insiders” are subversive threats to the temple and its clergy. As Amos, Jeremiah and Jesus all discovered; the religious professionals rarely welcome such a stranger in their midst. Go home! Lock him up. Crucify him!
The lectionary invites us to reflect on the contrast with the Good Samaritan story. The religious professionals come off badly in that tale as well, while the unwelcome stranger—with an entirely wrong religious pedigree—turns out to be a godsend.
Second Reading: Colossians
This weekend we also begin a series of several readings from the letter to the Colossians:
- Colossians 1:1-14
- Colossians 1:15-28
- Colossians 2:6-15, (16-19)
- Colossians 3:1-11
Colossians is one of the letters attributed to Paul but there continues to be significant debate about its authenticity. For an introduction to the letter, and to the critical issues involved in assessing its character, see the Colossians page in the Early Christian Writings web site.
The reading this week is from the opening address of the letter, which has been considerably elaborated to include reference to specific persons and events known to the recipients. As the final few lines of this week’s portion indicate, as also does the early Christian hymn that seems be cited in the portion that will be read next week, Colossians expresses a highly developed Christology. Here we see the theological ideas and the devotional language of the “Christ cult” cutting loose from its Jewish moorings and moving out into the deep ocean of contemporary speculative thought. This not only seems inconsistent with Paul’s usual way of describing Jesus, but also to contradict the portrayal of Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels. In Colossians, the “kingdom/empire of God” that Jesus proclaimed has become the “kingdom/empire of God’s Son” as the messenger becomes the message in the emerging Christology of the early Church. Whether we have some of Paul’s final thoughts on Jesus here, or (more likely) an echo of Paul’s thinking in the words of a later writer, we are some distance from either Jesus’ own self-awareness or the testimony of his earliest followers.
Gospel: The good Samaritan
The following notes come from the Jesus Database page for the parable of the Good Samaritan:
John Dominc Crossan
Crossan discussed this parable in some detail in his classic 1973 study, In Parables: The Challenge of the Historical Jesus. Crossan took issue with the previous consensus view that the Good Samaritan was an Exemplary Story, arguing instead that it be seen as a parable of reversal. He outlines the significance of the distinction as follows:
When Jesus gave the Sower parable, for example, his first hearers and his modern readers would probably all agree on one thing: Jesus was not interested in agrarian reform in eastern Galilee. Whatever he might have meant one is immediately certain that agriculture is not the point of the story. But when Jesus tells parables whose content is not some morally neutral activity such as sowing or harvesting but involves a morally significant action, it may or may not be at all so clear if he is giving examples (act/do not act like this) or telling parables.
It will be argued in this chapter that the parables of reversal have been turned in almost all cases into examples precisely because of this ambiguity. It will also be clear that Luke is especially fond of this type of transformed parable. (p. 55)
Crossan notes that the question about eternal life seems to have been derived from the Sayings Gospel Q, while the parable seems not to have originally circulated in combination with that question. In addition, the logical inconsistency in the meaning of “neighbor” in the dialogue with the lawyer and in the parable itself suggests that material from two different sources has been combined in Luke 10. As Crossan points out:
The parable of 10:30-35 would fit quite well with 10:28-29 showing that the neighbor is anyone in need; and it would also fit well with 10:36 indicating that the neighbor is the one who assists another’s need; but it cannot go with both 10:27,29 and 10:36 simultaneously. (p. 58)
According to Crossan, the “creative moment when 10:25-28 was added to 10:30-36” belongs in the pre-Lukan stage of the tradition. He notes the following formal structure in the unit inherited by Luke:
Question (lawyer) – 10:25 & 10:29
Counter-Question (Jesus) – 10:26 & 10:30-36
Answer (lawyer) – 10:27 & 10:37a
Counter-answer (Jesus) – 10:28 & 10:37b
Prior to the creation of a double controversy dialogue, the question of the original meaning of the story as parable remains open.
First of all, Crossan notes the long description of the actions of the Samaritan (10:34-35) in constrast to the very brief mention of the attack by the robbers and the inaction of the clerics:
… even in English translation, far more space (66 words) is devoted to this description than to any of the other elements in the story. Why? When the hearer is confronted with the rhetorical question in 10:36 he might negate the process by simply denying that any Samaritan would so act. So, before the question can be put, the hearer must see, feel, and hear the goodness of the Samaritan for himself. The function of 10:34-35 and its detailed description is so to involve the hearer in the activity that the objection is stifled at birth. He has just seen a Samaritan do such a good action in very exact detail. (p. 62)
The social significance of a Samaritan as hero is critically important to this story:
If Jesus wanted to teach love of neighbor in distress, it would have sufficed to use the standard folkloric threesome and talk of one person, a second person, and a third person. If he wanted to do this and add a jibe against the clerical circles in Jerusalem, it would have been quite enough to have mentioned priest, Levite, and let the third person be a Jewish lay-person. Most importantly, if he wanted to inculcate love of one’s enemies, it would have been radical enough to have a Jewish person stop and assist a wounded Samaritan. … the internal structure of the story and the historical setting of Jesus’ time agree that the literal point of the story challenges the hearer to put together two impossible and contradictory words for the same person: “Samaritan” (10:33) and “neighbor” (10:36). The whole thrust of the story demands that one say what cannot be said, what is a contradiction in terms: Good-Samaritan. On the lips of the historical Jesus the story demanded that the hearer respond by saying the contradictory, the impossible, the unsay-able. The point is not that one should help the neighbor in need. … But when good (clerics) and bad (Samaritan) become, respectively bad and good, a world is being challenged and we are faced with polar reversal. (p. 62f)
There remains the issue of how such a powerful parable of reversal could be transposed into an exemplary story. Crossan suggests the transition is easy to understand as the Gospel moved from its original Jewish context to Gentile communities where the sectarian tensions had no significance. The commendable charity of the Samaritan character in the literal meaning of the story offered sufficient insight for the non-Palestinian audience at the same time as its original sectarian edge was lost from view:
This distinction of two points [literal and metaphorical] is usually clear and noncontroversial in most of the parables of Jesus. Take, for example, the parable of the Wheat and the Darnel in Matt. 13:24-30. Imagine a hearer of Jesus nodding his head in agreement that here was a wise man and that he himself had just learned what to do if ever he found himself in such an agricultural crisis. Our judgment would be immediate: he has missed the point completely; or, more precisely, he has mistaken the literal point for the metaphorical point. … When we move from the “amoral” world of agriculture into parables which present “moral” actions, the danger of confusing the literal and metaphorical is greatly increased. If the protagonist is presented in a downright immoral action, confusion ensues, but at least the distinction between literal and metaphorical is usually maintained. The classic example of this confusion, of course, is the parable of the Unjust Steward in Luke 16:1-7. … But all of this becomes even more distressingly easy to do when the major protagonist of a parable is performing a morally good action on the literal level. In this case it is very simple to remain on this level and convert the parable into an example. This is exactly what has happened to the Good Samaritan in the course of its transmission. (p. 63f)
Crossan’s final assessment of the Good Samaritan is evocative:
The literal point confronted the hearers with the necessity of saying the impossible and having their world turned upside down and radically questioned in its presuppositions. The metaphorical point is that just so does the Kingdom of God break abruptly into human consciousness and demand the overturn of prior values, closed options, set judgments, and established conclusions. But the full force of the parabolic challenge is that the just so of the metaphorical level is not ontologically distinct from the the presence of the literal point. The hearer struggling with the contradictory dualism of Good/Samaritan is actually experiencing in and through this the inbreaking of the Kingdom. Not only does it happen like this, it happens in this. (p. 64)
James D.G. Dunn
Dunn (Jesus Remembered, 2003) observes:
… in telling the parable of the Good Samaritan Jesus must deliberately have intended to shock his hearers by presenting a Samaritan as hero, when Samaritans were usually regarded as half-breeds and apostates (Luke 10:30-37). At the very least, the parable suggests that Jesus’ concern to break down boundaries within Israel may have extended beyond the bounds of Israel, though we should beware of romanticizing Jesus’ conscious intentions at this point.
Robert W. Funk
Funk made the Good Samaritan a special focus of his work on parables and the poetics of biblical narrative in a series of studies: Parables and Presence (1982), The Poetics of Biblical Narrative (1988) and Honest to Jesus (1996).
Funk’s characteristic way of approaching the parable is captured in the following sentence:
Parable interpretation for Jesus is allowing oneself to be drawn into the story as the story line dictates, and then to face the choices the plot presents. (1996:171)
With that basic principle of interpretation in mind, Funk sketches the emotional responses of the hearers as they recall the dangerous situation of the road between Jerusalem and Jericho (see Wadi Qilt photos) and as they adopt positive or negative responses to the stereotypical representation of the callous clerics. Key to Funk’s interpretation of the parable is the suggestion that the hearers find themselves in the ditch with the victim, watching the priest and Levite pass by and then seeing the approach of a despised Samaritan:
Who in the audience wanted to let himself or herself be helped by a Samaritan? This is the primary challenge because the appearance of the Samaritan makes sense on no other basis. Had the victim in the ditch been a Samaritan and the hero an ordinary Judean, then the question would have been reversed: who in the Judean audience wanted to play the role of hero to a Samaritan victim? Further, the role of the victim is the inferior role, the role of the helper the superior one. Listeners would have found it more congenial to adopt the role of the helper as their own than to accept the status of victim. (1996:176f)
Funk offers this interpretation of the parable:
Once it is understood that the parable is a fantasy — a fantasy about God’s domain, an order of reality that feeds on but ultimately overturns the everyday world — it is but a short step to the view that the story is not about a stickup on Jericho boulevard at all. It is about a new order of things, a new reality that lies beyond, but just barely beyond, the everyday, the humdrum, the habituated. Then the parable is understood as an invitation to cross over. The ability to cross over will depend, of course, on both the tenacity with which one holds to the inherited order of reality, the received world, and on one’s willingness to cut the ties to comfortable tradition. The parable is pitted against the power of the proven. Making the transition under such circumstances does not come easily. But, then, Jesus never suggests that it is easy — only that it is obvious. (1996:177)
A little later Funk observes:
The parable, however, is not about Samaritan helpers. It is about victims. No one elects to be beaten, robbed, and left for dead, Yet in this story the way to get help is to be discovered helpless. The parable as a metaphor is permission for the listener to understand himself or herself in just that way. There were many in Jesus’ society who could identify with that possibility without strain. Others could not imagine themselves being helped by a Samaritan. That is where the difference lay: how his listeners understood themselves. In the parable only victims need apply for help. The meaning of the parable cannot be made more explicit than that. Listeners may respond to the parable as they wish. They may accept help or they may refuse it. The story is not tyrannical: it does not dictate. But it does set the terms. (1996:179f)
Finally, Funk attempts to transpose the parable into a proposition:
In any restatement we must remember to retain something of the metaphorical quality of the parable itself. That suggests two propositions:
1. In God’s domain helps comes only to those who have no right to expect it and cannot resist it when it is offered.
2. Help always comes from the quarter from which one does not and cannot expect it.
We might reduce these two statements to one:
In God’s domain help is perpetually a surprise. (1996:180)
The commentary in The Five Gospels notes:
As a metaphorical tale that redraws the map of both the social world and the sacred world, the Seminar regarded this parable as a classic example of the provocative speech of Jesus the parabler.
Lachs [Rabbinic Commentary on the New Testament, 282] notes that some earlier interpreters considered “Samaritan” to be a change introduced by Luke to make his parable more suitable to a Gentile audience. They prefer “Israelite” or even “sinner” (am ha-aretz). More recent parables research (see Crossan and Funk above, as well as Scott below) sees the cognitive dissonance introduced by the appearance of the heroic Samaritan as essential to the point of the parable as told by Jesus.
Lüdemann [Jesus, 332] reflects older German scholarship (Bultmann, Jeremias, et al) who understood this parable to be an Exemplary Story:
The example story certainly goes back to Jesus and illustrates love of enemy (cf. Matt. 5.44a). Jesus shows how a Samaritan who is hated by the Jews performs a loving service to a Jew whom he really should have hated. The story is so impressive because it is not a Jew who loves his enemy but the Samaritan, regarded as the enemy, who loves a Jew.
John P. Meier
In “The Historical Jesus and the Historical Samaritans: What can be Said?” [Biblica 81 (2000) 202-32] Meier opts for the authenticity of this parable:
Along with many critics, I consider it more likely that, while the Parable of the Good Samaritan shows the redactional style and theology of Luke in its final form and placement, it is not simply a creation of Luke but goes back to his special L tradition. The introductory dialogue between a lawyer and Jesus on the two commandments of love (Luke 10,25-29) seems to be Luke’s recycling of a tradition also found in Mark 12,28-34 || Matt 22,34-40. The exact nature of the source Luke is using (Mark? Q? L?) is debated by scholars. In any case, Luke’s need to refashion an older tradition to make it a suitable introduction to the Parable of the Good Samaritan and the fact that nevertheless the introduction does not perfectly fit what it is supposed to introduce probably indicate that the parable itself is an earlier tradition taken over by Luke and reworked for his larger theological and literary plan. Whether the parable goes back to the historical Jesus is more difficult to say, though Christian piety and sentiment, if not hard-nosed critical arguments, certainly favor the idea.
B. Brandon Scott
Brandon Scott’s most recent parables study [Re-Imagine the World] devotes a chapter to the Good Samaritan. Scott accepts that Luke has turned an older parable into an example story, and it is to the interpretation of the earlier parable that he devotes most of his discussion (pp. 55-64). While his approach to parable interpretation is very close to that of Crossan or Funk, Scott spends more time exploring some of the features of the parable: for example, the significance of the victim being left “half-dead” (Gk: hemithane):
If the priest thinks he is dealing with a corpse, he might calculate that he must avoid it, for otherwise he would suffer impurity. According [to] the command in Leviticus, a priest is not allowed to touch a corpse. But in the Mishnah and Talmud there are extended discussions on this verse, making finer and finer graduations all to the point that if the corpse is abandoned, that takes precedence over the Leviticus rule. Taking care of an abandoned corpse takes precedence even over studying the Torah. But then again, all these fine distinctions stem from learned discussions of the rabbis, so a priest, who follows the strict construction of the Torah, might set them aside as just liberal reductions of the Torah’s true meaning. If on the other hand, “half-dead” means that the man is close to the death, then the priest’s duty is clear. He must come to the man’s aid. (p. 59f)
In the end, Scott offers a similar interpretation of the parable to those given by his Jesus Seminar colleages, Crossan and Funk:
A hearer has three options.
“In real life this would never happen. It’s only a story, fiction.”
Such a person has forfeited the parable’s opportunity of envisioning life anew. Such people remain in the same old world in which they have always dwelt. This is almost always the response of the literal minded, who refuse the option of imagination.
A second option is to identify with the Samaritan.
For a hearer who wants to remains in the hero’s role, that is the only alternative. For some few in Jesus’ audience this may have been an option. But such people are already different and do not live by the normal values of the Palestinian world of the first century.
Finally, a hearer can identify with the man in the ditch.
If we want to stay in the parable and experience a new world, that is our only available choice. Having begun the parable in expectation of playing the role of the hero, one ends in the role of the victim, being taken care of by one’s mortal and moral enemy. The parable announces that the savior is a Samaritan — the hated one. (p. 62)
His final comment on the meaning of this parable is as follows:
Jesus’ parable … point of view is that of the victim, the one in need of help. It proposes a new world in which the wall between us and them no longer exists and even more that one of them can come to the aid of us. (p. 64)
Liturgies and Prayers
For liturgies and sermons each week, shaped by a progressive theology, check Rex Hunt’s web site
Other recommended sites include:
See David MacGregor’s Together to Celebrate site for recommendations from a variety of contemporary genre.