More on the Good Samaritan: the humiliation of Israel’s shepherds

I argued last time that when read with the story of the prophet Oded in view (2 Chronicles 28), the parable of the Good Samaritan constitutes an indictment against Israel’s religious establishment for failing to protect vulnerable members of the covenant community. According to Jesus, the priest, scribe, lawyer, and Pharisee have failed to love their Jewish neighbors for whom they are responsible, as Torah stipulates (Leviticus 19:18-19, cf. Jeremiah 34:17). In so much as they are worthless shepherds of Israel’s flock then, these Jewish officials are likened to the priest and Levite who leave their congregant half dead on the side of road. So much like Ezekiel’s oracles against Israel’s shepherds in his own day, the parable of the Good Samaritan represents in my view Jesus’ repudiation of Israel’s tenants for their contemptuous treatment of God’s people:

Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd; and scattered, they became food for all the wild animals. My sheep were scattered, they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill; my sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with no one to search or seek for them. (Ezekiel 34:2-6, cf. Micah 3)

Yet despite this crisis of leadership, Jesus portrays a hated and Torah-deficient Samaritan stepping into the righteousness vacuum. The Samaritan alone among the parabolic cast of characters “loves his neighbor as himself,” binding up his broken kinsman. In so doing he fulfills the law of brotherly love and puts to shame Israel’s supposedly Torah-observant religious elite to whom the children of Israel have been entrusted.

With the parable complete, Jesus invites his interlocutor, the lawyer, to emulate the wayward yet merciful Samaritan in his dealings with Israel’s lost sheep. While ultimately the lawyer’s question Who is my neighbor? is left unanswered, he is directed to treat his neighbor as did the Samaritan and not as did the recalcitrant religious authorities. For Jesus the pertinent point lies not in who the lawyer’s neighbor is, but in how the lawyer and his ilk have failed the weakest of their constituents. This failure runs so deep that even a depraved Samaritan bests Israel’s caretakers. Jesus has thus made his point clear: Jerusalem’s current leadership is morally bankrupt, put to shame by those who are ignorant of God’s Law.

Two more points

This is admittedly an unconventional reading of the parable. The idea that Jesus challenges the lawyer to love all people as his neighbor, even a Samaritan, has long gone unchallenged. So in support of this interpretation I want to propose two other points unrelated to the Oded subtext.

The parable’s context

The major theme of the immediately preceding episode is Israel’s faithlessness and subsequent shame (Luke 10:13-24). On the one hand, the Jewish towns to which Jesus sends his apostles repudiate their Messiah. On the other hand, Jesus claims that Pagan towns like Tyre and Sidon would have received Jesus’ disciples with gratitude had they been given the opportunity (10:13-16). Israel is thus put to shame by pagans.

Likewise, in response to the missionary work of his apostles, Jesus rejoices in God’s decision to disclose the message of the kingdom to “infants,” but to hide it from the “wise and intelligent” (10:21-24). Such a statement makes sense in the context of Jesus’ ministry to Israel: Jesus is generally rejected by Israel’s educated class (Pharisees, scribes, priests, lawyers) and accepted by the uneducated and Torah-deficient (sinners, prostitutes, tax-collectors, the sick). Israel’s religious elite are thus put to shame by the Jewish sinners coming to repentance in Jesus (cf. Luke 15).

This then is the context into which the lawyer enters. Jesus has just preached on the humiliation born to Israel and her shepherds, first by pagans and then by sinners. The parable of a Samaritan who puts a priest and a Levite to shame carries this theme to its completion. It would not be the last time in Luke’s Gospel that a Samaritan put Jews to shame (Luke 17:11-19).

a-rich-man-and-lazarus-1873
A rich man and Lazarus by Vasily Surikov

Parallel parables

Among the Lukan parables we find one parable whose message is strikingly similar to the message I believe is embedded in the story of the merciful Samaritan: the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. The parable comes on the heels of a tirade against the Pharisees as “lovers of money” (Luke 16:14). According to the parable, a representative of these Pharisees, a rich Jew, is condemned for his failure to care for a destitute Jew at his gate. Both are sons of Abraham, brothers in the covenant family, bound by Moses’ Law to love one another. Yet the rich man refuses to help his poor brother and thus refuses to “listen to Moses and the prophets” (16:31).

This time, unfortunately, no Samaritan or sinner appears to obey Moses and relieve Lazarus of his agony in life. Still, the rhetorical force of the Rich Man and Lazarus and the Good Samaritan are the same: Israel’s religious elites stand condemned under the Law in so much as they have refused to love their defenseless Jewish neighbors (cf. Luke 15:25-32). The shepherds of Israel have hoarded the blessings meant for all of God’s people and as a result Israel’s sheep are scattered: some are left to live below subsistence, some are defrauded and torn from their land, some are sick and refused compassion, some are alienated from social and religious communion, some are denied instruction, forgiveness, and mediation. In short, the holiness code of neighborliness has been trampled on and the year of Jubilee has gone uncelebrated (Leviticus 19 & 25). Now Israel’s tenants stand on the edge of the abyss. 

What this means for our present inquiry is that Jesus did in fact preach against Israel’s tenants for their treatment of Israel’s marginalized—and in parabolic fashion no less. Jesus framed such failure to care for one’s own in terms of disobedience to the Law of Moses.

Conclusions

The parable of the Good Samaritan thus combines two Lukan themes: 1) the humiliation of Israel’s elite brought about by outsiders, and 2) the failure of Israel’s elite to faithfully defend those for whom they have been entrusted. By means of the parable Jesus both accuses the stewards of the Law of lawlessness, and shames them as less Torah-obedient than a Samaritan. In this way, both parables, the Good Samaritan and the Rich Man and Lazarus, fit within Jesus’ central Israel-focused mission: to call Israel’s leaders to repentance before the covenant curses befall the nation.

3 thoughts on “More on the Good Samaritan: the humiliation of Israel’s shepherds

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