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By Gregory Anderson Love
In her book Short Stories By Jesus, New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine looks at the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). Jesus’ Jewish audience would not have heard this parable as being about helping strangers, or loving others, because they already knew they were commanded to love the neighbor and the stranger. Despite later interpreters’ views, the story wasn’t about Pharisees under the guise of priests and Levites, nor was it about what Jesus does for us.
The story is about us. About human beings. The lawyer who posed the original query of Jesus, and the priest and the Levite, are not bad people (or bad Jews). They are just human, like us, afraid and selfish. Afraid of getting robbed or hurt, like this poor seemingly-dead man in the ditch; afraid of losing things dear to them.
The story is about the way of God, and an evocation by Jesus toward us. The Samaritan, whom all the Jewish hearers would have seen as their enemy, had a heart. He does a good thing for the lost man in the ditch, likely a Judean. The Samaritan does what God does.
Jesus then implies to his audience, “Go and do likewise.”
The hearers get the point, but they do not like it. They already do not like this story, the fact that the one who does the right thing is a Samaritan, and not the expected Israelite. But now Jesus is saying, “Do toward the Samaritans what this Samaritan did to the lost man, because that is how God acts.” The cycle of violence…between Samaritans and Judeans, between so many groups…can be broken if each is willing to acknowledge the humanity of the other, the humanity of one’s enemy, including her or his capacity to do good.
“Go and do likewise. Go and do as the Samaritan does. Go and do what God does.” A beckoning, a piece of wisdom from Jesus, says Levine.
And yet, that is precisely the problem. Levine assumes we have it in us to make these changes. To be different types of people. To stop the cycle of violence, and love our enemy.
And in this, she reveals the divide in Christianity, and amidst the world religions. The divide is between those who see the Good Samaritan story as a story about the untapped capacities for human compassion; and those who know that, whatever may be inside of them in terms of capacities, they cannot tap them. They do not have it in them.
They know that as humans we are not just sleeping, with capacities needing to be awakened.
We are dead. We lie in the tomb, unable to move.
And so, the divide within Christianity and amidst religions shows us this: Everything hinges on how we preach the resurrection. It is, finally, the center. Do we think we have it in us to return to God and the good under our own power?
Or are we lost, broken, going under, dead, with no hope…unless…unless God does something unexpected to change what is possible for humans in this falling world.
We do not have it in us: That is the message of the crucifixion of Jesus on Friday. But it is equally the message of the resurrection of Jesus on Sunday. We will not follow the good Samaritan’s lead.
And yet we will…on the other side of Easter, and Pentecost.
Gregory Anderson Love is a Presbyterian minister who teaches systematic theology at San Francisco Theological Seminary. His most recent book, on the meaning of Jesus’ death, is Love, Violence, and the Cross: How the Nonviolent God Saves Us through the Cross of Christ.