Context for 2 Chronicles 28: 8-15
The history of the people called Israel is pretty splintered and tortuous. For generations they were a loose conglomeration of twelve different tribes descending from Jacob the patriarch of Jacob’s Ladder fame. The great King David managed to pull the 12 tribes of Israel together during his reign and unite them into a more orderly. David’s son Solomon continued the rule. But after Solomon died, the United Monarchy split into two independent states. This is when the Samaritan people come into being. The tribes organized geographically – – The Samaritans in the north and the Tribes of Judah in the south – – and they became bitter enemies. Because most of our story comes down to us through the chroniclers of The Tribes of Judah, we get a pretty negative picture of the Samaritans – murderers, rapists, plunderers. In addition to the deep political rift, the Samaritans and Jews were deeply divided about which group had the true faith and which group were the heretics.
We enter the story through the vignette that Jim will read from 2 Chronicles.
CHILMARK COMMUNITY CHURCH
“BREAKING THE CYCLE”
2 Chronicles 28:8-15
July 12, 2015
A lawyer comes to Jesus and wants to know what he has to do to obtain eternal life. He questions Jesus in order to test him. The lawyer asks a question that has no answer. Jewish belief affirms that eternal life is a gift freely given by God – neither the lawyer nor anyone else has to figure out how to obtain it.
So, never one to give easy answers, Jesus answers the question with another question: “What is written in the law – what do you read there?” The very knowledgeable lawyer quotes a combination of verses from Deuteronomy and Leviticus on the love of God and the love of neighbor: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your strength and with all your mind;1 and your neighbor as yourself.2 – – This satisfies Jesus and he affirms the lawyer. Your answer is a good one – – fulfill these two commandments and you will indeed live” – – Jesus might have added that if you do just this much, you will live abundantly.
But the lawyer has an agenda – the verse says he wants to justify himself –he wants to look good in his own eyes. So he pushes Jesus a little further – ahhh – I must love my neighbor as myself – – but who IS my neighbor? Jesus answers with a story.
We are familiar with the narrative – a traveler walking along a notoriously dangerous road – gets beaten and robbed by armed and dangerous criminals and is left for dead at the side of the road. People walk by. There are dozens of interpretations about the motivations of the priest and the Levite and the reasons why they both pass by on the other side of the road. Over centuries of translation and interpretation, the parable has been overlaid with stereotypes – the most common one being that the priest had to stay ritually pure in order to perform his ceremonies in the temple and so could not risk contaminating himself if the man were dead. The Levite had to attend to his tasks involving the care of the temple precincts – and also could not risk contamination. Amy Jill Levine, in her book Short Stories By Jesus points out the flaw in these arguments that would excuse the priest and the Levite – -First, they were both headed down to Jericho away from the temple in Jerusalem. Maintaining ritual cleanliness was not an issue. They were headed away from the temple, not toward it. Second, Jewish law places the highest priority on the care of the dead.
Neither Jesus nor Luke gives the priest or the Levite any excuse for passing by. Indeed, there is no acceptable excuse. Their responsibility was to save a life, and they failed. Saving a life is so important that Jewish law mandates that it override every other concern – including keeping the Sabbath. If the man had, indeed, died, their responsibility was to bury the corpse. They failed here as well.3
Levine cites Martin Luther King Jr. as having the best explanation for why the priest and the Levite refused to help the man lying in the ditch. King preached this: I’m going to tell you what my imagination tells me. It’s possible these men were afraid….and so the first question the priest and the Levite asked was, ‘If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?’ But then the Samaritan came by, and he reversed the question: ‘If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?’ Whatever the motives of the priest and the Levite, King is correct. They, like the lawyer, thought only about themselves, not the man in the ditch.4
Jesus is a master story teller. He uses the familiar device of the formula of three. It’s exemplified in a joke or story that begins with “a minister, a priest, and a rabbi walk into a bar”…. If the joke starts out with “a minister, and a priest – – the third person in the trilogy is expected to be the rabbi. We are primed to hear that.
Jesus tells a story that includes a priest and Levite. In Israelite story telling the formula of three anticipates that the third party is always an Israelite – – so a story might begin with “a priest, a Levite and an Israelite walk into a bar”…. (That wouldn’t happen – but you get the point). People listening to the story would be primed to expect that if a story included a priest and a Levite, it would also include an Israelite.
Jesus’ listeners would have been jarred by the lack of compassion on the part of the priest and the Levite. They would have been expecting the third person to be an Israelite – an Israelite would be the one who stopped to help.
But, this is a parable – – and parables are quirky and designed to make us think.
Instead of an Israelite being the third person – – the one who stops to help is a Samaritan. As AJ Levine puts it: “In modern terms, this would be like going from Larry and Moe to Osama bin Laden.”5 Samaritans, age old enemies of the Jews were hated and feared and reviled.
There is a significant shift in the story as the Samaritan is introduced. Jesus’ words about the priest and the Levite are quite sparse. But a lot of attention is given to the Samaritan. “The robbers steal and wound, while the Samaritan tends with his own goods. The bandits leave the man half dead, while the Samaritan returns him to life. Whereas the priest and the Levite go out of their way to avoid the victim the Samaritan literally goes up to him and shows him compassion.
As we heard in the passage that Jim read from 2 Chronicles, the Samaritans are not the good guys. They are to be understood as the enemy – as the oppressor. They were not a benevolent people. “Jewish listeners hearing Jesus might balk at the idea of receiving aid from a Samaritan. They might have thought ‘I’d rather die than acknowledge that someone from that group saved me.’ ”
And yet – – it is the Samaritan who gets involved. What makes him different?
The parable tells us “But a Samaritan, while traveling, came near him; and when he saw him he was moved with pity. He went to him.
He was moved with pity and he went to him……..the phraseology is reminiscent of the way in which God speaks to Moses way back in the early chapters of Exodus when God says to Moses: “I have seen the misery of my people…I have heard their cry…I know their suffering and I have come down to deliver them out of Egypt…”6 God sees and hears and knows and acts to save God’s people. This is good news.
In 2 Chronicles we heard that terrible warfare had taken place. 200,000 wives and sons and daughters from the tribes of Judah –southern Israel – were taken by the Samaritans. To put that in perspective, that is about twice the summer population of Martha’s Vineyard at the height of the season. The age old trilogy of raping, pillaging and plundering of the Southern tribes of Judah had happened.
The Samaritan military carried back their human and material booty to the northern regions of Samaria. Without warning, the prophet, Oded jumps into the post battle celebration. Speaking in the name of God he says to the Samaritan army, ”yeah – -God was angry with the tribes of Judah –that’s why you were able to win the battle against them – – but you have really over done it – -you slaughtered them with such rage that it reached the heavens – – now it is YOU who are guilty of sinning against God. Now listen to me! Send back the prisoners you have taken.”
The leaders of Samaria don’t want to be guilty before God – they know what they have done was wrong. Not only do they instruct the soldiers to give up their prisoners – they see to it that the prisoners are clothed, and fed, that they have sandals for their feet, that they are soothed with healing balm for their wounds. The weakest ones are placed on donkeys and the soldiers escort them all back home to their fellow Israelites in Jericho. The behavior of the earlier Samaritans
sets the story line for the parable that Jesus spoke. The similarities are remarkable given that the stories are recorded more than 800 years apart in time.
Parables are designed to jar us into a new way of seeing things. Jesus’s short story invites us to examine our stereotypes – – the ways in which we characterize whole groups of people as though everyone in a particular group is the same as every other one. The world is rife with stereotyping. White people stereotype people of color. Northerners stereotype southerners. Protestants stereotype Roman Catholics. Christians stereotype Jews. Jews stereotype Europeans . . The stereotypes are most often negative and the human connection is severely damaged.
The parable was jarring for Jesus’ listeners. For them, there was no such thing as a good Samaritan. So – why did Jesus tell this story? Is it possible that he wanted his followers to broaden their notion of what humanity is about? Was he calling them and us to see the humanity of the people we stereotype and fear?
It is a very current issue for as we continue confront the tragedies that have consumed the headlines over the last year as this country continues to struggle with legacy of racism that tests us on a daily basis.
At the end of the parable, Jesus returns to the lawyer this way: ”Which of the three men was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”
In parable of the Good Samaritan Jesus confronts us with a paradox that stretches us almost to the breaking point. He makes the treacherous enemy the instrument of healing and reconciliation. Indeed, the hated and reviled Samaritan fulfills the attributes of a loving and compassionate and healing God. It happens in 2 Chronicles – -it happens in Luke – – and both stories are a recapitulation of God’s energetic declaration of love for God’s people as the birth pangs of liberation from Egypt begin.
The combined stories have been told for over three thousand years. Stories witnessing to the passionate desire of God to break the cycle of violence and bondage, hatred and revenge that has afflicted God’s people from the beginning creation.
At the end of the parable, Jesus turns to us, standing in the lawyer’s shoes and asks “Who was the neighbor to this man?” With the lawyer, we get it. We know it’s “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus says very clearly “Go and do likewise.” Sounds like marching orders to me. AMEN
1 Deuteronomy 6:5
2 Leviticus 19:18
3 SHORT STORIES BY JESUS: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi by Amy Jill Levine, HarperOne, NY, 2014. p.94
4 MLK Jr. cited by A.J. Levine p.94
5 Levine p.95
6 Exodus 3:7,8