Parables

“A parable,” writes Frederick  Buechner, “is a small story with a large point.” We love them, don’t we?-these  wonderful stories Jesus tells. Sermons should have windows and handles-windows  that let us view the inside of the heart of God, and handles so that we can take  home what we’ve learned after the sermon is over. Parables are like that: they  have handles because they are simple stories that are unforgettable. And they  are windows because they open to us a view of God that we may never have seen  before.

As a matter of fact, the  parables are especially good at this window business because they are so  complicated in their simplicity. Just when we think we know what the story is  about, something else pops out and we get yet another view. There are three  books on parables by an Episcopal priest named Robert Farrar Capon. His  interpretations are sometimes unorthodox, and have to be read with some care;  but he has quite a knack for turning familiar parables on their heads and  opening some wonderful new aspect of God’s grace.

Beyond good  works

He does that quite  dramatically with the parable of the Good Samaritan. We generally read it as a  wonderful story of a Samaritan whose mercy crosses social and ethnic and  religious boundaries and moves him to give help to a man in dire need. When  Jesus says, “Go and do likewise,” we are inspired to go out and help someone.  The trouble with that approach, says Capon, is that it places all its emphasis  on doing good deeds-as if by acting with kindness and mercy, we could earn God’s  favor. Surely we Lutherans know that this isn’t the New Testament approach! It  just doesn’t work that way! There must be something else  here.

Capon suggests that we ask  the question, “Where in this parable do we find Jesus?” Our first impulse is to  say, “Jesus is the Good Samaritan!” And that interpretation has a long and  respectable history. Just as the Samaritan rescues this poor man from his  predicament, so Jesus rescues us from our bondage to sin and death. Yet if Jesus  is the Samaritan, the story doesn’t do much to address the man’s question of  “what must I do to inherit eternal life.”

Capon suggests that we see  Jesus, not as the Samaritan, but as the man who fell among thieves. Let’s follow  his thinking for a moment, and see what view of God this might open to  us.

The journey of  Christ

First, the setting of the  parable is instructive. It takes place on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho-a  road marked by a very steep descent. Does this suggest the journey of Christ?-a  journey that took him from God’s right hand, down to earth, down to suffering,  to death, to hell?

And what happened to this man  on his journey? He fell among thieves. Does that not sound like Jesus, crucified  between two-what were they? Thieves? These thieves, it  says, stripped him and beat him. Again, is that not what happened to Jesus? And  they left him half dead-as good as dead, we might say-again, like Christ on the  cross.

The parallel can be extended  to the response of the priest and the Levite. They represent, however you cut  it, the religious establishment of the day. When Jesus was crucified, they stood  by and did nothing-very much like these two who pass by on the other side. In  fact, the church has often quoted from Lamentations in its Good Friday liturgy:  “Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by?” Those same words could be addressed  to this priest and this Levite.

Well, the similarities are  striking, aren’t they? There’s an internet site which offers a variety of  artistic representations of each week’s gospel lesson. One can scroll through  several pictures of the Good Samaritan story, from medieval to contemporary  artists. It is striking how often the figure of the man who fell among thieves  looks a lot like Jesus. One could imagine the same figure being used to depict  the Lord, being lovingly taken down from the cross.

What does this  mean?

So what does all that mean?  If this is Jesus who is beaten, robbed, left for dead, perhaps it instructs us,  first of all, how completely Jesus himself entered into this sinful world, and  how fully he identifies with us. Are there times in your life when you feel  beaten down, rejected, half dead? Perhaps the parable helps us know that Jesus  has been there, too, and so he knows what it is to feel that way. Of course that  is something we understand from the passion and death of Christ; but it comes  home in a new way to think of him as that man lying on the road. The suffering  of Christ on the cross is an awesome thing, but it is a kind of suffering I  don’t expect ever to face except in a symbolic way. But being attacked and  beaten by thieves-in our world, that doesn’t take so much imagination.. And if I  can see Jesus there, then I can know, beyond any question, that he understands  my fears and my weakness and my vulnerability. I can really get it that he is  with me in my troubles.

But there is more to this  still. We must ask another question: If Jesus is the man who fell among thieves,  then who is the Samaritan? Perhaps on the surface he is not so different from  what we’ve usually said about him. He is a Samaritan, an outcast, a  good-for-nothing half-breed in the eyes of respectable Jewish opinion of the  day. And he is the one who shows mercy, and proves himself to be a  neighbor.

But what is different about  our approach to this parable is that it isn’t focused just on the idea of being  good or merciful. The Samaritan’s action represents entering into the suffering  and death of Jesus Christ. Let me say that again: The Samaritan is praised, not  simply because he shows mercy, but because he enters into the suffering and  death of Jesus Christ. In a sense, by caring for this stranger, he is  sacrificing himself-his time, his money, his effort-for the sake of another. He  is taking up his own cross. He is losing his life for Christ’s  sake.

And as we think about this  approach, perhaps we call to mind another parable of Jesus, the Parable of the  Last Judgment. In that story Jesus tells us that “inasmuch as you have done it  unto the least of these . . . you have done it unto me.” In other words, when  you have fed the hungry, clothed the naked, visited the prisoner, and so forth,  you have been ministering in very truth to Jesus himself. Is that not just  exactly what this Samaritan has done? He has shown love and mercy to a stranger,  a desperate man ignored by the good people passing by-but that stranger has  turned out to be Jesus himself.

Take up your  cross-serve the neighbor

I don’t think I can ever hear  that parable in quite the same way again. If we have read it in this way, it is  so much more than an admonition to good works. Of course that is probably what  the lawyer wanted-he was seeking, Luke tips us off, to justify himself! What  that means is that he was looking for the secret, the key to making himself  right with God. He wants to know, specifically, what he must do! We aren’t told how he  reacted to this story; maybe he heard it in the traditional way, and maybe he  went home and starting tallying up his good deeds. But if he did, then he missed  the point. When Jesus says, “Go, and do likewise,” he means something so much  deeper than that. He means, as he has said in other places, “Take up your cross!  Follow me! Join me in suffering and in dying!” He means, “Feed the hungry, help  the helpless, love the loveless, not because that earns you points but because  that hungry and helpless and loveless man or woman or child is me. When you minister to  them, you minister to me. When you love them,  you love me.

“A parable is a small story  with a large point.” This parable’s small story is familiar to us. But its large  point is so much larger than we might at first think. It is not just about being  a neighbor (though it certain is about that); but it is  about entering into the life and suffering love and mercy of Jesus Christ in  ways that are difficult, troubling, inconvenient-ways that may lead us to a  cross. It is about giving up ourselves for Jesus’ sake. Yet if we are serious  about following Jesus, this Samaritan leads us right to his side. For that is he  on that road, that broken, beaten, despised stranger-that is  Jesus.

The  Rev. Richard O. Johnson Peace Lutheran Church Grass Valley, CA, USA Works cited: Buechner, Frederick. Wishful  Thinking: A Theological ABC. New York: Harper & Row,  1973.
Capon, Robert Farrar. The Parables  of Grace. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans,  1988.

A Message from brought to you  by Grace Lutheran Church, Web and Park Street, Mountain View, Arkansas.  For prayer or more information, contact  Pastor Kenneth Taglauer by email: [email protected].  A Pass it On Project

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *