“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