Jesus is described as the “wisdom of God” in 1 Corinthians 1:24. What most people don’t realize, however, is that Jesus’ teaching had strong links with the Old Testament’s wisdom tradition. This post highlights his use of the parable—in this instance, the Parable of the Good Samaritan—as a teaching tool. It’s a method that Jesus “learned” from the wisdom tradition, and it entertains even as it teaches. Here’s the text:
Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,’ he said, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ He said to him, ‘What is written in the law? What do you read there?’ He answered, ‘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; and your neighbor as yourself.’ And he said to him, ‘You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.’
But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’ Jesus replied, ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while travelling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.”
Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’ (Luke 10:25-37, NRSV; emphasis mine)
Tell It Slant
One of my favorite Emily Dickinson poems begins: Tell all the truth but tell it slant—Success in Circuit lies.
Jesus would have loved Emily Dickinson. I can’t prove this, of course, but Jesus did have a penchant for parables, and parables are all about “telling it slant.”
Take the above parable of the Good Samaritan. Jesus pulled that parable out of his pocket as a teaching tool. His “student” that day was the smartest kid in the class—a lawyer, who had asked, “Teacher…what must I do to inherit eternal life?” When Jesus turned the question around and asked, “What is written in the law?” the student gave an A+ answer: “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; and your neighbor as yourself.”
Great, says the Teacher. Give that man a gold star. Go to the head of the class.
It’s easy to imagine the student feeling pretty good about himself at this point. But then the Teacher adds, “Do this, and you will live.”
One has to wonder whether our prize student had any doubts about his ability to love God with all his heart, soul, strength, and mind. (Most of us would!) But he definitely starts looking for a loophole with regard to loving his neighbor. “Who is my neighbor?” he asks. It’s as if he can imagine living up to this part, but only if the right kind of people are on the list.
This is the point at which Jesus decides to “tell it slant.” It’s a technique that recognizes how difficult it is for us to see what’s right in front of us. And it’s perfect for getting around our defenses. Our guard comes down, after all, as soon as we start losing ourselves in the story. Success in circuit lies.
You probably know the story well. The “good Samaritan” goes out of his way to help an injured man on the side of the road. All the usual suspects, on the other hand, scurry by on the other side. It’s a story that defies all the stereotypes. The hated Samaritan is clearly the good neighbor, while the respectable priest and Levite can’t be bothered. By the time Jesus gets to the end of the story, our star student realizes there is only one right answer to Jesus’ question about which of the three is “a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers.” In that moment, he realizes that he has just lost his loophole. His list of “neighbors” just got a lot longer.
If we have the courage to translate this parable for today, our list of neighbors will get a lot longer, too.
That’s exactly what Bishop Michael Curry suggested in a recent interview with Krista Tippett in her radio program, On Being. What if we were to reimagine this parable as the “Good Republican” with the Democrat lying hurt on the side of the road? Or the “Good Democrat” with the Republican lying hurt? For that matter, what would the parable feel like if we imagined it with the Black Lives Matter person and a police officer in both roles? Then he says:
That’s what love of neighbor looks like. And I wonder if Jesus was saying: life is meant to be lived…as a Good Samaritan. And if that begins to happen, imagine what a different society we’d have. Imagine what our political debates would be like. Imagine: we’d have some civil discourse. We’d disagree, but we’d pick each other up…and pour oil on our wounds, and care for each other, and figure out, “How we gonna do this together?” We’ve got to live together!
Did you notice what happened? The Bishop told all the truth, but he told it slant. He snuck up on us with his updated version of the parable. All of a sudden, we star students aren’t so smug anymore. All of a sudden, we’ve lost our loophole. All of a sudden, our list of neighbors just got a lot longer.
Mercy isn’t much in evidence these days. But maybe now that we’ve been caught off guard by the parable of the Good Republican/Democrat, we’ll find some we can spare.
Ponder and Pray
Jesus, the wisdom of God, invites us to reimagine the parable of the Good Samaritan for our own situations today. How does this parable “sneak up on you” right now? Who is your neighbor? As we ponder these questions, may we also pray together:
“Merciful God, help us to be better neighbors—even to those with whom we disagree. Tell us the truth in whatever ways will get through to us.”
Reverend Carol M. Bechtel, Ph.D. is Professor of Old Testament at Western Theological Seminary (Holland, MI). She has written multiple books, commentaries, and bible studies. She lives with her husband, Tom Mullens, and enjoys cooking, gardening, singing, and playing the Celtic harp.
Mount Olivet Conference & Retreat Center is excited to host Reverend Carol M. Bechtel this Thursday night for our next “Living Well, Leading Well” virtual workshop: Cultivating Wisdom. Every day brings a new flood of information. It’s difficult to take it all in, much less to discern what bits are trustworthy, significant, and true. Perhaps what’s missing is not information so much as wisdom. In this workshop, attendees will explore what the Bible’s wisdom tradition has to offer Christians as we face the peculiar challenges of life today. Learn more and register here.