The Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan. These are two of Jesus’s most famous parables. They are also both only found in Luke’s Gospel. How does the parable of the Prodigal Son reveal the Kingdom of God to us today? Is the parable of the Good Samaritan just a moral teaching about being kind to strangers?
Throughout the Gospel of Luke, Jesus tells parables highlighting the unexpected inclusion of ‘outsiders’ in the community of God’s people. The characters in these parables instruct us to come near to and ultimately to see those others around us whom we might normally deem unworthy or in opposition to us.
How (Not) To Understand a Parable
One of the questions we received in a YouTube comment this week asked about God’s instruction to the prophet Isaiah to warn his people, ‘Keep listening, but do not comprehend, keep looking, but do not understand’ (Isaiah 6:9). Is God intentionally making himself unclear? What is going on?
Whatever is going on seems to be an important theme picked up by Jesus when he explains his own use of parables:
‘To you it has been given to know the secrets of the Kingdom of God; but for others they are in parables, so that seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand’ (Luke 8:10).
Perhaps this dynamic has something to do with the judgement against spiritual neglect that results from arrogance and hard-heartedness. What Jesus also makes clear, and what Luke emphasises, is the surprising theme of ‘divine reversal’. That is, God upending errant human expectations and fulfilling his purposes for a new creation and new community in which he would dwell with his people. Who is it that draws near to Jesus as he shares the secrets of the Kingdom over a meal? Who does he include in his closest circle of friends? Over and over, it is the lowest of the low: the tax collectors; the sinners; those who today might be called ‘outsiders’ or ‘foreigners’.Who does he include in his closest circle of friends? Over and over, it is the lowest of the low. Click To Tweet
Two of the most well-known parables, the so-called Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son, appear only in Luke’s Gospel. These stories are so popular that their titular characters have become phrases in their own right. ‘Good Samaritan’ is a common way of describing a stranger who does a random act of kindness. A ‘Prodigal’ characterises the wayward rebel who discovers the mercy of God.
But Luke has more than mere moral character development in mind. It seems Luke wants his hearers to inhabit the surprise reversal of God’s Good News: the humble and meek will be exalted, while the arrogant and the oppressors will be brought low. Those who know deep trouble and distress will be met with God’s mercy and comfort.
What Is A Good Samaritan?
If our takeaway from the parable of the Good Samaritan is that he was ‘good’ because he was kind to a stranger, this really isn’t much of a surprise—not now, nor in the ancient world. We can observe strangers doing nice things for others fairly often. You see this when someone stops on the side of the road to help change a tire, or every time someone drops money into a donation jar.
The parable of the Good Samaritan is not about random acts of kindness—this parable, surprisingly, centres ‘enemy-love’ in the form of gracious acts of mercy. This mercy breaks down ‘us’ versus ‘them’ barriers, and dissolves insider/outsider boundaries. This story opens wide themes of belonging in God’s Kingdom, and how acts of mercy and grace for the ‘other’—even our enemy—fulfils the command to love God and our neighbour as ourselves.
This parable further invites us to interrogate our own bias and beliefs by asking, ‘What does it mean to be a good neighbour? How? And to whom?’ Many churches talk a big game about loving our neighbour. Here, Luke reminds us that the ‘other’, the Samaritan, might just be the one actually living out that divine command.
A colleague helpfully pointed out to me that often the Samaritans were treated unfairly and that though the man had some right to keep on walking, he demonstrated compassion nonetheless. I think my colleague is right here: sometimes our assumptions about the ‘other’ are correct, and sometimes we cannot and should not ignore our intuitions. For example, it is not always possible or advisable to overlook or ignore the complex and bloodied histories that result in relational or societal injustice. We must avoid uncritically applying the Good Samaritan story universally or we risk saddling victims and the oppressed with additional burdens, which valorises needless suffering.
Yet, one way this parable still speaks today is that we might consider prayerfully in what specific context and with whom we are being led by the Spirit to come closer and ‘see’ another person—even a rightfully assumed enemy.
Let’s take a look at the story:
On the dusty road descending from Jerusalem to Jericho there is a man, likely a Jew. Darkness falls as the robbers hide, waiting for a vulnerable person to attack. They see him and together they converge with great force, stripping him of his precious cloak, beating him until the blood pools in the dirt. The man lies motionless in a heap. A priest sees him and passes by on the other side of the road. Behind him, a junior Temple man, a Levite, sees him and passes by similarly. But then, a Samaritan—to the Jews, a hated outsider meant to be kept out at all costs—comes near. How unexpected! Luke tells us:
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 (Luke 10:32-33).
The surprising distinction is that the Samaritan first came near him. And then he saw him.
In order to really see a person, we first need to come near and get a closer look–even if it starts with simply seeing our shared humanity. Oftentimes, we think we know a person and our unchecked biases cause us to look away. We keep going on our way and avoid them because of our own prejudices and assumptions. What is instructive for us here is that, unlike the others in the story, the Good Samaritan first came near. He didn’t let his assumptions get in the way. He made an intentional choice to go share space with the hurting man despite what his assumptions should cause him to do. When he saw the man, he went to him filled with compassion, and took care of him at his own expense.
Part of the project of building community involves a Kingdom of God ethic which first takes steps to get closer to people we might think we have a ‘right’ to disregard. Political divides, generational conflicts, and denominational differences seem to be easy places for people to draw firm lines in the sand these days. In this parable, we are invited to inhabit a different world, one where we intentionally come near to and see the ‘other’—the outsider or the enemy—and respond with generous, lavish compassion and mercy. (Who is that ‘other’ for you?)
Including the Outsider
The word ‘prodigal’ means reckless or wastefully extravagant. The Prodigal Son is a surprising story for many reasons, not least of which is that when the younger brother is a long way away, his father saw him, and was filled with compassion (Luke 15:20). Instead of ‘passing by on the other side of the street’ as it were, the father acts as ‘good neighbour’ to his estranged son, moving towards him to get a closer look—running even! In a movement of grace so aptly described by Miroslav Volf in Exclusion and Embrace, their relationship transforms along the boundary of forgiveness from exclusion to embrace. The outsider is now included once again.
We must resist the tendency to become spiritually hardened, not only so that we don’t miss the opportunities to show mercy in our lives, but also so that we do not lose our ability to hear and inhabit the story the Bible is telling, new social order Jesus narrates in these small stories.
The command to ‘go and do likewise’ is more than a moral command to follow Jesus. It’s at least that, but moreso, this is what it looks like when God’s New Age breaks in. As Prof. Wright teaches in his course The Gospel According to Luke, ‘the barriers come down—it is a radicalization of Torah. Not abandoning it, but going back to the root of God’s intentions from the beginning. The story creates a whole new world in which Jesus is asking his followers to live’.
How to be a Good Neighbor
So, what might it look like for us to live as good neighbours today?
One of the recurring themes in Luke is the element of surprise. The original hearers of this Gospel might have stitched their brows together or inclined their ear to the reader to make sure they were hearing these parables correctly–especially the bit in Luke 10:33, ‘But a Samaritan…’. The phrase ‘Good Samaritan’ doesn’t appear in the original text—it reads as somewhat of an oxymoron. Then again, so does the God of heaven come to earth hanging on a cross.The phrase ‘Good Samaritan’ doesn’t appear in the original text—it reads as somewhat of an oxymoron. Then again, so does the God of heaven come to earth hanging on a cross. Click To Tweet
I’ll end with this story from my own life. I was once invited to preach at a church. When I showed up to pray with some of the members before service, I noticed a man whom I knew. And I knew that he did not agree with women preaching. I was a bit surprised to see him there actually, and I was admittedly a bit nervous. I sat quietly as several people prayed.
To my surprise, when this man whom I knew began to pray, he said something like, ‘God, grant Jennifer boldness and clarity to speak to us today. And if there is something you lay on her heart to say, give her courage to speak to us…’ Now, maybe he changed his views in the few weeks since I’d last seen him, but probably he hadn’t. What would that mean, if he hadn’t? What if we still disagreed deeply over this theological issue, but he’d chosen to pray for me anyway? I had to ask myself where I was letting my assumptions and knowledge about this individual get in the way of my offering him this same level of grace. And further, what would I do if I were in his shoes and divided over a similar theological issue with a sister or brother? How would I react? Would I ‘pass by on my own side of the street’?
I’ve thought back to this experience many times. It has encouraged me to intentionally draw closer to people first, to see them, and then, despite whatever our differences, to pray God gives me the grace to respond winsomely and the courage to come running in their direction.
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