As I wrote earlier in the week, I gave today’s sermon for the Toronto Congregation’s inclusive online worship service. The service was recorded and can be found at the YouTube link below:
I really enjoyed participating with Beyond the Walls. I had some idea of how much work they put into making this look like a professional production, but getting to peek behind the scenes and see how much work they put into juggling different cameras, testing and managing audio, and everything else made me really appreciate what they do all the more. I especially appreciated the images that John picked out to accompany my words, and it was also a delight to see the French translation of what I’d written. I really like my local congregation, but I’m more and more convinced this kind of thing is the future of Community of Christ. I also deeply appreciated all the other contributions to the service: John Hamer’s introduction to the parable made so many important points about interpreting the parable, the experience that Tom Webber shared was moving, the music was wonderful, and the whole thing was an uplifting way to spend my Sunday.
I wanted to go ahead and share my text for the sermon in this post. It was fun to put together: I’m not sure how often the American comics series Astro City or the British comedians Mitchell and Webb get cited in sermons, but they both fit naturally into what I was trying to say, and I enjoyed working pop culture into preaching. Of course, reading Martin Luther King, Jr. and Amy-Jill Levine was also a delightful way to push my thinking about this parable. During the post-service conversation (also part of the recording above), John asked a question (and pressed me on a point) that let us talk more about this text in ways that got into details that I didn’t have time to share during the service itself. I may blog about those later in the week, because both things we discussed are things that have been on my mind. No time to do so here, though. Anyway, here’s the text:
The Parable of the Samaritan is one of the most well-known of Jesus’s teachings, and the character of this Samaritan has become a powerful symbol in many cultures throughout the world. There is a “Good Samaritan Hospital” where I live in Lexington, Kentucky. In Switzerland, a national organization of first aid volunteers is called “The Samaritans.” Even in Southeast Asia, where Christianity is a minority religion introduced by colonizers, there are crisis hotlines in Singapore and Hong Kong, which are also called “The Samaritans.”
Because of the power of the symbol of the Samaritan, there exists a widespread popular interpretation of this parable related to helping others. However, there is also a wide variety of more specific interpretations of this parable. We have already heard how this parable is told and interpreted in the Gospel of Luke. I would therefore like to spend this time examining how this parable has been referenced and interpreted in some other contexts.
As we consider these different interpretations of the Parable of the Samaritan, let us also consider how our interpretation of scripture can bring us closer to—or further from—Jesus, the Peaceful One. Doctrine and Covenants 163:7b teaches us that “God’s nature, as revealed in Jesus Christ and affirmed by the Holy Spirit, provides the ultimate standard by which any portion of scripture should be interpreted and applied.” I find that when I know a scripture passage well, like the Parable of the Samaritan, I am sometimes so confident in my understanding that I do not take the time to evaluate it! In contrast, exploring new interpretations of a familiar story invites me to consider whether I am truly focusing on the peace of Jesus.
Let’s begin with two references to this parable that may seem out of place in a sermon: a law and a superhero. In 2016, the Republic of India adopted a “Good Samaritan Law” that encourages people to provide assistance to others by assuring legal protection for doing so. Similar laws also exist in many Canadian provinces and territories, U.S. and Australian states, and other countries. These laws interpret Jesus’s story as teaching us that we should help others when they need it. Help in time of need is good, and so I think that laws that encourage such help are good, too.
However, if we call someone “a Good Samaritan” for providing a single act of generosity, we risk forgetting how generous the Samaritan of this parable truly was. This Samaritan was somewhat rich, rich enough to pay for the needs of the wounded traveler and rich enough to feel confident writing a blank check to an innkeeper. The Samaritan did not stop with the act of generosity that Good Samaritan Laws are meant to encourage. Rather, he followed the counsel given in Doctrine and Covenants 163:9: “Give generously according to your true capacity.”
When I think about true capacity, I often think about a character from American comic books whose name is also a reference to this parable. “The Samaritan” is a superhero who stars in the first issue of Astro City, one of my favorite series of comics. Like many superheroes, The Samaritan is very fast and very strong: He can fly from the United States to Japan in less than a second to stop a tsunami with his superpowers and then fly back to the United States—again, in less than a second—to save someone from a collapsing building.
We could say that all this is typical in a superhero story, but what stands out about this comic book character is the depth of his commitment. Because he is gifted with extraordinary powers, The Samaritan commits himself to giving with a generosity that matches his capability. The first issue of Astro City shows us a superhero who exhausts himself to help others. He does not go to bed until after 1am, and often gets only a few hours of sleep until another crisis needs his attention before the sun has even risen. Even if he finds this constant helping tiring, he believes it is his obligation because of the powers he has been given.
Of course, Jesus, the Peaceful One, is the best example of giving according to true capacity. An early Christian hymn quoted by Paul in Philippians 2 says that although Jesus “existed in the form of God,” he “did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped.” Instead, Jesus “emptied himself” and “humbled himself,” responding to divine capacity to serve his human neighbors. I do not have the divine capacity of Jesus, and I do not have the superhuman capacity of the comic book character The Samaritan. However, like the character in Jesus’s parable, I can go beyond a single act of generosity to ask myself what my true capacity is in time of need.
Martin Luther King
This comic book interpretation of the parable teaches us to give according to true capacity, but other interpretations of this story push us to consider how and where to apply that capacity.
In November 1955, the United States civil rights activist Martin Luther King preached a sermon where he asked whether the help provided by the Samaritan was sufficient. It is true that the Samaritan’s acts were generous and that his commitment helped one unfortunate traveler recover after the severe attack of the robbers. However, there were many robbers—and, therefore, many unfortunate travelers—on the road to Jericho. In King’s hand-written notes for his sermon, he writes that despite all the Samaritan’s generosity, he did nothing to fix the deeper problem. “He sought to sooth[e] the effects of evil, without going back to uproot the causes.”
Our societies face pressing problems such as racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia. It is good for us to reach out individually to those who have been hurt by these problems, just as the Samaritan reached out to the wounded traveler. The more capacity we have, the more individuals we can reach out to. However, as King reminds us, until we fix the road to Jericho, there are many others who will yet be wounded. We must reserve some of our capacity to influence governments, change laws, and revolutionize cultures so that one day, the deeper problems will no longer exist.
In fact, King goes so far to ask whether the Levite and the priest in Jesus’s parable can be justified by imagining them as pursuing these deeper solutions to the problem. We often critique these figures in Jesus’s parable, but King asks us to wonder whether the priest, for example, was hurrying “to serve on the National Committe[e] for the Improvement of Public Highways.” Even if these figures may have failed to help the single traveler at the center of Jesus’s story, King’s interpretation of the characters imagines that their work may ultimately do more to help those journeying on the road to Jericho. We cannot fail to help the wounded individuals on the roads we travel, but we must also find the time to fix the roads.
King acknowledges that his interpretation of the Levite and the priest is unlikely, but the way he focuses on deep solutions to societal problems strikes me as in keeping with the teachings of Jesus, the Peaceful One. In Luke 13, just a few chapters after where this parable is found, Jesus teaches that “some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.” Jesus’s willingness to turn the world upside down should inspire us to think broadly and deeply in how we respond to the problems of the world.
Mitchell and Webb
Martin Luther King’s interpretation of this parable invites us to rethink how we understand the Samaritan, the priest, and the Levite. The next interpretation I would like to consider also asks us to think about how we talk about these characters.
The British comedians David Mitchell and Robert Webb once performed a sketch where Jesus’s disciples respond to this parable by accusing Jesus of being prejudiced against Samaritans. In the sketch, Jesus (portrayed by Webb) defends himself by noting that he described this Samaritan as a good Samaritan; how could he be prejudiced? Nonetheless, a disciple (played by Mitchell) argues that Jesus’s insistence that this particular Samaritan is good reveals a general attitude that Samaritans are bad. There’s no need to specify the Samaritan was good unless we would expect otherwise.
Professor Amy-Jill Levine has also noticed this curious language. In her book Short Stories by Jesus, she suggests that we would be bothered by someone who emphasizes that a specific individual is “a good Muslim” or “a good immigrant”—we would be right to believe that this person sees most Muslims or most immigrants as bad and is surprised by this exception to the rule.
Of course, Jesus never uses the phrase “Good Samaritan.” In fact, this phrase never appears in the New Testament. Mitchell and Webb were obviously more concerned with making their audience laugh than with biblical accuracy. Yet, even if Jesus never uses this language, we do, and that should perhaps trouble us. There are very few Samaritans still living in the world today, and it is unlikely that any of us who call this parable “The Parable of the Good Samaritan” have any real prejudice against them. Nonetheless, in using that name, we risk perpetuating an ancient assumption that Samaritans are the enemy, that more of them are bad than good, and that this character is the surprising exception.
It can be painful to realize how easily our choice of words and other small acts can represent prejudices that we may not even consciously agree with. However, it is important for us to confront and correct these small choices. In fact, the way we tell this parable may also perpetuate prejudices that are even more serious in this time of rising Christian Nationalism and anti-Semitism. As I noted earlier, readers of the New Testament often critique the characters of the Levite and the priest and praise the Samaritan. That is a natural reaction to the story; however, over the centuries, Christians have frequently used these characters to critique Judaism and praise Christianity.
In Short Stories by Jesus, the book that I mentioned earlier, Professor Levine (who specializes in understanding the Jewish context of the New Testament) evaluates many common Christian interpretations of the Levite and the priest. While time does not permit me to summarize her evaluation here, it is perhaps enough to say that anti-Jewish readings of this parable are mistaken. Setting aside Martin Luther King’s interpretation, it is true that the Levite and the priest failed in their duty. However, their moral failure in this fictional story told by the very Jewish Jesus does not condemn Judaism any more than we would hope Christians’ many moral failures in present reality condemn Christianity.
It is important for we Christians to realize that we are guilty of this kind of thinking in many aspects of our religion. Speaking personally, one of my favorite parts of the New Testament is the Epistle to the Galatians, which once brought me liberation and hope in a time of crisis and despair in my faith. However, I struggle to reconcile my love for this book with the fact that Christians have often used Galatians to fuel anti-Jewish and anti-Semitic attitudes and acts. We have also promoted persecution with the Parable of the Samaritan, and we have done the same with many other passages of Christian and Restoration scripture.
It should be clear to us that this is not compatible with Jesus, the Peaceful One. In the fourth affirmation of the Community of Christ Statement on Scripture, we read that “Scripture’s authority is derived from the model of Christ, who came to be a servant (Mark 10:45). Therefore, the authority of scripture is not the authority to oppress, control, or dominate.” This is how we must interpret the Parable of the Samaritan, and this is how we must interpret all other passages of Christian and Restoration scripture.
One of the beautiful things about Jesus’s parables is the many different ways that we can interpret them. However, as we have seen today, some interpretations bring us closer to Jesus, the Peaceful One, than others. The Samaritan’s name on hospitals and in laws reminds us to help others in their time of need. That same name, when adopted by a comic book character, challenges us to help as much and as often as our capacity allows. Finally, Martin Luther King’s telling of the parable turns our attention from helping one wounded traveler to helping fix the whole road to Jericho so that there will be no more wounded travelers.
In contrast, two British comedians and an American professor remind that we can tell this parable in ways that perpetuate harm rather than promote help. As we read this parable—or any other passage of scripture—we must ask constantly ask ourselves “Are we moving toward Jesus, the Peaceful One?”
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