Hermeneutics and the story of the Good Samaritan

Jesus wants us to identify with everyone in the parable of the good Samaritan EXCEPT the good Samaritan. That spot is reserved for himself.

Tweeted yesterday by an American pastor with a very well-known grandfather: I have to say that I’m not convinced.

I think that at least part of what he is getting at is that at the end of the day there is only one hero and his name is Jesus. If we are in this story, then we are the guy who gets beaten up and needs the Good Samaritan to rescue him. At the same time we are the priest and the Levite who walk on by and leave the wounded traveller at the side of the road.

He wants to keep the focus on Jesus as the hero of God’s story.

It’s certainly true that if you want to read the story through the lens of the gospel meta-narrative we are not the heroes. The Bible is the story of God’s rescue plan – and we are the rescued.

The story has had its fair share of interesting interpretations down through the years: the man who gets beaten up is Adam (us, by extension); Jerusalem, where his journey starts, is paradise; the priest and  the Levite represent the Old Testament which is powerless to save; the inn is the church; and so on.

But it seems to me that we need to allow the story to have the force that Jesus gave it when he first told it. It cannot be separated from its context, notably the question of how to define the neighbour that Jesus’ questioner was commanded to love, and the closing injunction: ‘Go and do likewise.’ Someone suggested to me that the point of ‘go and do likewise’ might be that we should follow the example of the wounded traveller who allowed the Good Samaritan to rescue him, but I think that ignores the original purpose in Jesus telling the story.

There is what could be called a ‘Jesus-centred hermeneutic’. Simply put, it seeks to interpret the stories of the Bible in a way that keeps Jesus at the centre. It cautions against moralistic readings of Scripture where we are urged to rise up to emulate the heroes of the stories and attempts to take seriously the method of interpretation that Jesus himself used in his Bible study with the two disciples who were travelling on the Emmaus Road.

Clearly Jesus is the second Adam; he is the true Passover Lamb; he is the perfect sacrifice and the Great High Priest. Beyond that, can we see him reflected in the story of Joseph – betrayed by his brothers, yet in that betrayal accomplishing their salvation? In the story of Moses – rejected by his brothers but raised up by God to be a deliverer and ruler (Stephen seems to make that connection).

And there is a sense in which he is the Good Samaritan. Viewed from the perspective of God’s rescue plan, it is Jesus who comes to where we are and who picks us up to heal and restore us.

But while that may be, I think we need to be very careful when we allow a pre-determined set of hermeneutical values to overrule the contextual pointers to a story’s meaning.

The Good Samaritan is not an easy story for gospel-centred evangelical preachers to preach; it is tempting to go straight from the lawyer’s question about inheriting eternal life to Romans with its declaration that eternal life is a gift from God. But that too, is to ignore the ethical force of the story.

Better, I would suggest, to preach the story with its ethical demands (and don’t forget the bit about loving God) and use it to demonstrate our need of rescue, given that we all fall short of God’s glory.

Who better though, than a rescued and restored traveller, to follow the example of the Good Samaritan?

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