Tuesday, July 9, 2019

The Prodigal Samaritan

Perhaps only the parable of the Prodigal Son can compete with the parable of the Good Samaritan for familiarity.  Both are known far and wide, even by people who have no idea of their origin.  The Good Samaritan story, found in Luke 10:25-37, the gospel appointed for the 5th Sunday after Pentecost, has often been preached as a lesson in compassion.  While that is certainly a worthy task for any preacher, what if there is something even more basic at stake here?  What if the very character of God is being lifted up here?

(The following questions are just a few of the questions a thoughtful scholar of scripture might ask.  These were formulated to get at some of the fundamental concerns of Law and Gospel preachers regarding the function of the Word.  For more on this unique genre of preaching, see my brief guide to Law and Gospel preaching, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available from wipfandstock.com or amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  This text looks in many ways like it is a call to obedience (i.e. Follow Jesus!)  Specifically here, Jesus says, "Go, and do likewise. i.e. Be compassionate."  But if we look at the economy or abundance of detail in the parable we see that there is little time spent here exhorting us to deeds of mercy.  Indeed the main points of abundant detail are the extensive description of the beaten man's condition, and even more so, the extravagant description of the merciful deeds of the Samaritan.  If this is a clue to the function of the text, then what we have here is a classic Law/Gospel text.  We are the beaten one on the roadside, "half-dead" in sin, as St. Paul might have said, and God is the One who picks us up out of the ditch and gives us life.  The text, seen this way, functions as a Gospel text, lifting up the extravagant mercy of God in Christ.

2.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We have lots of choices in this text, but we must be wary of one character whom we are most easily drawn to - the hero of the story.  The preacher's temptation to be the hero, or suggest to one's listeners that it is our job to be the hero is usually a bad idea.  As above, we could do well to identify with the man beaten and left half dead.  It would then be our task as preacher to help others identify with this beaten one.  Or we could take up the identity of the priest or Levite - an unenviable role, to be sure, but that might be a good way to call attention to our love of piety over pity.  Or we could identify with the expert in the law who started the whole discussion.  Is he asking honestly or not?  Luke says he is "testing" Jesus.  We could ask our listeners to identify with him.

3.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  Lots of classic couplets come to mind with this text:  dead/alive; lost/found; thrown aside/treasured; left for dead/given life.

4.  Exegetical work:  Mark Allan Powell's slender volume, What is Narrative Criticism? is an excellent resource for narrative texts like this.  In the appendix to this work Powell gives a fine set of questions around events, characters, settings, and overall interpretation which help us see what is going on in a narrative text.  The question "How is the event reported in terms of narrative time?" (Powell, p. 103) is the question which helped me see the Law/Gospel character of this story as outlined in question one above.  Another resource which is better known, but also helpful in this story is The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible.  The entries regarding Priests and Levites are telling:  "The Levitical priesthood... embodies the duty, as well as the honor and privileges of the whole nation as the covenant people of God." "The essential function of the Levitical priesthood is therefore to assure, maintain, and constantly re-establish the holiness of the elect people of God." (IDB, III, p. 876f)  It is also in this resource that the entry regarding lawyers makes the point that in Luke's gospel, with one exception, the word for "expert in the law" always has a bad sense.  In short, they are opponents of Jesus. (IDB, III, p. 102).

5.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  There are a number of fine analyses on the crossings community website, but the most recent one, by Brad Haugen, picks up on the emphasis I use above.  According to Haugen, we are the ones left half dead on the roadside, and it is only because God refuses to have enemies, that we are saved.  Go to crossings.org/text-study for the entire analysis.

6.  Consider the insights of the pioneers of the New Homiletic?  Eugene Lowry insisted that one of the main jobs of the preacher was to move one's listeners from disequilibrium to equilibrium.  How might we do that here?  It might happen, simply by identifying with the man on the roadside.

Blessings on your proclamation!

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