A Priest, a Levite, and a Samaritan walk into a bar…

A few years ago, I was fortunate to hear a lecture by New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine. Aside from being brilliant, the unique gift that Levine brings to the world of biblical scholarship is that she is (in her words), a “Yankee Jewish feminist who teaches in a predominantly Protestant divinity school in the buckle of the Bible Belt.” Plus, she’s hilarious.

During the lecture I was able to attend, she offered an understanding of the Parable of the Good Samaritan that I had never heard. Her take was that Jesus was playing on a common motif for stories of the day by using the particular characters of ” a priest… levite… Samaritan…”

Levine offers that this motif functioned as a hook in the same way that we often hear modern jokes begin. We’re all familiar with the class of jokes that begins with some variation of “A man, a woman, and a dog walk into a bar…” right? My favorites are the religious ones, ie – “A Roman Catholic Priest, a Presbyterian pastor, and a Rabbi…”

The purpose of setting up a joke in this way is to play on stereotypes. Each kind of person named in whatever joke you’re telling carries an assumption. For instance:

What is the difference between a Baptist and a Presbyterian? The Presbyterian will say “Hi” in the liquor store.

The reason this is funny is because every Baptist I know drinks, even though legend holds that they do not. So when Jesus says (in essence) “A priest, a levite, and a Samaritan are walking down a road…” he is trading in cultural assumptions and stereotypes, but I’m not sure anyone is going to find his story funny. Because Jesus changed the characters.

This was a typical kind of story for Jesus’ Jewish listeners. They had heard this story numerous times, but when other rabbis told it, they started off with “A priest, a levite and a Jew were…” This was the trio that the stories were always about. Samaritans were nowhere to be found. There were certain assumptions about each kind of person listed. Priests can only do/are obligated to do these things. The same for Levites, and then we have a discussion about what a “good Jew” would do. But Jesus does not talk about the “good Jew.” He talks about the “Good Samaritan.”

This throws a wrench in their thinking. Samaritans were “less than.” They were racial and ethnic “half breeds” (there was nothing “pure” about them) and they were religious deviants who practiced a form of Judaism that the Jews of the day despised. No one would use a Samaritan as an example of goodness and love. But Jesus did.

In my opinion, the use of the Samaritan was a stroke of genius by Jesus. In one fell swoop he address two of the failings of the Fundamentalist worldview and allows us to answer for ourselves the question posed by “The Postmodern Problem of the Fundamentalist“: Why is my theological worldview better than that of a Fundamentalist?

As I ended the discussion of what constitutes “good theology” and “bad theology” I acknowledged that it would be “silly” for me to assume that someone like Fred Phelps doesn’t love his family as much as I love mine.

I think the real question is not one of “how” but of “who.” It’s not a matter of knowing how to love, it’s a matter of knowing who to love.

I would like to assume that we all know that

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. (1 Corinthians 13:4-7)

Whether each one of us actually lives this way is beside the point. This is what love is, and none of us disagree that this is anything other than the way Jesus would have us live. What is at issue is who we believe we are called to love. Recall: This story was told because someone tried to test Jesus about inheriting Eternal Life. A back and forth occurs which affirms Love God and Love Neighbor as the Correct Answer, which prompted a further question intended to trip Jesus up: “Who is my neighbor?”

“Who is my Neighbor?” indeed.

Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan is provocative in the first place because of the visceral reaction his listeners would have had towards the Samaritan in racial and ethnic terms. At this time, Jews derided Samaritans and called them “dogs.” That doesn’t seem much different than the ways many white USAmericans used to (and some still do) think, feel, and speak about the descendants of African slaves. It is the way that many immigrant groups think, feel, and speak about other immigrant groups in our country. It is also the way that many USAmericans are increasingly speaking of the Middle Eastern persons that live in this country.

When we do not love our sisters and brothers who are racially and ethnically different than we are, we are using the “shorthand” of how someone looks and behaves to make categorical judgments about whether or not they have any inherent value as human beings. There is a larger discussion to be had about this topic, but for this space it suffices to say that (more often than we’d like to admit) we do not love others because we have discomfort over their behavioral norms. To be blunt: we think they are weird and because they do not engage life in the same way we do, we decide they are inferior and not worthy of our love (see definition above).

Part of the reason I think my worldview is better is because it does not allow me to love only those persons who look and act like me.

But, Jesus’ parable is not just about racial or ethnic difference, it is also about religious, theological, and ideological convictions. This is the place where the majority of Fundamentalists live. As evidenced by the story of Jesus and the Samaritan Woman at the Well, the Jews also held the Samaritan people in disregard because of their religious practices and beliefs. Put another way: If you didn’t believe like a Jew then you were held to be “less than” and not worthy of my patience, kindness… (see definition above).

I struggle to see how this is any different than the war our Christo-American society is currently waging on the Muslim community.

I also think that my worldview is better is because it does not allow me to love only those persons who think like me.

Christ named that the commandments on which all else hang are Love God and Love your neighbor.  The mission of Jesus of Nazareth was one of setting people free (Luke 4) and making available Abundant Life (John 10). He consistently ministered to those who were shunned by the religious establishment of his day, and we know that that is how his disciples understood his mission for they continued it by offering his Grace and Peace to those outside of the faith (the Gentiles) and outcasts (ie – women and the Ethiopian Eunuch) (cf. Acts).

But, more pointedly, Christ gave us the New Commandment to Love one another as “I have loved you.” And love, as we have seen, does not mean one must be in agreement with another, but that we are called to patience, kindness, a lack of envy, bosting, arrogance, or rudeness. Love means not insisting that I get my way, or being irritable or resentful. It means not rejoicing in wrongdoing, but in the truth. It means bearing, believing, rejoicing and enduring all things.

So, ultimately, this is my answer to the Postmodern Problem of the Fundamentalist. I believe that the worldview I hold is better than that of a Fundamentalist, not because of an ability to do any of these things in extra measure (it is not I who loves, but Christ through me), but because of the words “all things.” As a Christian, I am called to love not just those who behave or think in a certain way that I am comfortable with, but all persons. Everyone is my neighbor, and so (with God’s help) I will love them.

25 thoughts on “A Priest, a Levite, and a Samaritan walk into a bar…

  1. What is love? (baby don’t hurt me…)

    I have this constant battle/tension raging inside me between the Progressive Christian Shawn and the Reformed “Strong Doctrine of Sin” Shawn.

    I agree with a lot of what you write but I am suspicious of my capacity to determine “what is love?” Or for that matter of any community or group on their own to determine “what is love?” I do think sin clouds are judgment and moral reasoning and we need to rely on God to help us see clearly.

    I know that you aren’t advocating that we each get to define love for ourselves, and that you do take seriously the scriptural witness in this manner. But honestly, I see many progressive Christians doing exactly this, or taking as holy scripture the NY Times editorial page. If love is they key how do we make sure we aren’t creating love in our own image?

    • I also think, if you subscribe to a fundamentalist worldview–for example, if you think homosexuality is a sin–doing everything in your power to get the person to repent IS the loving thing. If you think it’s a sin to be gay, why would you let a fellow human being suffer and destroy him or herself?

      I don’t like this but I think it’s true.

      • Ah, well, that’s the sticking point: “everything in our power.” It is NOT in our power to “get the person to repent.” It is within our power (with God’s help) to show a sinner (thief, liar, adulterer, etc.) the love of Christ, but it is only within God’s power to “get the person to repent.” (Rom 2:4b: “Do you not realize that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?”) Christ does not commission us to point out other peoples’ sins, rather, to “love one another as I have loved you.” (Jn 13:34) If a person’s heart is opened to God’s love, the Holy Spirit will provide the conviction necessary for true repentance.

    • Yeah, Shawn, the only answer I’ve got is the answer that Presbys typically give: We figure this out together in groups.

  2. Ruth, I agree with what you’re saying. I may have been imprecise in my wording.

    For someone who thinks homosexual behavior is a sin (I don’t, incidentally), “showing the love of Christ” means to be very clear and unequivocal about the need for repentance from that behavior. Whether the repentance is God’s doing or ours is not my point. My point is that these people are not motivated by hate when they say “this behavior is not moral.” (Well, perhaps some are.) Rather they are acting and speaking out of a desire to do what’s best for that person they see as sinful.

    I just think the “conservatives are hateful” thing is a strawman and I try and knock it down when I see it, though I am not conservative myself. Granted Landon’s post was more nuanced than that.

    • I think what you’re naming is a true thing, because I’ve experienced it myself during my Fundagelical years. ie – I once believed that LGBT persons were demon possessed.

      With a nod to Calvin’s Three Uses of the Law, in order to know what love is we must also know what sin is. I intend to write further on that topic and am glad you raised it here in the comments.

  3. This was very good; I had to read it a couple times to fully get it, and yet, I still think in the end you are saying (please correct me if I am wrong), that 1) The Fundamentalist “lens” (of reading everything literally – and yet, quite selectively) results in a worldview that is incapable of obtaining “all things.” It is a worldview which implicitly puts on blinders, and thus provides a narrower view of Jesus’ teachings.

    Or maybe the statement “I also think that my worldview is better is because it does not allow me to love only those persons who think like me” is saying my worldview is better because the fundamentalist world view is intolerant of other views?

    Keep writing – and fleshing all of this out. Much to chew on.

    • yes. all of those things.

      Whether I actually live a life of love is another matter, but I believe that the worldview I hold very quickly convicts me of not loving “all things.”

  4. I recently started reading your blog and I can’t help but point out how offended I am that you equate Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church with fundamentalists. I have been around fundamentalists and evangelicals all of my life and have not found any of them to be supporters of Fred Phelps. If it comforts you to feel that your worldview is superior to a bunch of raving lunatics whose only public testimony is that God hates [fill in the blank], then good for you. Could you possibly “set the bar” any lower?

    • I appreciate you taking the time to read, Keith, and thanks for pressing the issue. Here’s a couple of things about me and the post that might mitigate your frustration (then again, it may not).

      One, you are correct that a lot of “fundagelicals” are not the “raving lunatics” on the street corner. I chose Westboro because it was an easy enough contrast that persons would have little to no trouble tracking with my argument.

      Two, I was a part of the fundamentalist/evangelical world growing up. I know it intimately. Although it’s not explicit, much of what I am sharing is how I worked out my own faith given the kind of environment that formed me. The reality is that most forms of fundamentalist evangelicalism still hold something in common with the good folks of Westboro: They believe that they are right to exclude persons from the fellowship of God. The only place they are different is that they know that it’s not polite to say it out loud. This is the point I am stridently and vocally rejecting. No one is excluded from the Grace and Peace of Christ.

      It is also not a comforting thing to hold this worldview. I am convicted of not loving more times a day than I can count.

      • Hi Landon,

        This is my first time reading your blog and I must say that I loved the article. And I very much appreciated your cordial, yet blatantly honest and accurate, reply to Keith.

        “The only place they are different is that they know that it’s not polite to say it out loud.”

        As one who experienced organized religion (the “traditions of men”) for many years, and came to see it for what it is – hypocrisy – your words really hit home. While I know that my former pastor would never say it out loud, the truth is that he really believes that “God hates fags.” In a very big way I believe that my former pastor, and others like him, are in fact WORSE than Fred Phelps, because Fred Phelps at least is honest about his beliefs. To harbor the ugly and arrogant view that God only loves “people like me, or who think like me,” while verbally proclaiming that “God loves everyone,” is the epitome of hypocrisy. It is worse that they hide their hatred behind a facade of “love” than it would be for them to actually come out and say it, for that facade is nothing more than an ugly lie.

        And by the way, your worldview IS better.

        Thanks for the beautiful words.

  5. I like a lot of what you say here. But two points bother me.

    (1) Why is it necessary to put other Christians down? Aren’t you doing to fundamentalists what you say they do to others? I’m in the PCUSA, and I increasingly hear criticisms of other Christians (fundamentalists, conservatives, etc.) from the pulpit. When I visit fundamentalist (mega)churches, I don’t hear any of that; I hear unconditional messages of acceptance. I worry that you’re stereotyping while accusing others of stereotyping.

    (2) The talk of war is vague. “Christo-American”? “Muslim community”? Are you talking about Iraq and Afghanistan? If so, they aren’t directed against “the Muslim community.” Or do you have in mind so-called “Islamophobia”? Is the “war” then metaphorical? And what’s “Christo-” about either? I find this kind of thinking sloppy in any case. But it especially annoys me when Muslims are killing Christians, burning churches, and promising to obliterate Christianity in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere in the Middle East.

    Here’s the question I would have asked Jesus if I had heard the Good Samaritan parable: What if the Samaritan had arrived, not after the fact, but as the man were being attacked? Or just before, as the thieves were jumping from their hiding places? What should he have done then?

    • Philo,
      I understand your concern for avoiding putting down anyone, including Christians, but when you look at the attitude of fundamentalists in particular, and Christians in general, what do you see as their worldview? Do you really see them spreading, as you claim, an UNCONDITIONAL message of acceptance to Muslims, Buddhists, Mormons, gays, atheists, or anyone else who doesn’t hold to their opinions and beliefs? Hardly. Whether you see it or not, the underlying “Christian” message is “become one of us or go to hell.” To tell others that they need to “fix” themselves or God will abandon them forever is nothing short of hatred, though they do it under the guise of “loving” them.

      You are correct that we should avoid stereotyping anyone, but there is a reason that Christians have taken on the stereotype of arrogant, unloving hypocrites, and that is because they too often project an image completely opposite to that of their namesake.

      The mindset that induces radical Muslims to want to kill Christians is absolutely identical to the mindset which induces Christians to want to condemn gays, atheists, and any non-Christians. The only difference between the Muslim terrorists and fundamentalist Christians is WHO is supposed to wipe out their enemies. The terrorists think that God calls them to do it, while the Christians are perfectly happy to let Him do His own killing on “judgment day.” The underlying mindset is the same – those who don’t agree with their religion are the “enemies” of God and should be wiped out. And how is this “Christian” view that all non-Christians should be annihilated or thrown away in hell forever any different from what you see as the “Muslim” mindset of obliterating Christians? So much for “loving our neighbors.”

      Just my two and a half cents.

    • Thanks for the comment.

      1) The project I’m engaged in here is one of trying to delineate a case for a progressive Christian worldview. I don’t agree that naming the limited scope to whom a Fundamentalist is wiling to give love putting anyone down. It’s being clear.

      2) I’m talking about situations like the “Ground Zero Mosque” and Rick Santorum saying the President is a secret Muslim as if it were a bad thing.

  6. Landon, I appreciate your blog and this article. My question is also from reading your blog on the PostModern Problem of Fundamentalism.

    If the Fundamentalists are “weaker” brothers, should not extra care be given to love them?

    Love of Justice is no reason to abandon those who are in the household of faith. Is your world view really better if it does not allow to weep for them too?

      • Maybe fellowship, eating together, conversation, hugs and handshakes.

        It is sexy and necessary to love victims of injustice, it is other worldly to love the oppressor.

      • Agreed. I wonder if we might be saying the same thing, but being loving and being a doormat shouldn’t be equated.

  7. I will love the fundamentalists in the same way that Martin Luther King, Jr. encouraged in the civil rights movement – that of agape.

    As King described it,”Agape [italics original] means understanding, redeeming goodwill for all men, an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return. It is the love of God working in the lives of men. When we love on the agape level we love men not because we like them, not because their attitudes and beliefs appeal to us, but because God loves them. Here we rise to the position of loving the person who does the evil deed while hating the deed that he does.”

    In many ways I think this applies to the call for a progressive Christian conscience. And for NOT being a DOORMAT to the Fundamentalist appropriation of the name “Christian” and effort to use their literal biblical lens to promote policies and issues that I am willing to argue are wrong.

  8. This is an important struggle to articulate, to parse out. Jesus, if we are to believe the Gospels, is constantly parsing out the difference between what he’s after and what others are after. “You have heard it said, but I say…” is one trope that demonstrates this. Learning the particularities of our different Christian perspectives is important. Articulating why we believe one and not the other is necessary. It is self-understanding.

    Colossians says that Jesus reconciles the whole world to himself/Godself through the blood of the cross. What can that understanding contribute to this conversation. The Fall has been undone? Now it’s all about free will and learning how to lean on Grace (the everlasting arms)? Perhaps.

    I constantly struggle how to articulate my belief that all the world has been made new again, that universalism that is in the Gospels, while at the same time recognizing that the Gospel affords people the opportunity to not participate as well. We choose. We choose who we love. We choose how we will love those people. I have no doubt, like you, Landon, that John Piper loves his wife. I struggle with how he does that, however, and how that plays out in his ministry. I believe that Jesus places a high regard on forgiveness, compassion, understanding, and rigorous honesty…but he reserves the work of Judgement for God alone…

    …it’s a shame, really. I think I would make a great judge. Alas, it’s not my job.

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