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.