Jewish and New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine returned to the Hall of Philosophy lectern Tuesday with “Dangers on the Road to Jericho” to focus on the parable of the Good Samaritan.
Like all parables, the Good Samaritan is subject to interpretation, Levine said.
“When we look at stories or listen to stories, we bring to those stories our own experiences, our own texts that we’ve read, something we might’ve seen on the paper or heard on the radio, or some memory from childhood, so that whenever we hear a story, we always hear it anew,” Levine said.
The Bible must have multiple meanings and interpretations if it is going to speak to people in different places and times in history, Levine said.
“(Otherwise) there wouldn’t be any room for human creativity, or what I consider to be the spark of the divine,” she said.
The Good Samaritan has been appropriated by politicians and economists, hospitals and cafes. Its meaning has been reduced and romanticized to “if somebody is having a problem on the side of the road, stop and help,” Levine said.
But parables are never simple, and if taken in the historical context of Jesus’ Jewish audience, the interpretation is quite different, as Levine explained.
To begin to understand the parable, Levine looked at the parable’s biblical context — the text that comes before and after.
A lawyer’s question prompts the parable. He asks, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
The New Testament’s treatment of lawyers usually is not complimentary, Levine said, and this instance is no different. The lawyer addresses Jesus as “teacher,” which does not fully encompass who Jesus’ followers believed he was. Not only does the lawyer already know the answer to his question, Levine said, but his question is a bad one. In addition, the lawyer is out to tempt Jesus — the verbs for “test” and “tempt” are the same. In essence, Levine said, the lawyer is in the same role as Satan was when he tempted Jesus in the desert.
In response to the lawyer’s inquiry, Jesus replies with a question of his own: “What is written in the law? How do you read it?”
Jesus’ question is meant to provoke the lawyer.
He responds, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind,’ and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”
Levine explained that the lawyer’s response is a combination of two commands found in the Old Testament, both well-known in early Judaism.
Jesus says the lawyer’s reply is correct.
“Do this and you will live,” he said.
“If the lawyer were clued in, he would have said, ‘Thank you very much,’ and gone out to live a life of justice and compassion,” Levine said.
But the lawyer wanted a single action to ensure him eternal life, Levine said, and Jesus has given him a lifetime of work to do.
So the lawyer asks, “Who is my neighbor?”
In essence, Levine explained, the lawyer is asking, “Who might I hate?”
In Leviticus, the Hebrew word for “neighbor” has the same consonants as the word for “enemy” — the lawyer may have read this text but not understood it, Levine said.
Jesus responds with the parable of the Good Samaritan. It is designed to indict, Levine said.
The parable begins with a man walking from Jerusalem towards Jericho who receives a beating from a band of robbers so that he is near death and left in a ditch on the side of the road.
Some contemporary New Testament scholars have posited that Jesus’ audiences would have sympathized with the bandits, rather than the beaten man. Levine disagreed, saying that the robbers were not Robin Hood-esque figures but violent gang members, based on the original language of the text.
“The real question is, what do we do with a person who’s dying on the side of the road?” Levine asked.
She added, “Whenever we hear a story, we tend to read ourselves into that story. We’re usually Cinderella, not the ugly stepsisters.”
As the parable continues, a priest and a Levite walk down the same road, see the beaten man and move as far away from him as possible. Modern interpretations posit that the priest and the Levite would have to undergo intense ritual cleansing if they touched a man they presumed to be dead.
Levine disagreed. Though corpses were highly impure in the Jewish tradition, only the priest would have had to undergo the ritual cleansing, not the Levite. In addition, the priest was walking toward Jericho, not to the temple in Jerusalem — the need for cleansing is, therefore, not apparent.
“Do the priest and the Levite have any excuse? Levite said. “No.”
According to the Jewish law of the Mishnah, even those in the cleanest, most ritually pure states are obligated to stop and attend to the corpse.
“They failed to love their neighbor as themselves,” Levine said.
Levine explained that Jews were divided into priests, Levites and Israelites. Priests were descended from Moses’ brother, Aaron, and Levites were descended from Levi, the son of Jacob. Jesus’ audience would have assumed that the third person to come down the road and into the story to be an Israelite.
“To go from priest to Levite to the fellow who stops, who was a Samaritan, is like going from Larry to Mo to Osama bin Laden,” Levine said. “It’s unthinkable.”
When Martin Luther King Jr. preached about this parable, he posited that the priest and the Levite did not stop to help out of fear, thinking, “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?” whereas the Samaritan considered, “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?”
“The issue here is how do we ask the right question,” Levine said.
She elaborated upon the Samaritan’s presence in the story. The pity the Samaritan feels as he looks upon the beaten man is compassion.
“It’s that sort of compassion, that sort of love that doesn’t require thought,” Levine said. “It bypasses the intellect, and it gets us in the gut.”
She continued, “That’s really what love of God and love of neighbor means. You don’t even have to think about it. Your body, your visceral system, forces you to act.”
The Samaritan treats and binds the man’s wounds and takes him to a local inn, where he in effect writes the innkeeper a blank check for his treatment. In modern contexts, the Samaritan is cast as the oppressed minority or undocumented immigrant. In Jesus’ historical context, the Samaritan was the enemy.
Levine explained that historically, Samaria and Judea were rivals. Earlier in the New Testament, the Samaritans refuse Jesus hospitality because he is en route to Jerusalem. The people of ancient Samaria enacted violence, including rape and mass murder — crimes not unlike those of the prisoners Levine teaches on a weekly basis. The resolution found in 2 Chronicles 28, when the Samaritans and Jews manage to stop fighting at the behest of a prophet, prefigures the parable Jesus tells in that the Samaritans clothe, feed, anoint and take the once-captives to Jericho.
In telling this story, Jesus is reminding the Jews of their own history, Levine said.
“It’s easier to make our enemies clear. We don’t want our enemies doing nice things — that just screws up the relationship,” Levine said. “If our enemies start showing niceness and compassion to us, that messes up our categories. … But that’s exactly what the Samaritan does.”
At the end of the parable, Jesus rephrases the lawyer’s question: “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”
The lawyer cannot bring himself to say the word Samaritan, Levine pointed out, and he replies, “The one who had mercy on him.”
Jesus says, “Go and do likewise.”
Today, what once was ancient Samaria is now the West Bank — the two share the same ground. In a modern-day retelling, Levine posited, the first person to walk past the beaten man would be a member of the Israel Defense Force and the second person, a part of Christian Peace Witness. The Samaritan equivalent is a member of Hamas, a Palestinian Muslim dedicated to the eradication of Israel.
“If we could put a human face both on the victim and on the person who wants, ideally, to destroy that victim but shows compassion, we might be able to talk to each other,” Levine said. “The point is, we have to give that person a chance, because if we don’t, we’re going to die in a ditch.”
Dr. Amy-Jill Levine is University Professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies, E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Professor of New Testament Studies, and Professor of Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt University Divinity School and the College of Arts and Sciences. She is also Affiliated Professor at the Woolf Institute, Centre for the Study of Jewish-Christian Relations, at Cambridge University in the United Kingdom.
Dr. Levine earned her B.A. with high honors in English and Religion at Smith College, where she graduated magna cum laude. She went on to earn her M.A. and Ph.D. in Religion from Duke University.
Professor Levine’s numerous books, articles, and essays address such topics as Second-Temple Judaism, Christian origins, Jewish-Christian relations, and biblical women. She has served on the editorial boards of the Journal of Biblical Literature and the Catholic Biblical Quarterly and has held office in the Society of Biblical Literature, the Catholic Biblical Association, and the Association for Jewish Studies.
A widely sought-after speaker and favorite at the Chautauqua Institution, she has given hundreds of talks on biblical topics to both academic and nonacademic audiences, including church, synagogue, and community groups throughout the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. Her awards include grants from the Mellon Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the American Council of Learned Societies.