July 14, 2013

Jesus (or Luke) Got It Wrong

Today’s Gospel reading from the Revised Common Lectionary for Proper 10, Year C,  is Luke 10:25–37. It is the familiar story of the good Samaritan:
Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall 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 your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”

But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.” [From the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA, and used by permission]
This passage was discussed in my weekly Bible study yesterday, and, during the discussion, I discovered a problem I had never noticed before.

The lawyer tells Jesus that the law requires that you should love your neighbor as you love yourself. He then asks Jesus who is his neighbor, to which Jesus responds with his famous parable, which, in fact, does not really answer the question. Luke’s story seems garbled, though it isn’t clear whether Jesus or Luke was confused.

To see why this is true, let N be the relation “is the neighbor of” and let T be the relation “loves as oneself and treats accordingly.” (If this notation is unfamiliar, see the note at the end of this essay.) Let L be the property “acts according to the law.” Let a and b represent people. We must have that

aNb Lb bTa

Because of what the law requires toward a neighbor, we can also say, by definition in this context, that
aNb bTa → Lb

Let p be the priest, l be the Levite, s be the Samaritan, and r be the robbery victim. The story offers these facts:
  1.  ¬ pTr
  2.  ¬ lTr
  3.  sTr
From this information, we can conclude
  1. ¬ rNp ¬ Lp
  2. ¬ rNl ¬ Ll

That is, either the robbery victim is not a neighbor of the priest or the priest is not acting in accordance with the law (or both). A similar statement can be made about the Levite. About the Samaritan, we can say very little. It is possible that that the robbery victim is not a neighbor of the Samaritan, but the Samaritan exhibits loving the robbery victim as himself anyway. It is also possible that the victim is a neighbor of the Samaritan, in which case, because of his actions, it can be concluded that he is acting accordance with the law, i.e., Ls, even though, as a non-Jew, the Samaritan would not be under obligation to so act.

At the end of his story, Jesus asks, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” The question is curious, at least in terms of what the lawyer wanted to know. Jesus does not ask for whom the robbery victim is a neighbor. That is, he does not ask for all persons x such that rNx. Although this is probably the most interesting question for both the lawyer and us, the parable offers no definitive answer to this question. Jesus actually asks for all persons x such that xTr, that is, who loved the robbery victim as himself. To this question, the answer is only x = the Samaritan.

As told by Luke, what the parable of the good Samaritan tells us is what loving one’s neighbor as oneself looks like. Modern readers tend to view the moral of the story as being that everyone is our neighbor, but the story does not support that conclusion, although it is not inconsistent with it.

Why did Jesus not offer a parable that answered the question that was asked? I have no idea. Perhaps he thought that showing what loving your neighbor looks like was more important. Perhaps the story has just not come down to us as it happened. 

By the way, Wikipedia lists other interpretations that have been made of the parable, which shows what can happen when theologians have time on their hands.



aRb means that variable a is related to variable b by the relation R. R is simply a set of ordered pairs of related variables. In the above example, aNb means that a is a neighbor of b. Pa means that variable a has some property P. P is simply a set of values. La, above, means that a acts according to the law.

The logical operators used above are and (), implies or if then (→), not (¬), and or ().


  1. The lawyer's question is asking for a definition of "neighbor" as it is to be understood in the summary of the law. So I think the question of residential proximity is not relevant. I also think that Luke's 2nd century audience would have been inclined to assume that the Samaritan did not live near the traveler.

    Tangential comment: The symbol choices for logical "and" and logical "or" look more like combining accents than the unicode characters, which are U+2227 (∧) for "and" and U+2228 (∨) for "or".

    1. Thanks for the unicode values. I could not find the proper characters in Windows’ Character Map.

      As for the definition of “neighbor,” the Samaritan comes as something of a surprise for the reason you give. But why were the priest and Levite not neighbors of the injured man?


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