Emerson B. Powery, The Good Samaritan

Powery, Emerson B. The Good Samaritan. Touchstone Texts. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2022. 156 pp. Pb; $24.  Link to Baker Academic

This is the second volume of the Baker Academic Touchstone Texts series. The series addresses well-known passages from the Bible and provides exegetical, theological, and pastoral concerns. As series editor Stephen B. Chapman says in the series introduction, these texts are “deserving of fresh expositions that enable them to speak anew to the contemporary church and its leaders.” This first volume treated Psalm 23 (Richard Briggs, The Lord is My Shepherd, 2021). This new volume discusses one of Jesus’s most beloved parables, the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37).

Powery Good SamaritanEmerson B. Powery (PhD, Duke University) is a professor of biblical studies at Messiah University. He is the author of Jesus Reads Scripture: The Function of Jesus’ Use of Scripture in the Synoptic Gospels (Brill, 2002) and Immersion Bible Studies for Mark (Abingdon, 2011). He coauthored The Genesis of Liberation: Biblical Interpretation in the Antebellum Narratives of the Enslaved (WJKP, 2016).

Powery begins with the question, “the contemporary reader must decide whether the goal is to get the meaning right or to enjoy the journey” (1). The two are obviously not mutually exclusive; this book seeks to read the parable right, but also create an enjoyable journey toward contemporary application for the modern American church. He observes, “Jesus’s imaginative use of the Samaritan confirms the creative power of difference to challenge the status quo of our lives together” (153).

Powery builds a community of conversation partners around this well-known parable to continue answering the question of Luke 10:29: “who is my neighbor?” In chapter one, the conversation partners include Frederick Douglass, Toni Morrison (A Mercy), the Amish community after the 2006 mass shooting at West Nickel Mines school, the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church and their response to Dylann Roof shooting nine people in their church, and Desmond Tutu’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (1996). For some readers, this might seem like an unusual way to begin a book on the Parable of the Good Samaritan, but Powery is teasing out the shocking image of a “good Samaritan” in a first-century Jewish context.

The second chapter deals with the Good Samaritan in Christian Tradition, beginning with Augustine’s famous allegorizing interpretation of the parable. Citing John Dominic Crossan, Augustine is simply wrong since his interpretation is neither Jesus’s nor Luke’s original intentions (41, note 34). Books on parables usually use Augustine to show the failure (and foolishness) of allegorical interpretation. But Powery points out that is only one aspect of Augustine’s method: he also treats the literal meaning and a moral-example model. What the parable means, Powery suggests, “depends on where you stand.”

He demonstrates this by examining the parable from the prospect of civil rights leader Howard Thurman’s 1951 sermon on the parable (a sermon which influenced Martin Luther King). He then introduces readers to the Solentiname Bible Study, a community discussion of scripture in 1978 led by Ernesto Cardenal. Reflecting a liberation theology perspective, the members of the Bible Study read the parable from the perspective of the poor and oppressed. “The Gospel made us political revolutionaries” (63). Powery then turns to Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861). Jacobs discussed the Good Samaritan in the context of the church and slavery. In her story, a white preacher tells the slaves to obey their masters; the gospel provides no comfort for the enslaved. For Jacobs, the wounded man in the parable represents enslaved black people and the white church does nothing to help the wounded Samaritan.

Powery does not turn to a reading of the parable until chapter 3, asking “what might the story (have) mean/t?” This chapter is an exposition of the parable, which most resembles a commentary, interacting with the details of the parable. He sets aside some misconceptions: “The Good Samaritan is not a statement about the general priesthood or the absence of compassion among the Jews” (97) and certainly it is not antisemitic. The usual American individualistic reading of the parable wants to encourage people to “be the Good Samaritan” and take care of the people in the ditch. But what about the people who are in the ditch? How does a victim of trauma understand this parable? This chapter employs modern studies on trauma as part of his interpretation of the parable. This is something unique (and helpful) since it focuses on the victim more than the Samaritan.

He entitled his final chapter provocatively: “Samaritan Lives Matter.” As his first two chapters showed, readers of the Good Samaritan parable tend to think of themselves as the victim, the man in the ditch in need of help. There are two ways to look at the Good Samaritan parable. It is a story about an individual response to an individual need. But second, the parable is about a community’s response to a community’s need. How does the church today respond to the needs of others in the community? Jesus often upsets the status quo; so Powery relates “the other” in the parable to the civil rights movement (citing MLK and John Lewis) and then asks how the parable can frame a Christian response to the murder of George Floyd or Breonna Taylor. For some Christians, Black Lives Matter is “an expression of Christian faith in action” (148).

Conclusion. Like most of Jesus’s parables, the Parable of the Good Samaritan is quite clear. Other than understanding the background of the Samaritans, most of the details do not need a great deal of exegesis to get the main point. The difficulty is in drawing a reasonable application from Jesus’s original parable that challenges the modern reader. Powery’s book certainly challenges the modern reader to think more deeply about the victim and the Samaritan by listening to various voices who suffer trauma in the contemporary world.

 

NB: Thanks to Baker Academic for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

 

What is a Scribe of the Kingdom? – Matthew 13:51-52

After seven parables describing the kingdom of God, Jesus concludes by calling his own disciples scribes of the kingdom. This enigmatic phrase is key to understanding Matthew’s view of discipleship. Disciples of Jesus are like scribes of the kingdom who bring out both old and new treasures for people to see.

He asks his disciples a question: “do you finally understand all this?” (13:51). After the series of parables, Jesus asks the disciples if they understand what has been said. They answer that they do, which might be a surprise since they have not understood in 13:13-15, 19. After Jesus has explained the parable of the Sower and the Weeds, the true disciples now are able to understand the parables without further explanation.

Library of old books

Is this an eighth parable in Matthew 13? Mark Bailey, for example, calls it an eighth parable (“The Parables of the Dragnet and of the Householder,” 282. Wilkins, Matthew, 489). On the one hand, “seven parables of the kingdom” has a certain biblical ring to it, but Matthew had eight beatitudes, so an eighth parable fits his own preference for eight examples.

If point of the Sower parable is that the true disciple produce fruit, that the disciples now understand the parables signal they are in fact true disciples. As with the Parable of the Sower, the seed is good, but the preparation of the soil determines whether the seed will bear fruit.

In response, Jesus describes the scribe of the kingdom (13:52). A scribe (ESV, γραμματεύς; translated “teacher of the law” in the NIV) is a person who is devoted to studying the Torah and searching out wisdom (Sirach 39:2-3). But his is a new kind of scribe, one that has been instructed (aorist passive participle, μαθητεύω) in the Kingdom of Heaven.

These new scribes have been instructed by Jesus in the series of parables in Matthew 13. Since Jesus described these parables as the mysteries of the kingdom of God (13:11), the new scribes have a “new teaching” to study.

This new kind of scribe is like a household owner that takes things out of his storeroom, old and new (13:52). This is structurally parallel to the mysteries of the kingdom of Heaven. The “mystery” is something that has not been previously revealed, Jesus is revealing something new about the nature of the kingdom to his disciples. This short saying explains to the disciples they have a new responsibility as new scribes in the kingdom of God to pass their understanding of the kingdom on to others (Wilkins, Matthew, 491).

The master of the house “brings out” (ἐκβάλλω) treasures. This verb does not mean, “bring out to display his treasures for others to see,” but more like “throw out” the new and old treasures so that other people can possess them. “This scribe is a discipling disciple: the treasure he has gained he passes out to others” (Nolland, Matthew, 571).

There is a combination of “old and new” in the mysteries of the kingdom in that the kingdom will happen, but not in the way that the Jews thought that it might. Jesus is weaving the messianic expectations of the first century together with a new understanding of the kingdom as beginning humbly, growing slowing, etc.

This may apply to the Sermon on the Mount as well. There is some old, since Jesus begins with and affirms the Law, but then extends the Law beyond what was written (do not kill, now includes do not be angry). The Sermon on the Mount Jesus claims to be teaching his disciples “something new.” In Matthew 9:17 Jesus described his teaching as “new wineskins for new wine” in contrast to the old wineskins of the Pharisees and the “old” teachers of the Law.

In the context of the previous three short parables, the true disciple must be willing to give everything he has to obtain this kingdom, because in the final day there will be a judgment that separates the true disciple from the false ones, everyone will be rewarded justly for their discipleship.

The Parable of the Dragnet – Matthew 13:47-50

The parable of the dragnet is the third harvest metaphor in Matthew 13 (The Sower and The Weeds). In this case the harvest is fish from the sea. This parable is “paired” with the parable of the Wheat and the Weeds in Matthew 13:24-30.

Fishing on the sea of Galilee with a dragnet

Like the Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds, the image is of a harvest, although this time the story of the parable is of a fisherman using a dragnet. We know that the harvest is a stock metaphor for the day of Judgment, but what about fishing? It is not as common a metaphor for judgment as it is for the giving of the Gospel – “I will make you fishers of men.” There is perhaps an implicit judgment in the “fisher of men” image, since not everyone that is caught in the net will be found in the kingdom of God!

Does This Parable Allude to Ezekiel 47:6-10?

In the prophet’s description of the future Temple water will flow out of the Temple and flood the Arabah, making the Dead Sea into freshwater sea which will yield “fish of many kinds.” Ezekiel’s “fish of many kinds” is often interpreted as gentiles who become part of the millennial kingdom, and then that meaning is imported into the dragnet parable. Bailey suggests “Jesus was clarifying that now no one, regardless of his or her background, was to be excluded from the offer or message of the kingdom” (Mark Bailey, “The Parables of the Dragnet and of the Householder,” 283).

Jesus’s parable is focused on the judgment when the kingdom is established, the separation of the wheat from the weeds or the sheep from the goats, not on the gentile inclusion (or not) in the future kingdom.

A Net Catches All Kinds of Fish

A “dragnet” is a net held in place by floats; weights would sink part of the net to snare any fish that happen to swim into it. The fisherman would take up the net, return to shore and “sort” the fish.

In the parable there are two categories, good fish and bad fish. It is possible the difference between the good and the bad is what the fisherman can sell (Hagner, Matthew 1-13, 399). A fisherman might throw back a small fish since he would have more money on a larger fish.

On the other hand, the good fish may refer to which are edible, according to the law, the bad fish are those that are inedible according to the law (Lev 11:9-12; Deut 14:9). The clean fish are those with scales, therefore shellfish, shark, or other “swarming creatures” are forbidden. Most of the forbidden fish are not native to the Sea of Galilee, the most common fish in the Sea is tilapia, but there are sfamnun, an African catfish. Since it has no scales, it is not to be eaten according to the Law. Since the sfamnun is a long skinny fish it is sometimes mistaken for a snake.

Jesus draws an analogy to the end of the age. As with the Parable of the Weeds, angels will separate the evil from the righteous and put the evil into a fiery furnace. Why would the fisherman destroy the “bad” fish if they are simply forbidden as food for Jews?  Could he not sell the catfish to Gentiles? Why destroy them?  To throw them back would counterproductive, next time you let down the nets you might very well catch the same unclean fish. Better to get rid of the bad so it doesn’t reduce your take the next time!

In the parable the fisherman is the Son of Man at the end of the age sorting out those that are prepared for the kingdom, so the image is of a fisherman who would not use the fish unlawfully.

There is a brief interpretation of this parable in 13:49-50 which is virtually identical to the words of 13:41-42. There is a repetition of theme of separation at the end of the age and the angels gathering out those that are unworthy and throwing them to the “furnace of fire” to destroy them, the place “where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

The Pearl of Great Price – Matthew 13:45-46

Unlike the man who finds a hidden treasure in the previous parable, the merchant in the Pearl of Great Price is searching for treasure, fine pearls. The kingdom is like the merchant in this case, not the valuable pearl, but the “is like” refers to the whole saying.

Large Pearl

The word ἔμπορος, merchant, refers to “one who travels by ship for business reasons” (literally, someone who boards a boat; BDAG), a wholesale dealer who travels and finds sources for goods to resell. This is not necessarily a shop-owner, more like someone who owns an import/export business.

The point is the man is on the lookout for valuable things he can purchase and make some profit from. By analogy, occasionally I will find a book in a used bookshop that I know is more valuable than the asking price. I might buy the book knowing that I can “flip it” in Amazon or eBay for some profit (which I usually use to buy more books).

How Valuable Were Pearls in the Ancient World?

Pearls were highly valued in the ancient world, in some cases more valuable than gold; Noland suggests we could change the image to diamonds (Nolland, Matthew, 566). But it is unlikely the merchant would sell everything in order to obtain an extremely fine one. This is another example of hyperbole in this parable. Pearls (μαργαρίτης) are listed along with precious stones (Rev 17:4, 18:12, 16) and with gold (1 Tim 2:9).

Pliny the Elder said pearls have the “first place” among valuable items, the “topmost rank among things of price” (Natural History 9.106). “Among the Indians worth 3 times as much as pure gold: Arrian, Ind. 8, 13 and always in great demand: ibid. 8, 9)” (BDAG). Pearls from India were introduced into the Mediterranean area at the time of Alexander the Great and are not mentioned in the literature of Egypt or the Old Testament prior to that time.

Sell Everything to Gain the Kingdom

When the merchant finds the ultimate valuable pearl, he sells everything to purchase it. Since he is a businessman, this means something like “he liquidates his assets.”

Like the Hidden Treasure, the parable of the Pearl of Great Price is also about the cost of discipleship.  Here is no need to allegorize this pearl to make it the church (Walvoord, Matthew: Thy Kingdom Come, 105) or Christ (Pentecost, The Parables of Jesus, 60). If anyone wants to follow Jesus, no price is too great to pay. ““the glorious character of the kingdom brought by Jesus, which justifies the cost of absolute discipleship (Hagner, Matthew 1-13, 396).”

There are some disciples of Jesus who were genuinely searching for the kingdom and found it in Jesus. Perhaps these are the disciples of John the Baptist or some Pharisees who responded to Jesus (Nicodemus, for example).

The Hidden Treasure described the disciples who unexpectedly find the Kingdom of God in Jesus’s ministry, The Pearl of great price described a disciple who was diligently searching for the Kingdom and also finds it in Jesus’s ministry. In both cases, the finder has something far more valuable than they could possibly imagine.

The Parable of a Hidden Treasure – Matthew 13:44

As in the case of the Mustard Seed and the Yeast, the parable of the hidden treasure and the pearl of great price are linked thematically. In the previous two sayings, the smallness and hiddenness of the Kingdom was the main point. In these two parables, the kingdom is hidden and ultimately valuable are the main idea. In each parable, something valuable is discovered, then the discover sells everything he has in order to purchase the item of great value.

Bible Times Farmer

 

Are these “insider parables”?

The final three parables in Matthew 13 are addressed only to the disciples, followed by Jesus asking his disciples if the disciples have understood “all these things” (13:51-52). In Matthew 11:25 Jesus thanks the Father because he has “hidden these things form the wise and revealed them to little children.” Matthew 12 is the decisive break with the Pharisees. It is not difficult to understand the “wise” as the Pharisees and teachers of the law and the “little children” as the disciples. The hidden things Jesus revealed to the disciples is the nature of the Kingdom of God, which is a mystery (Matthew 13) hidden from the religious teachers, aristocratic priests and other elites in Second Temple Judaism.

Most commentators draw a parallel between the hidden treasure and the pearl. But there is a contrast between the two seekers. One finds the treasure by accident; the other was searching for valuable pearls. Both find the treasure, and both sell everything in order to obtain it. If the point is merely “the kingdom is very valuable” then the parables say the same thing. The difference is the one who finds the kingdom; a difference which is present among Jesus’s disciples.

Hiding and Finding

It is not unusual for someone to hide treasure in the ground, especially prior to modern banking systems this was rather common (“stuffing money in your mattress”). There were no salvage laws with respect to finding treasure (basically “finders keepers,” see m. Baba Batra 4:8). Presumably the original owner of the field is not known, but the legality of the man’s actions is not really the point of the story.

Josephus reports that the Romans discovered all kinds of gold and silver buried by the Jews in anticipation of the invasion by Rome (JW 7.5.2). The Copper Scroll (3Q15) from Qumran lists a number of buried treasures although the scroll has never been deciphered and no actual treasure has been found.

In the wisdom literature there is a comparison drawn between finding wisdom and finding a hidden treasure (Proverbs 2:1-4; Sirach 20:30).

The man who finds the treasure sells everything he has to purchase the field. It is easy enough to get side-tracked on the legality of the action of the man in the story, but that is not the point. There is nothing in the Old Testament law that specifically deals with this situation, and given the fact that people buried their savings somewhat more commonly than today, it is possible that occasionally the situation being described could actually happen. Jesus is not commenting on the legally or morality of the action. The important thing is a hidden treasure has been found, one that is worth risking everything for.

Does re-hiding the hidden treasure mean anything? Some commentators have allegorized this part of the story to refer to the delay of the kingdom, but it is just part of the story, the “finder’s desperate effort to own the treasure” (Bailey, “The Parable of the Hidden Treasure and of the Pearl Merchant,” 179).  The man sells all that he has “in his joy” and buys the field so that he can take possession of the hidden treasure.

What Does the Parable Teach?

The point is the Kingdom is so valuable it is worth “selling out” in every way in order to obtain the kingdom. The man was not looking for a treasure but found it unexpectedly. It is ironic that the Pharisees sought the treasure (the kingdom of God), but they have not found it because it is hidden in Jesus’s ministry.

The man in the parable is a disciple so Jesus who has left everything behind to follow Jesus (Blomberg, Interpreting the Parables, 279). The disciples have more or less done this already. They left their homes and families to follow Jesus. The encouragement to future generations of disciples is to realize the value of what they are seeking.

Another aspect of the mystery of the kingdom in the parable of the hidden treasure is that the kingdom is discovered. In this case it is discovered by one who is not seeking it.  It comes suddenly, in a way that is not expected. There is not only a joy in the discovery, but the immediately realization that it is worth more than life itself.

For many of Jesus’s disciples, they found the kingdom even though they were not looking for it. They left their homes and family and have followed Jesus with total dedication. However, other disciples are equally dedicated to Jesus but were seeking the kingdom all along.