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).
Emerson 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.