An essay donated by James B. Gray
"The Good Samaritan parable and book of Job"
For many years my favorite parable in the gospels has been that of the Good
Samaritan. Over the years I have come to interpret the parable in a variety of
ways; recently, it occurred to me that the parable could be thought of as a
subtle commentary on the “Old Testament" book of Job. Here, then, are the views
that I have developed regarding this matter.
First, some background: The institution of kingship apparently was introduced
into Hebrew society around 1020 BCE, Saul being the first king. In 926 BCE,
however, the kingdom was divided into a Northern Kingdom (Israel—with its
Israelites), and a much smaller Southern Kingdom (Judah—with its Jews). Israel
fell to the Assyrians in 722 BCE, and the Israelites were killed/scattered—so
that they disappeared from history. Then in 586 BCE Judah fell to the
Babylonians, and of those not killed, some (the “better" ones) were deported to
Babylon. An edict of Cyrus II (“the Great") in 537 BCE, however, permitted those
Jews who wished to return to Palestine; some of them then did, and began a new
phase of (now) Jewish history (there no longer being Israelites).
Although scholars differ in how they date the book of Job—some date it to the
seventh century BCE, others as recently as the second century BCE—I will here
follow Karen Armstrong in assuming that the book was written after the Exile
(i.e., after 537 BCE), and was a revision of an older story. 1 What I wish to
emphasize in discussing the book is the fact that there are certain parallels
between Job and the Good Samaritan parable, which parallels lead me to ask the
question of whether or not the Jesus of the gospels in effect “trashed" Job in
that famous parable. First, though, let me provide some additional background
One of the key concepts of Hebrew theology had been that of a Covenant—a
contract between God and the Hebrews (as a people, not as individuals) to the
effect that if the Hebrews followed God's commands, God would reward them.
Actually, the Covenant can be thought of as especially being an agreement
between God and the Hebrew elite; and we see the concept discussed best,
perhaps, in the book of Deuteronomy (which book appears to have been Jesus'
favorite Old Testament book).
While Israel (i.e., the Northern Kingdom) was being threatened by the Assyrians
(and even before), prophets (including Amos, Hosea, Micah, and First Isaiah)
arose, and attributed Israel's problems to the Israeli elite: problems were
occurring (they asserted) not because God was failing the Israelites but,
rather, because the Israelites (the elite in particular) were failing God—by not
abiding by God's commandments. (It should be kept in mind that these
commandments—except for the cultic ones—were not so much of a “religious"
nature, but of a social nature—pertaining to one's duties to one’s neighbors;
see my essay "worship"). Perhaps God was not directly causing Israel to have problems,
but was at least permitting these problems—doing so as a means of punishing
Israel (i.e., the Israeli elite) for its disobedience, for not keeping its part
of the Covenant.
Later, while Judah (i.e., the Southern Kingdom) was experiencing problems,
prophets (e.g., Jeremiah and Ezekiel) arose in Judah, and offered much the same
message. But with the fall of Judah, and subsequent deportation of “leading"
members of Jewish society, the theological argument of the prophets—that the
troubles of the Jews were attributable to sinfulness on the part of the people
(elite in particular)—became not only unpalatable, but unbelievable. Some
theological innovation was called for, else Judaism as a religion was in danger
of being rejected by its adherents. 2 Such innovation occurred (on the part of
some of those returning from the Exile) with the writing of Ecclesiastes—and
also (and, indeed, especially) Job.
The basic message of Job (as I see it) is that God's ways are not comprehensible
to humans: God is a Mystery that 3 cannot be grasped by mere mortals. Ostensibly
it goes on (in the concluding verses) to argue that once one grasps (!) this,
God will reward one—but I agree with those who believe that the ending to the
book was tacked on later: certainly the ending is a “tacky" one, that cheapens
the theology of the book. Rather, it seems to me that the book on the one
hand—and very explicitly—argues for the grandeur (if incomprehensibility) of
God. But, it seems to me, that the book also—in chapters 29 and 31 in
particular—constitutes a partial updating of the (Deuteronomic) Law; at any
rate, I agree with Charles Foster Kent that Job presents “the culminating Old
Testament portrait of a social [elite] citizen." 4
There are certain parallels between Job and Jesus' Good Samaritan parable (Luke
10:25 - 37), and this suggests two questions:
||Was the Good Samaritan parable a conscious attempt on the part of the gospel
writer to update Job?
||Given that there are not only similarities between the two but important
differences, did that writer wish not merely to update Job, but “trash" it?
Let us, then, attempt to answer these questions, beginning by noting
similarities and differences between the two.
||Both are stories, not historical accounts. It is clear, I think, that when
Luke has Jesus tell the parable of the Good Samaritan, he was having Jesus tell
a story (a parable, in fact), and was not recounting an historical event—and
that his readers of (or listeners to) his gospel knew this. Likely there are
people (so-called “fundamentalists" in particular) who view the book of Job as
recounting real events (while recognizing that the Good Samaritan parable was
“just" a story); but I don't think many scholars would accept this view—and
neither do I.
||The two stories differ greatly in length: the Good Samaritan story is pithy,
the book of Job goes on and on; the former is comparable to Lincoln’s Gettysburg
Address, the latter to Edward Everett’s earlier (lengthy) speech on that
||Both have four principal human characters—Job with Job, Eliphaz, Bildad, and
Zophar; the Good Samaritan story with the injured man, a priest, a Levite, and
the Samaritan. In addition, however, Elihu plays an important role in the later
chapters of Job, and robbers and an innkeeper have roles in the Good Samaritan
||God is explicitly present in Job, but not the Good Samaritan story. One can,
though, argue that God is implicitly present in the latter in that God was the
author of the story—or at least approved it.
||The human characters in the two stories represent classes of people (even
though they have names in Job). I perceive Job as representing the Jewish people
in their travails, and the other human characters in the story as representing
conventional Jewish theologians. In the Good Samaritan story I perceive the
injured man as representing suffering people in general, 5 the priest and Levite
as representing “religious" (i.e., people who engage in devout observances as a
occupation), and the Samaritan as representing what a truly religious person
is—namely, a person who does what God wants, not simply one who has an office of
some sort in a “religious" institution.
||Each story has a Suffering One.
||The central character in each story is different. In Job the central character
is Job (or is it God? At any rate, both God and Job dominate that story.) In the
Good Samaritan story I believe that it is the Samaritan who is clearly the
dominant character. Again, though, one might argue that God, although only
implicitly involved in the story, plays a key role in the Good Samaritan story;
for it is God who implicitly provides primary direction in the life of the
Samaritan—whether Jesus' fellow Jews want to recognize this or not. (Certainly
most hearers of the story must have found it shocking, even on the verge of
being blasphemous—assuming that it was actually told by Jesus.)
Thus, we can say that in Job a Suffering One is the central character (with God
also prominently present), whereas in the Good Samaritan story it is someone who
comes to the assistance of the Suffering One who is central (but with God
likewise playing a prominent, if only implicit, role).
||The Suffering One in Job not only has a name, but is a “talking head." In
contrast, the Suffering One in the Good Samaritan story is nameless,
faceless—and silent. Presumably, in fact, that Suffering One is unable to speak.
||Whereas Job is continually thinking (and talking) about his suffering, the
nameless Suffering One of the Good Samaritan story presumably is unable to
think—or think clearly—about his suffering. Therefore, we listeners/readers must
think about his suffering for him.
||Job protests over and over again that he does not deserve to be suffering:
after all, he has followed God's Law—and more. In the Good Samaritan parable the
question never arises as to whether the Suffering One deserved to be set upon
and injured. The focus of the story, rather, is on how one should react to a
Suffering One that one chances upon (more broadly, a Suffering One of whom one
becomes aware 6): a Suffering One deserves our attention by virtue of being a
Suffering One, period.
||The Good Samaritan parable does not address the question of why there is
suffering—on the one hand suggesting thereby that we will never fully understand
why “bad things happen to good people," or even “bad" people, for that matter.
But also suggesting that insofar as suffering exists, the point is not to
intellectualize about it, but to do what one can (individually and collectively)
to alleviate it. Job is concerned about suffering, but note that his obsession
is with his own suffering, not that of others. In, e.g., Chapter 29 he lists his
“good deeds," and one would have to admit that ostensibly Job is an admirable
person. But Job doesn't seem to feel the suffering of others; he doesn't seem to
empathize with others. Job's orientation is to his own (undeserved) suffering,
whereas the narrator of the Good Samaritan story (i.e., Jesus in the gospel) is
trying to get the listener/reader to focus on the suffering of others—and the
proper response to it.
||The climax of Job is an extended discussion—by God—of God; no such discussion
occurs in the Good Samaritan story. Concerning the latter, it’s as if God is a
Mystery, so let's just leave it at that, and concentrate on what's pleasing to
God: not just thinking about it, but (and especially) doing. One could almost
say that if Job is a theological work, then the Good Samaritan story is
anti-theological—close, indeed, to being Buddhist in orientation. 7 It seems to
me that the book of Ecclesiastes—although having similarities with the book of
Job—is, nonetheless, very different from Job in that, like the Good Samaritan
parable, it is basically anti-theological in orientation.
What does all of this add up to? It seems to me that the writer of Luke has
Jesus saying in the Good Samaritan parable that if one is suffering, one should
not be like Job and stew in one's hurt—complaining that one does not deserve to
be suffering (because one is, after all, a “good" person). This might be the
“natural" thing to do, but one should strive to avoid this reaction. Rather, one
should attempt to orient one’s thoughts, one’s life, to others (but not to the
extent that one loses one’s own selfhood in the process). Not only will one
thereby help to remove hurt in others, but one’s own hurt may be healed in the
process. In addition, self-actualization may occur in the process as one
develops—and finds in oneself—talents while working to minister to the needs of
others (which sensing in oneself can give one a sense of well-being). Last but
not least, one may find God, for one may learn that “God is love" (as I John 4:8
declares): rather than finding God by intellectualizing about God (as the writer
of Job does), one should (Jesus was perhaps suggesting, as expressed by Luke)
find God by doing God's will. In doing so, indeed, one may arrive at a concept
of God that deviates from the conventional one—e.g., in being beyond
verbalization—but is infinitely more meaningful, because personal.
Job was a good person—and he certainly thought of himself as one! But perhaps
that’s part of the problem: Job was not a very humble person, and he did good
out of a sense of duty, not out of a genuine feeling of empathy for others. Job
needed a certain attitude that permeated his very being; if he had had it, he
would not only have been a truly good person, but would have discovered that
Mystery we call God in the process. Note that what I am saying in effect is that
the writer of Luke, in his Good Samaritan parable that he attributed to Jesus,
is presenting a perspective closely related to the “thrust" of Deuteronomy.
Is this the sort of advice that we can live by in contemporary America?
Certainly it is out of tune with the dominant ethos, but I find it of interest
that several years ago psychologist Bernard Rimland, 8 in a notable study of
happiness, found that a higher proportion of other-oriented people tended to be
happy than of self-oriented people. Thus, even though we are taught by some
“scientists" (to use a kind label for Economists) that people are naturally
selfish, and it is true that being other-oriented has little “success value" in
our society, it is nevertheless true that a person who goes against the grain of
our society in being other-oriented is more likely to be happy than a
self-absorbed person. What's interesting here, of course, is that the Jesus of
the gospels (Luke in this particular case) seems to have not only internalized
the law that one should love the neighbor, but seems to have acquired the
insight that following this law should not be perceived merely as an obligation,
but an opportunity—for one’s own well-being.
Was, then, the parable of the Good Samaritan included in Luke as a subtle
critique of Job (to address the question that I posed at the beginning of this
paper)? I believe that the parable is far too clever, brilliant to have been
invented by the writer of Luke, so the question is whether the historical Jesus
created the parable, and created it specifically to critique Job as against
Deuteronomy. On the one hand, I am convinced that the historical Jesus did
author the parable; and although I find it highly conceivable that Jesus
intended the parable to be a commentary on Job, there is no way of establishing
his intent in creating the parable.
Karen Armstrong, "A History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam," Ballantine Books, (1993), Page 65.
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- In a society based on business activity (i.e., the buying/selling/bartering of goods and services at the inter-family level) "religious" institutions
must satisfy their "customers" just like other businesses—or face the prospect of "going out of business."
- I deliberately eschew the use of the word "who" here.
Charles Foster Kent, "The Social Teachings of the Prophets and Jesus," Charles Scribners Sons, (1917), p. 159.
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a reprinted version of this book safely from Amazon.com online book store
- Many scholars likely would argue that Jesus confined his ministry to fellow Jews, thus that the injured man should be thought of as representing a suffering
- In today’s world, with the communications technology in existence, we have the capability of learning about suffering throughout the world
and learning about it quickly. (How accurate and “full" that information is, is another question, of course.)
See, e.g., Raymond Panikkar's provocative "Nirvana and the Awareness of the Absolute," (Pages 81-99) in Joseph P. Whelan, S.J., "The God
Experience: Essays in Hope," Newman Press, (1971). This book is out of
used copies are often avaiable from Amazon.com'a Marketplace
Bernard Rimland, "The Altruism Paradox," Psychological Reports, Vol. 51 (1982), Page 522. Rimland was director of the Institute for Child
Behavior Research. His primary finding of interest was that people who were labeled happy were also labeled unselfish. Thus, we have the irony that
supposedly one gains happiness by giving primary attention to “Number 1"—but that relevant research provides no support whatsoever to this “priceless
pearl of worldly wisdom.
Originally posted: 2008-MAR-30
Latest update: 2008-MAR-30
Author: James B. Gray