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An essay donated by James B. Gray

"The Good Samaritan parable and book of Job"

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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 information.

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:

bullet Was the Good Samaritan parable a conscious attempt on the part of the gospel writer to update Job?
bullet 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.

bullet 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.
bullet 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 occasion.
bullet 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 parable.
bullet 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.
bullet 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.
bullet Each story has a Suffering One.
bullet 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).
bullet 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.
bullet 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.
bullet 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.
bullet 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.
bullet 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.

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  1. Karen Armstrong, "A History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam," Ballantine Books, (1993), Page 65. Read reviews or order this book safely from online book store
  2. 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."
  3. I deliberately eschew the use of the word "who" here.
  4. Charles Foster Kent, "The Social Teachings of the Prophets and Jesus," Charles Scribners Sons, (1917), p. 159. Read reviews or order a reprinted version of this book safely from online book store
  5. 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 Jew only.
  6. 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.)
  7. 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 print, but used copies are often avaiable from'a Marketplace
  8. 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.

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Originally posted: 2008-MAR-30
Latest update: 2008-MAR-30
Author: James B. Gray

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