Tuesday, July 19, 2016

McGrath's Bewitching Interpretation

Remember when the show "Bewitched" changed out Darrins on us? One minute we were watching Dick York and all of a sudden we were watching Dick Sargant. For most, the show went on and no one really cared. For some, however, it ended up changing the show for them. They no longer recognized the couple they had come to love as the same one. This is much of what it's like when I discuss the parable of the Good Samaritan with people. Most people switch the characters around, so that the neighbor ends up being the one who is injured when, actually, it isn't in the story. Others make everyone the neighbor despite the fact that Jesus asks, "Which ONE out of the three became the neighbor?" For James McGrath, he switches out a lot, but the most noticeable is his ignoring of the identity of the characters in the context of Luke and in the parable itself.

McGrath replied to my post concerning the correct interpretation of the parable of the Good Samaritan because an "anonymous reader" asked him to do so. I expect McGrath to have the interpretation he does. This particular interpretation is at the heart of liberal Christianity, and McGrath is a big proponent of that type of religion, so it does not surprise me that if even evangelicals get this text wrong, he would as well.  Let's take a look at what he says.

The irony is that the post accurately reflects the perspective of the person who asked Jesus “who is my neighbor?” in the story in the Gospel of Luke. The question could be paraphrased as “to whom am I obligated, as a member of the covenant community, and under what circumstances?” The answer was expected to address not only the point that was considered more obvious – a fellow Jew, not a Roman or other foreigner – but also the intersection with other laws – what should one do if purity, Sabbath, or other laws would normally constrain one’s actions in the given context?
First off, I am not in disagreement that this is what is being asked. The problem with what McGrath does here is that he ignores the players on the field and the context in which this parable is given. The parable is unique to Luke. Luke uses it in continuity with what he has been arguing in his Gospel, namely, that those who claim to be "children of Abraham" must back it up by doing good to other "children of Abraham." This is what I mean by "members of the covenant community," and what Luke means by "neighbor." The parable is in that context (see my post below concerning the Argument of the Gospel of Luke). So there is no irony here. McGrath thinks there is one because he has made the parable into a generic moral tale that has nothing to do with Jesus' larger message in the book, and he has done this by ignoring the identity of the characters in the story.
The characters in the parable are three Jews, two elites and one Jew of unknown status (his traveling alone from Jerusalem to Jericho assumes his identity, as well as Luke's larger literary argument), although his traveling without a caravan or servants may indicate that he is poor, and one Samaritan. Samaritans differed with Jews over where to worship YHWH, but they were worshipers of YHWH nonetheless. They too were descendants of Abraham, and followed the laws of the Pentateuch, even the purity laws (cf. 17:11-19). 
All four are believers in YHWH, children of Abraham by name. Samaritans are not pagans, and neither is the injured man. We are dealing first and foremost with an issue internal to these covenant members. To say, then, that a Roman or other foreigner would be addressed in Jesus' rebuke is, again, to add to the story. 
but also the intersection with other laws – what should one do if purity, Sabbath, or other laws would normally constrain one’s actions in the given context?
The purity laws are really not in view. That is a bit midrashic on McGrath's part. Although Luke does address ideas of purity in his Gospel, the emphasis is on those with a higher status versus those with a lower status amongst the "children of Abraham." In order to make this parable about purity laws, McGrath actually has to employ a midrash where he knows what the individual characters are thinking. No thoughts are voiced in the parable, however, and if the parable was emphasizing purity issues, one would think this would be done. Instead, all of that has to be supplied, and the context of Luke, especially the immediate context, which deals with exulting in positions of power rather than in being a member of God's kingdom (10:17-24), is emphasizing social status within the community.  So the parable addresses, specifically, the idea that those who would definitely be considered the elite within the kingdom (i.e., a priest and a Levite) disprove that they are covenant members/children of Abraham/believers by their actions toward another child of Abraham/covenant member/believer. 
Jesus’ parable addresses precisely these concerns – but not in the way that was expected. The protagonist is not merely robbed of money but of his clothing – the things that let you know whether or not he was a “fellow member of the covenant community” had been taken away.
Is McGrath suggesting that he would not be identifiable as a Jew on this road from Jerusalem to Jericho? I find this to be a bit of an odd argument. The two Jews and the Samaritan would have known that he is Jewish without his clothing. This is a very odd argument, and I think one that shows that McGrath is grabbing at straws to keep the modern traditional interpretation.
 Jesus is thus engaging in the classic philosophical exercise of creating a thought experiment that complicates a popular approach to morality.
Actually, according to the context of Luke, and Jesus' own statements, He is merely using the parable as a way of identifying oneself as a covenant member/neighbor. This may sound like splitting hairs, but it is important to note that the emphasis given by Jesus is not on the activity of what any generic person should do, but upon the activity that identifies one as a true covenant member. It is activity that exposes identity versus activity regardless of identity. It is, therefore, important to get the actors and the recipients of their actions correct in the context. That little difference is why McGrath, and many others, miss the point of this story.
The story then has two Jews who may be presumed to be of relatively high status, and thus perhaps of greater means, yet who were also bound strictly by purity rules because of their employment in the temple. And thus the priest and Levite avoid what looks like a corpse, and thus the impurity that they were commanded to avoid.
Again, although I wouldn't disagree that these would be reasons priests and Levites would avoid someone like this, McGrath is adding to the story by adding to their thought process. The parable doesn't voice their thought process, and if we interpret the parable in such a way that it needs our midrashic elements emphasized, we have likely missed the point of the text, which McGrath has. The story is not about purity laws, even though we might surmise that as a possible reason for their not taking care of a fellow covenant member. The story is just about their true status in the covenant community as it is evidenced by their lack of compassion on a fellow covenant member. The lawyers original question has to do with whether he is saved. Jesus answers that question by means of the parable. That is why he ignores the second question. He is still answering the first. The Scripture from which the command is taken already answers the second.
This all seems like the set-up for a joke at the expense of clergy – their religious scrupulousness put them at a distance from ordinary people, and the listener would expect an ordinary Jew to come to the rescue.
Again, now McGrath is telling us the thoughts of the listener. Again, I might agree that one might think this in that context. The problem is that he, again, is emphasizing something as his interpretive framework that the parable doesn't even mention. If the story had a parenthetical statement like, "they all stood in anticipation, thinking he would say that another Jew would come along . . .". but it has no such element. It is a dubious methodology in coming to the real interpretation of the parable.
The introduction of the Samaritan throws the listener a curve ball. Unlike the priest and Levite, the Samaritan could easily have said that the man by the side of the road is in all probability not part of his community – odds were that he was Jewish and thus not a “neighbor” from the perspective of the Samaritan.
He could have said it, but he doesn't. Again, McGrath's interpretation relies on all of these unvoiced thought processes. Jesus doesn't emphasize any of this. The background we know we can absolutely take are the unalterable facts, which are that the Samaritans would have been considered the lowest of the children of Abraham and the priest and Levite the highest/the elite among them. Luke's overall context confirms this, and this is what we need to secure that background information is legitimately applied. Beyond that, it is merely speculation, ones with which I may agree, but ones that should not control our interpretation of the text. That's just good exegetical methodology. The text is not about the religious taking care of the non-religious, which is where McGrath's purity interpretation seems to be driving him.
It is a curve ball, but not the curve ball McGrath seems to think.
And yet the Samaritan helps him even so. And we are challenged to do likewise. The parable Jesus told thus reverses the question, asking “to whom are you and should you be a neighbor?” And the implied answer is “to anyone in need, to anyone who, if the situation were reversed, you would desperately want their help.”
Here is where the sleight of hand occurs. Everyone agrees that Jesus has flipped the script and argued to the lawyer that it is about his being the neighbor; but the interpretation McGrath wants is not warranted by the characters used in the parable, nor is it warranted by the larger context of Luke, nor is it warranted by my study of the word "neighbor" in the New Testament, which was the point of that study. Where does the parable say that the injured Jewish man represent all people, regardless of covenant status? Where does it say that he represents only my fellow man, regardless of religion, and not specifically another covenant community member? Because the man is a son of Abraham, a covenant community member.
McGrath has to stretch here in order to get to the modern traditional interpretation of the passage. What he needs is a Gentile here. He needs a pagan. Then one could interpret this text as saying such a thing. Otherwise, his interpretation is a non sequitur. To say that one is a fellow covenant community member/neighbor because he takes care of a fellow covenant community member/neighbor does not in any way logically entail that people outside the covenant are also included. This may sound like a nicer interpretation, but it isn't a textually or logically sound one. His interpretation, therefore, is without merit.
And so the blog post mentioned at the beginning of this post misses the fact that, while both Jews and Samaritans were (for the most part at least) descended from the people of ancient Israel, each denied the legitimacy of the other’s claim to be part of the covenant people.
Actually, I didn't miss that fact. That was the whole point. They did not consider themselves neighbors because of their ethnic status. Jesus is arguing that ethnic status is irrelevant. It is one's religious status evidenced by his treatment of the disadvantaged in the covenant that confirms one's covenant status. This is Luke's entire point from shepherds to Samaritans, and even believing Gentiles, in his Gospel. McGrath wants to make this parable about an externally directed moral to just help anyone in need, but this drowns the point that Luke has Jesus make both here and throughout his work. 
 Indeed, it seems to be trying very hard to argue against the very point that Jesus made through the parable! The question posed to Jesus shared the assumptions about the definition of “neighbor” that are expressed there. 
It actually wasn't very hard at all. I just used sound principles in interpreting the text rather than ignoring them. McGrath wants to say that the post shares the assumptions of the lawyer in the passage. Of course, it absolutely does not. The lawyer is trying to justify himself. This statement evidences that he thinks he already does this. Throughout Luke's Gospel, those who are the elite do not associate with those who are seen as sinners, prostitutes, lepers, etc., even though they are all children of Abraham, not even to call them to repentance or to seek their cleansing. His "neighbors" are likely the elite, as the term was often interpreted in terms of one's friends. Hence, he would have read it as loving one's friends, which he thinks he did. Jesus makes it about loving anyone in the covenant community who is in need. To love one within the covenant community is to love God who that community represents; and loving God and neighbor confirm one's status in the covenant as a saved individual, which is what the original question was all about (10:25). McGrath wants to turn the lawyer into a modern person asking the question in a larger society of unbelievers, and in doing so, has changed every character involved. But this is not the story Jesus told.
But the story Jesus told challenged them. And it is disheartening to find a Christian attempting to use linguistics to avoid the uncomfortable and challenging implications of Jesus’ teaching.
It is disheartening to find a New Testament scholar employing such anachronistic methodologies to get the parable to speak to his modern sensibilities instead of just interpret the ancient text in its own context. McGrath, as a liberal who has affection for the social gospel, wants this to support his modern inclusivism, but it frankly does no such thing. The text simply is not addressing what one does with those outside the covenant. Other texts do that, but this is not one of them. 
To sum up that context, the parable is sandwiched in between two scenes. The first is one where Jesus warns the disciples not to exult in their authority, but rather in their identity as truly saved individuals in the covenant community. We are told that God has revealed these things to the lowly described as "little children." He then affirms to the poor apostles that many kings and prophets, those with high status, have longed to see what they see and hear what they hear and never heard it, placing a greater importance on one's hearing the gospel and Jesus' teaching than being in a high position.
He, then, tells the story of Mary and Martha, a contrast between one doing works apart from sitting at Christ's feet with one doing no works but sitting at Christ's feet. Again, this emphasizes the primacy of being a believer in Jesus over being concerned for works. 
What this does is help us further with the interpretation of what is sandwiched in between, the parable of the Good Samaritan. The parable is meant to say the same thing. One should care most about his own covenant status, and this is evidenced by his following Jesus and taking care of others who follow Jesus. This is Luke's intent of the parable. McGrath has simply missed it because he, and many in our modern day, are busy turning the parable into a modern Aesop's fable. 
One might also confirm what Luke has taught by how Matthew uses it (i.e., the one in need is among the least of these brothers of Mine, not people outside of Jesus), or the New Testament in general, which was my original point with the word study. The New Testament uses it in the same way that the parable here does. It refers to covenant status,
And I do want to point out that there is nothing in McGrath's post that negates what I said. The parable doesn't actually ever define the word "neighbor." That's a mistake left over from not paying attention to Jesus' flipping the question. A neighbor is not whoever is injured or needs help because Jesus never assigns that term to the injured man. It's assigned to one, and only one, of the three men. What I was attempting to do in the post, and apparently even McGrath's readers didn't get it, since I was accused of some absurd diachronic fallacy, is to show how the New Testament defines the term based upon the original passage in Leviticus, which is internally covenantal. That was all ignored so that those who want this parable to say something else could go off on some diatribe that both begged the question and created a straw man argument out of what I actually argued. 
Instead, McGrath has changed the characters and the context of the parable in order to get a different point the parable is making, one that suits his modern sensibilities better. In short, he's given us another Darrin, even a Derwood. Most don't mind, but I'd personally rather go with the original. 

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