Saturday, July 12, 2008

Chapter 9 - The Thieves & the Good Samaritan

The story of the Good Samaritan has been renarrated many times, but the meaning of this story in its original setting has been overlooked. If the episode is retold against the background of a seventh year, a whole new perspective becomes apparent. The main characters become more than a set of flat personality types acting out a most unlikely script. They become representatives of people who were in the audience when Jesus spoke, and among the disciples who were trying to cope with the many challenges presented by the special nature of the seventh year.

Luke's gospel provides us with the only recorded version. It begins with a basic question asked by a lawyer: "Master what shall we do to inherit eternal life?"

Jesus, using the Socratic method, responded with a question of his own, "What is written in the law?" How readest thou?"

The lawyer appealed to the passages found in the Torah, "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbor as thyself."

Jesus agreed with the lawyers reply. The lawyer, however, was not quieted, and pursued his train of thought by asking, "Who is my neighbour?"

The exchange continued. Jesus then told the following story:
"A certain man [who was probably a food merchant and very likely regarded as an export merchant engaging in agricultural commerce during the sabbatical year] went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, [the fine herb and date capitol of the entire Mediterranean region] and fell among thieves, [who presumably acted as vigilantes or zealots of the law], which stripped him of his raiment, and wounded him [probably by stoning], and departed, leaving him half dead. [It also probably follows that they took all of the valuables belonging to the victim and destroyed any written documents.]
"And by chance there came down a priest that way: and when he saw him, he passed on the other side [in approval of the judgment meted out upon a sabbath violator]. And likewise a Levite, when he was at the place, came and looked on him, and passed by on the other side."
"But a certain Samaritan [one of those people so much despised among the Jews for their disrespectful conduct directed against the Jerusalem Temple, but tolerated as a food import merchant during the seventh year], as he journeyed, came where he was: and when he saw him, he had compassion on him [as a fellow merchant], and went to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring oil and wine [a seventh year treatment which could only have been rendered by a Jewish attendant to save a person's life], and set him upon his beast [at a time when beasts of burden should also have their rest], and brought him to an inn, and took care of him.
"And on the morrow when he departed, he took out two pence, and gave them to the host, and said unto him, Take care of him; and whatsoever thou spendest more, when I come again, I will repay thee."

In conclusion Jesus queried the lawyer, "Which now of these three, thinkest thou, was neighbour unto him that fell among the thieves?"

The more-than-likely chastised lawyer looked into his soul and answered, "He that shewed mercy upon him." The business of showing mercy, absolving financial debts, suspending or abrogating all forms of legal agreements, and abstaining from rendering enforceable judgments must have loomed as an almost impossible charter to the legal protagonist.

At another time Jesus had said, "Woe unto you lawyers! for you have taken away the key of knowledge: ye entered not in yourselves [to the domain of the sabbatical season], and them that were entering in ye hindered." Instead, at this time Jesus simply challenged the lawyer by saying, "Go, and do thou likewise."

The story had a charitable message for anyone who cared to listen to the words that Jesus had spoken. It is very likely that Jesus had taken this opportunity to teach not only the lawyer but also his zealot and obstinate-minded disciples, who could easily have condoned the reported thievery. The thieves mentioned in the story of the "Good Samaritan" are the most anonymous personalities involved in the episode, and may have been portrayed as such for the sake of suppressing the zealot nature of some of the disciples who followed Jesus. The malicious thieves are the obvious villains in any cultural setting except the one in which a sabbath violation may have been involved. It was not unusual for the zealots and the even more extreme members of the Sicarri party, or "dagger men" to take it upon themselves to act as policeman, judge, and executioner. Many other similar accounts describing self-justifiable zealot behavior can be found among recorded Jewish annals. The message of good news suitable to the yearlong sabbath placed mercy before either judgment or retribution, and for those who needed an extra reminder he had added, "Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again."

Luke's stripped down version of the Good Samaritan doesn't tell the whole story. Credibility suffers. One might expect a more considerate and conscientious type of priest or Levite to be traveling about the countryside than the uncaring persons described in the story. The violent act by itself is somewhat surprising since the parable was told at a time when Rome boasted of the overall safety with which commerce operated within the empire. Most perplexing of all is the choice of a main character such as a Samaritan, since Samaritans and Jews normally kept their distance from one another, and certainly were not known for assisting one another. A setting incorporating the conditions existing within a sabbatical season adds a greater sense of reality to the story. One might even wonder whether the story originated as a parable or, perhaps, as the recounting of an incident that was known to have recently happened. Regardless of the origins of the story, the story's central message was also aimed at the zealots, at least one of whom could be counted among the disciples who followed Jesus. The gospels clearly name Simon the Canaanite as a zealot-minded disciple. One could speculate that Judas Iscariot, and possibly James and John, the sons of Zebedee, as well as Peter, were also inclined to be zealot supporters. We can't determine the actual number of zealots who followed Jesus, but whatever the number, an impression of a potentially troublesome zealot presence must have prevailed among the Roman loyalist observers as Jesus traveled the countryside with a band of Galileans.[1]

Jesus challenged the lawyer as well as the zealots to do good. The zealots could hardly have escaped a major confrontation with Jesus, despite the gospel tendency to gloss over their general presence. One such significant occasion may have occurred at the time known as the miracle of the loaves and the fishes.

During this episode, Jesus had attracted a large assembly who followed him and his close disciples into a remote area away from the villages. The gospels don't provide any other purpose, for when Jesus retreated into the remote area, other than saying that Jesus wanted to escape the overwhelming presence of the crowds. All the same, Jesus may have had a strong desire to see the resulting situation occur as it did. At times, food became an issue just as it had been when Jesus and his disciples had walked through the grain field. In this particular case we learn, "when it was evening, his disciples came to him, saying, This is a desert place, and the time is now past; send the multitude away, that they may go into the villages and buy themselves victuals. But Jesus said unto them, They need not depart; give ye them to eat."

The gospel narratives represent the disciples as being clearly overwhelmed by the request. A meager amount of loaves and fishes is assembled and presented to Jesus. He blessed and broke the food into pieces for distribution. The multitude is said to be satisfied, and many more baskets full are gathered up again. Just why Jesus is made to appear to have miraculously multiplied both bread and fish for the sake of the hungry multitude, when he had refused Satan's request to turn stone into bread, is never explained. Neither do we find out why everything appears to be so routine, how the baskets materialized, or why the leftover is gathered up. We are left wondering why Jesus and the disciples part company from one another, why when they see Jesus once more they are left wondering in amazement because "they considered not the miracle of the loaves: for their hearts was hardened", and why, shortly afterwards, the Pharisees are still asking to see a sign. Furthermore, we can't explain why Jesus' reputation doesn't immediately and irreversibly soar to worldwide proportions with thousands of witnesses who could tell about a marvelous miracle.

Miracles of manna and quail may well have fed the Israelites when they wandered forty years in the wilderness, but when Jesus feeds the multitude no one at the time appears to comprehend any such marvelous similarity. There is a possible explanation for the lack of any immediate display of overwhelming appreciation; an explanation, which might even have led to disillusionment among the more zealot-minded followers.

The area in Galilee where Jesus expounded his good news had been a hotbed of political turbulence and had maintained a tradition of zealot activity. During those days some forty years before the birth of Jesus, when Herod was made king by Antony, and Augustus Herod fought a military campaign to reassert Roman control over Palestine. At this time of warfare, just after Herod had captured Sepphoris in Galilee, Herod launched a special campaign against "the robbers that were in the caves". "These caves" (supplied with provisions) "were in mountains that were exceedingly steep, and in the middle had precipitous entrances, and were surrounded by sharp rocks, and the robbers lay concealed in these caves with all their families about them." The robber caves are located along the gorge through which the Wady Hamman runs down to the Plain of Gennesareth.

Fish can be dried and cured for future use. Bread, especially hardtack bread, can be set aside for long periods without spoiling. Both items can be placed in baskets along side salt cakes to insure a state of dry storage and deposited in caves or hidden underground silos for safekeeping. A revolutionary uprising needs sufficient amounts of food to feed the ranks of the rebels. The zealots probably foresaw the rapidly approaching Jubilee as a time filled with the prospect of overthrowing Roman rule, and had stored large caches of weapons and food in hidden underground silos and natural caverns for their future needs.[2]

The gospels omit any further details concerning this "desert place," which we might assume could well have been a zealot staging area. If we do suppose this to be the case, then Jesus was telling his more zealot minded disciples that they could not hoard their stockpile of holy seventh year produce any more than the watchmen had previously attempted to restrict access to the grain growing naturally in the field. Mark's note of explanation (Mk 6:52;7:17-21), "For they considered not the miracle of the loaves: for their heart was hardened" indicates the more-than-likely negative reaction by the disciples to their having served as miracle workers instead of future conquering heroes. The lackluster response to the miracle indicated that the admonition against hoarding still needed repeating.

The parable involving a certain rich man presented Jesus with the opportunity to once again drive home the demanding nature of the sabbatical season. Even though we are not informed of any zealot members among the audience at the time, we can be reasonably assured they received the message. Here Jesus said. "The ground of a certain rich man brought forth plentifully: And he thought within himself, saying, What shall I do, because I have no room where to bestow my fruits? And he said, This will I do: I will pull down my barns, and build greater; and there will I bestow all my fruits and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years; take thine ease, eat, drink, and be merry. But God said unto him, Thou fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee: then whose shall those things be, which thou hast provided?"

Jesus added his pointed conclusion to the story, "So is he that layeth up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God." The appended moral to the parable appears to be intended for the sake of the Pharisees, but the more resolute-minded zealots who had prepared for an upcoming conflict with Roman forces could not have missed the pointed parable as being directed toward them.

The overall requirement to freely dispense of one's surplus foodstuff during the seventh year was a hard message to swallow for both those who had accumulated much and those who were prepared to forcibly introduce their perception of God's regime on earth. Jesus insisted repeatedly that the requirements for the acceptable year of the Lord overruled any competing man-made resolution.

[1] S. G. F. Brandon, Jesus and the Zealots
[2] Josephus, Antiquities, Book XIV, Ch. xv, describes Herod�s campaign against the �robbers that dwelt in the caves� near the village called Arbella on the hill west of the Sea of Galilee. The caves, which were stocked with provisions, were located along a gorge of rough terrain through which Wady Hammam runs down towards the Plain of Gennesareth.
See also �Underground Hiding Complexes from the Bar Kakhba War in the Judean Shephelah�, Amos Kloner, Biblical Archaeologist, December 1983. Note the paragraph headed by �Subterranean Complexes Predating the Bar Kokhba War.�

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