A Lukan story of the road: Luke 10:30–37

Three stories in the Gospel of Luke (7:11-17, 10:25-37, 15:11-32) portray a pattern of compassionate responsiveness in which seeing prompts compassion (7:23; 10:33; 15:20). These are moments of encounter with another person who is dead, near death or socially dead (7:14; 10:30; 15:24). In each instance, the protagonist (Jesus; the Samaritan; the father) is moved by compassion to act to restore the person to life.42 This movement of compassion is gut-felt (7:13; 10:33; 15:20). Compassion, like forgiveness and hospitality, is an aspect and evidence of the Lukan divine visitation.45 In the parable of the Good Samaritan, this compassionate action occurs on a road where another is left half dead; this is a dangerous habitat. The compassionate action of the Samaritan occurs within a more-than-human community which includes the pack animal and the innkeeper, the wine, oil and even coins, whose material agencies work together to support and make possible the enactment of compassion.44 So it is not simply a matter of extending the narrative to imagine another creature rather than the implied human person near death on the side of the road. Rather, the story suggests that already compassionate responsiveness is materially a more-than-human act.

Moreover, the road itself and the characters who pass along it point to its relatedness to systemic inequalities, conflicts and resistances. The parable is situated in the wider Lukan programme of good news, of liberation and healing set out in Luke 4 when the Lukan Jesus proclaims two texts from Isaiah (Luke 4:18-19; Isaiah 58:6, 61:1-2). The longed-for liberation has in its sights not (or not only) a spiritual liberation but also a forgiveness (aphesis) that is first a release from the kinds of debt suffered under the economic and social systems of imperial Rome.45 What this suggests among other things is that in addition to the two who looked and passed on (10:31-32), retaining their relative privilege, there is a hidden character or set of characters in the parable of the Good Samaritan and that is the Roman empire, which promotes and makes possible the particular situation of inequality that renders the road to Jericho so risky for its travellers.46

The narrative setting for the parable suggests moreover that compassion requires several shifts of perspective. In telling the parable, the Lukan Jesus shifts the focus of the lawyer’s question that prompted it: “Who is my neighbour?” (10:29) becomes, “Who acted as neighbour?” (10:36). To this, the lawyer rightly answers that the Samaritan acted as neighbour, but then, as Alan Cadwallader has noted, the questioner (and so the reader or hearer of the story) is left not in the Samaritan’s shoes but on the side of the road receiving the Samaritan neighbour’s unlikely compassion.47 It is on this basis of shared vulnerability that the command “Go and do likewise” is based (10:37).

Itself an exercise in compassion for the questioner (10:29), the parable invites a transformation where the basis of compassion is a gut-felt response to vulnerability shared (albeit unequally) under systems of oppression. What if we were to read the parable of the Good Samaritan and see the roadside littered with the bodies of other animals, killed or near dead from last night’s trucks carrying goods long distances from state to state? Would we understand our vulnerability in the way John Reid’s performance art suggests? In the Tarkine in Tasmania, recommended dusk-to-dawn speed limits are set to protect endangered wildlife; is this indicative of broader societal and church attitudes? For most of us, the sight of corpses by the side of the road can be distressing, and were they human, we would stop, indeed be obliged to stop, every time we saw one. The sheer numbers make this a practical impossibility on a long drive, unless our frameworks change drastically.

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