Two parables today, that of the unjust servant, and that of the good samaritan.
First, though, a practical note based on Matt 18:8. “Wherefore if thy hand or thy foot offend thee, cut them off, and cast them from thee: it is better for thee to enter into life halt or maimed, rather than having two hands or two feet to be cast into everlasting fire.”
What does it mean to “offend”? We hear all kinds of things about excessively taking offense or being overly sensitive, and I fear that waters down the impact of this verse. Another translation helps. How about this?
“if your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it from you;” (NASB, NRSV, NIV)
More suggestive yet is the Complete Jewish Bible.
“if your hand or foot becomes a snare for you, cut it off and throw it away!”
Or most bluntly, the NET and ESV.
“if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away.”
Regardless of translation (and more on that down in Tidbits), the point is the same. Hands and feet are important, even necessary. Losing one requires learning how to adapt and do many daily activities in a different probably more cumbersome way, with some exceptions; At my recent triathlon, an Iron Man triathlete with no arms demoed how to change a bike tire with his feet. Nevertheless, few of us would cheerfully part with a hand and foot just for kicks, but Jesus’ point seems to be that if something becomes a trap to you, causes you to sin, even something as fundamental as a hand or foot, cut it off. Get rid of it. Better to enter into heaven maimed than Hades with both hands, Jesus says.
I think this has some application to us, at various levels.
What things in our lives do we consider virtually essential, or hard to live without, that can or do trip us up regularly? To pick one obvious example, is the internet a problem? Does our time we spend there binging Netflix or the content we consume, whether at home, tablets, smartphones, etc., interfere with our goals to serve and become disciples of Christ? Can we imagine going back to a dumb-phone, getting rid of Netflix, or giving our less-susceptible spouse control of the Internet filter?
Hand, foot, and eye — in Jewish understanding the loci of lust or sinful desires — must be given up if they threaten to become the cause of loss of faith and thus of salvation. This… underscores rather the seriousness of conviction within which one must persevere if one wishes to enter (eternal) life or the kingdom of God. – Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament, “skandalidzo”
The Good Samaritan
This story is well known, so I focus on a few points. The first two who pass by are specifically named as a priest then a levite, who both pass by on the other side of the man. That is, not only do they not stop to help, they virtually cross the street to the other side in order to avoid the guy. These details of identity as priest and levite are not irrelevant. They in particular have to maintain ritual purity, in order to carry out their duties in the temple, and coming in contact with a corpse was one of the most severe contaminants, rendering them unfit for their assigned duties for 7 days. Do note, however, that both are leaving Jerusalem, Luke 10:31- when you go to Jerusalem, you go up. When you leave Jerusalem, you go down.
These two are not just uncaring jerks, they’re apparently worried about maintaining their ritual purity so they can do their divinely assigned duties in the sanctuary. In other words, Jesus’ parable isn’t just upsetting expectations with the hated Samaritan being the good guy. He’s also making commentary about the relative merit of love for one’s fellow man vs one’s duties, even inspired church duties.
We could, perhaps, apply this to ourselves by replacing the priest and Levite with the Stake President and Relief society president, and the Samaritan with the gay-married atheist or the excommunicated polygamist, to capture the distate Jesus deliberately creates in making the Samaritan the exemplar of godly behavior.
Let’s remember also the exegetical question inherent here. This parable is in response to a question, and that question determines how we should understand and apply the parable. Joseph Smith reminds us of this principle.
“I have a key by which I understand the scriptures. I enquire, what was the question which drew out the answer or caused Jesus to utter the parable?” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 276–77.)
Jesus, as is often the case, doesn’t answer the question as much as undermine and challenge the assumptions in it.
“The twist between the lawyer’s question and Jesus’ answer is entirely in keeping with Jesus’ radical stance: he was making the lawyer rethink his presuppositions and telling him that the assumptions with which he started out and which determined his question—‘What bounds do I draw around my acceptance of others as my neighbour?’—had to be revised in a radical way. Neighbourliness knows no bounds and must proceed from an attitude of spontaneity and self-forgetfulness.”- Oxford Bible Commentary
And just because I found it amusing, here’s a short retelling of the parable, expressing a view we often hear (though not in this context.)
“Along came an economist, but he, having read Hayek, knew that to help the man in the ditch was only a short-term solution that would encourage a culture of dependency, so he passed by on the other side.” NT Wright, in a response to Richard John Neuhaus in First Things.
- Stumbling blocks– the noun “stumbling block” and verb “to offend” “cause to sin” “cause to stumble” are all translations from skandalidzo, the eventual source of our English “scandal.” However, don’t read “scandal” back in to the Greek. the verb means “to cause to fall, cause to be caught (in a trap), to trip (someone), to trap (someone).” The New Testament expanded this theologically, in the direction of sin and offense, instead of physically being tripped, caught, or trapped. See here.
- “seventy times seven” Matthew 18:22. This probably does not mean 70×7 (i.e. forgive 490 times) but rather 77. This is a magnification, by an order of magnitude. Note how this inverts of Genesis 4:24, with forgiving instead of avenging “If Cain shall be avenged sevenfold (7x), truly Lamech seventy and sevenfold! (77x)” The point, however, is the same. Without addressing any particular situation, we are to forgive excessively, completely, beyond reason.
- Money- In the parable of the Good Samaritan, he pays the innkeeper “two pence” (KJV) or “two denarii” (Greek). A denarius was a silver coin worth one day’s wage for an average worker. This Samaritan is not only compassionate, but generous with his money. In the parable of the unjust servant, the amount forgiven by the king is 10,000 talents. A talent was a weight varying from about 60 to 80 lbs of gold or silver. A silver talent was worth 6,000 denarii, and a gold talent 180,000 denarii or more. The math can vary in this but the point is that 10,000 talents of gold is an astronomically massive rhetorical amount for a personal loan, “a bazillion.” As he often does, Jesus engages in some exaggerated rhetoric to make his point.
- “the ‘ten thousand talents’ owed by the unforgiving debtor in Matt 18:24 would be at least 204 metric tons of silver but probably reflect the fabulous sum of 60 million denarii (versus the mere 100 denarii which he tries to squeeze out of his own debtor in 18:28)”- Weights and Measures,” ABD. That’s 600,000x difference in what he was forgiven vs what he wouldn’t forgive himself. “When it is borne in mind that the annual imposition of tax upon the whole of Galilee and Peraea amounted to merely 200 talents (Josephus, Ant 17.9.4), the hyperbole involved in the parable becomes readily apparent. The debtor is in no position to repay such a debt, nor is there any credible way in which he could have incurred it. He behaves astoundingly, after his debt is forgiven (v 27), in a manner all but calculated to trivialize such forgiveness: He refuses to deal mercifully with a colleague who owed him 100 denarii (vv 28–30). The latter amount is by no means insignificant; A single denarius was the going rate for a full day of labor . But the contrast with the king’s incalculable generosity cannot be overlooked, and the close of the parable makes it unmistakably plain that God’s forgiveness demands ours as a proper response (vv 31–35). To fail to forgive one’s fellow, even when what needs to be forgiven is considerable, is to betray the very logic of forgiveness which alone gives us standing before God.”- ABD, “Debts”
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