The Parable of the Good Texaco Oil Executive

It’s kind of a funny name–Good Samaritan. It sounds redundant to us now, since “Samaritan” generally already has positive connotations: Samaritan’s Purse relief organization. Good Samaritan hospital. Church of the Good Samaritan. And so on.

But Jesus’ listeners would have heard “Good Samaritan” as an oxymoron. Samaritans were anything but good. They were a despised people–a product of God’s people intermarrying with another, idolatrous people. They weren’t faithful, many Jews thought. A Samaritan was the last person one would have expected to help another person.

How do we get to the parable?

How do we get to the “Parable of the Good Samaritan” in the first place?

Luke 10:25     On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

An expert in the law, a lawyer, tests Jesus. As we soon see, he already has an answer to his own question in mind.

Luke 10:26     “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”

Jesus answers his question. No, he doesn’t at all. He asks him another question. It’s that great trick of the trade when you’re teaching and you want to more fully engage someone… what do you think?

“Why does a Rabbi answer a question with a question?” the joke goes.

“Why shouldn’t a Rabbi answer a question with a question?”

Luke 10:27     [The expert in the law] answered: “ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’’”

Luke 10:28     “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”

These are two Great Commandments: Love God and Love Your Neighbor. Had the lawyer heard Jesus say something like this on another occasion? Perhaps. In Mark and Matthew, it is Jesus who gives these commandments as the most important ones in the law–on these hang all of God’s other commands. Love God, Love Your Neighbor–that frames, that grounds everything else.

“Do this and you will live,” Jesus says. Yes, law expert, you know the answer. Go do it.

And the parable will actually end this way, too, with Jesus saying, “Go and do likewise.” But…

Luke 10:29     But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

“He wanted to justify himself.” Justify–to make right, to be declared righteous. He asks, “Who is my neighbor?” One commentator speculates that the question here is expecting a specific answer like, “Your parents, your friends, your cousins, etc.” so that he can then say, “I’ve loved them all” and be praised by Jesus in front of everyone.

“Who is my neighbor? Who all do I have to love, and who can I get by without loving? Who is my neighbor, and who is my non-neighbor?”

That’s what his question seems to imply. In a sense, he’s asking the bare minimum. Or at least some sort of clarification so he can know who will be inside his circle of love and who will be outside it.

So Jesus tells him a story. We’ve heard it.

The parable

Credit: Mark Jenkins (Sculpture)
Credit: Mark Jenkins (Sculpture)

Luke 10:30     In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead.

That road was rocky, full of caves, about a 17-mile journey. There was a 3,000 foot elevation change on that journey. Thieves would hide out in those caves and mug people who travelled on the road. It was a lucrative business.

31 A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side.

A priest–a religious ruler. Part of society’s elite in those days. Coming from Jerusalem, he was probably doing his priestly duty. So he had just been in church!

(I wonder what Scripture readings he heard that day? I wonder what the teaching was?)

32 So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.

Levites assisted the priests–they were like the worship leaders, or the music leaders. Also coming from Jerusalem, maybe from worship there.

(I wonder what songs they led. I wonder what message they were seeking to reinforce in the service–have compassion? Love your neighbor as yourself?)

Then, what is supposed to be next is a person of Israel. There was a formula throughout the Old Testament of priests, Levites, and all the people of Israel.

This is shaping up so far to be an anti-clergy story. The person of Israel is supposed the be the hero–the so-called layperson. But instead–a Samaritan!

33 But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, took him to an inn and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’

I read an interesting re-telling of this parable this week.

A man was mugged and beaten by a gang of thugs in the park. He was left for dead.

A theology student saw the man and had the instinct to help him, but she had just taken a pastoral care class, so said,

“We were just taught it is not good to try to rescue someone. We must resist the temptation, however sincere and religiously motivated, to naively wade in and try to be someone’s rescuer.” That’s a Savior complex. I’d better not help, she thought. So she passed by.

Then, in this re-telling of the parable, the chairperson of the local church association’s social justice committee came by. He saw the man. But he was overwhelmed with all the systemic, macro-level issues that could have produces a man lying in a ditch–the economy, social structures. “To help this man,” he said, “Is simply a Band-Aid, solving nothing.” He passed by, too.

Finally, the CEO of Texaco Oil, out riding around in his new BMW, saw the beaten man. His heart was moved with compassion. He picked him up, put him in the back of his car (on his clean, white upholstery), bandaged his wounds, and drove him to the local hospital, paying all his bills.

Who was the neighbor? Not, in this re-telling, the people you might have expected. And that’s one of Jesus’ main points here–if a Samaritan, someone this law-expert would least expect, can show compassion, anyone can.

“And When He Saw Him…”

Credit: Mark Jenkins (Sculpture)
Credit: Mark Jenkins (Sculpture)

Let’s go back to the original story. After the parable, Jesus asks another question:

Luke 10:36     “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”

The expert in the law might have wondered after the Priest and Levite passed the guy in the ditch–was he their neighbor? Gosh, maybe not…

But Jesus doesn’t spend a lot of time on the man in the ditch. We don’t know much about him. In this parable he is just, “a man.” Because for Jesus, the question is not, is he the neighbor, but will you be a neighbor to the one in need?

So he asks the law-expert: “Who was a good neighbor?”

The expert in the law can’t even bring himself to say the word “Samaritan,” so he says, “The one who had mercy on him.”

Jesus is saying–much more important than finding out who is your neighbor is being a neighbor. It’s the old adage: if you want to have a friend, be a friend.

Don’t think about other people’s status and worthiness. Be the loving neighbor we know we are called to be.

This passage ends with Jesus not so much saying–now I’ve explained the law to you and you know who is your neighbor, and how to inherit eternal life… he says, here’s a story of how someone you despise is a neighbor. And if he can do it, so can you. “Go and do likewise.” Go. Do. You know what to do. Go do it. Be a good neighbor. Be the neighbor you wish to see in the world.

And this is a good enough message, one that we know we all want to strive, by God’s grace, to listen to and put into practice.

But there’s just one more thing. A small but essential detail to this story.

Look one more time at the text. In verse 31:

31 A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side.

Going down the same road, and when he saw the man….he passed by….

32 So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.

33 But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him.

Each of these three people–the priest, the levite, and the Samaritan, came to where the man was, and they saw him. They saw him.

Priest–sees him, passes by. Levite–sees him, passes by. Samaritan–sees him, takes pity on him.

This verb that Luke uses–take pity, have compassion… the NRSV has it as “he was moved with pity.” This particular verb, when it is used in the New Testament, is mostly used of Jesus. He has compassion. And many of those times that compassion comes after Jesus has seen a crowd. Or Jesus has seen a person in need. Jesus sees them and has compassion, and then he acts.

In the same way, the Samaritan sees the man in the ditch and has compassion, and then he acts.

I was so struck this time around, as I studied this parable, at this one word–see. And Luke is a good writer–this is all on purpose. The Samaritan totally breaks up the pattern of the story:

sees–passes by

sees–passes by

sees–has compassion–does something

Credit: Mark Jenkins (Sculpture)
Credit: Mark Jenkins (Sculpture)

It’s the same sequence in the story of the Prodigal Son. The father sees his wayward son returning home, has compassion on him, and acts–he runs to him and sweeps him up in an ecstatic embrace.

The Samaritan’s compassion moves him to act. He takes care of this half-dead stranger. He bandages his wounds, pours on oil and wine for healing and soothing. Puts him on his donkey, takes him to an inn, takes care of him. Pays for him.

The priest, the Levite, the Samaritan–they all saw him. The difference was, what the Samaritan did with what he saw.

Seeing… and doing something

“Neighborliness comes in all shapes and sizes,” one author writes.

What needs do we see around us, situations or people that cry out for a neighbor? It may be a need in another country. It may be a need right here in the city or town in which you live.

Or there may be someone within a 25-foot radius of you that is in need of a good neighbor right now.

Or perhaps you can think of a person in need that you see during the week–whether physical need, emotional need, or social need.

Being a good neighbor starts with seeing. And acting on what we see, just as the Good Samaritan did.

Let’s not be like the theology student in the re-telling of the parable, or the chair of that committee–whose concerns were valid and legitimate (and I wholeheartedly believe Jesus calls us to effect change on the macro-level!)… but those concerns paralyzed them from doing the good they could have done in a specific situation.

May we see the needs of others, may we have compassion, and may we do what is in our power to act, and to help heal the wounds of the world around us.

The above is adapted from the sermon I preached this last Sunday. All Scripture quotations come from the NIV (1984).

8 thoughts on “The Parable of the Good Texaco Oil Executive

  1. I must say that this is a great contemporary contextualization of the parable! You’ve, managed to bring out the original intent in a retelling that makes sense to a modern audience while also bringing the modern audience to a better understanding of the context current when this text was first written. Your love for your audience, and for the texts really shows!

  2. Hey Abram–this is a great reminder about how we should be working for God. (A reminder which I feel I need on a daily, if not hourly, basis.) Thanks!

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