Truth Can Exist at Different Levels
By JIM NICHOLS
It was a heavily traveled road, but a dangerous journey. You certainly did not want to walk it alone. It was not called the “way of blood” for nothing. It was a generally downhill trip from Jerusalem to Jericho with lots of twists and turns and rocks and boulders to try to avoid. However, the bandits were the real problem.
The unnamed man was making the trip anyway, and the bandits saw him, robbed and stripped him, beat him, and left him nearly dying. After they ran away, a priest came by. Seeing the injured man, he crossed to the other side of the road and continued on. Similarly, a Levite acted in the same way.
You know what happens next. A Samaritan traveling came near him and was moved with pity. After bandaging his wounds, he put him on his own animal and took him to a sheltered inn and took care of him.
Historians, theologians, and philosophers have written many words about this story and most of us have heard no small number of sermons on it. It is a story Jesus told in answer to the question, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus had already given a previous answer about what to do to inherit eternal life and this was the development of that first response by him. Heavily painted renditions join the written discussions, and it is clearly one of the most moving and instructive stories in the Bible.
I have little to add in terms of understanding what is occurring in Luke 10, but I would like to ask a question about it. The question is, “Was the Good Samaritan a real person?” The response to the question leads me to consider again how we read and listen to the Bible.
Recently, at the funeral of a dear friend, displayed on the projector screen was a single page from my friend’s Bible. The page had notes and underlines that almost covered up the basic print. The additions were in various colors and different sizes; some notes were clearly additions added later to earlier notes. I am sure that many of the other pages looked the same. Clearly, what had happened with that Bible is that my friend heard from God and tried to jot down some key words or phrases in which God spoke to her. Those could be reconsidered each time she read that page and, I am suggesting, God could and might tell her something else or something in addition. Perhaps you have a Bible marked up in the same way. When we do that, we are listening for God.
I have mentioned before an exchange I had with a preacher friend. Before reading scripture and preaching on it he said, “Listen for the Word of God.” He did not say, “Listen to the Word of God.” He explained to me that he wanted to give the Holy Spirit room to work on him with those written words. He believed it was one of the methods by which the Spirit was active in his life. Subsequent readings of the same stories or teachings might tell him something additional, or even different.
Many times, I have heard the Bible referred to as “inerrant in its original language” and that it contained “literal truth.” While I believe I understand what is trying to be communicated, I suggest that such language is unhelpful and, frankly, misleading, especially to someone who does not enter the discussion with a basic trust in the Bible. It leaves little room for the Spirit.
Author Brian McLaren notes a conversation with a Rabbi friend. The Rabbi said that Jews read Bible stories for meaning, not beliefs. We could discuss the difference between those, but it was instructive to me as I currently read scripture.
Were the individuals in the Good Samaritan story real people? I suspect they were since Jesus relayed the incident and I see no reason why he would fabricate it. On the other hand, even if they were not, it does not change the message at all. Everything we are to hear from God we hear not because of the truthfulness or the literal humanness of the characters, but because of the teachings of danger, avoidance, compassion, and vulnerability. It is all true.
Jim Nichols is a retired Abilene Christian University biology professor and current medical chaplain