A Lamenting Samaritan

Lamentations is a difficult book. I’ve been reading through it with my Bible reading group recently and it’s heavy going.

There’s much to gain, but when you read through it in your mornings you can slide through it fairly quickly. When you spend a few hours per chapter slowly chewing it over around a table the emotional weight of it starts to settle on you like a heavy blanket, and the challenging questions it raises cannot be ignored.

For all it’s been challenging, I’ve been particularly struck by the echoes of the rest of scripture we’ve pulled out together. It’s a poetic book that heavily references the prophets, the Psalms and the Torah, so in that sense it’s replete with intertextual references, but it’s the New Testament echoes that I’ve found most interesting.

In chapter 2, a chapter that expresses the destruction of Jerusalem and particularly the Temple in biting anger, there are some fascinating Christian readings available that open the text to us.

We might read verse 12 in light of the Lord’s Supper, or verse 13 a call for healing from the dragons Jesus slew at the cross, but it’s 14-16 I’d like to call particular attention too.

In the narrative the poet has enumerated the desolation of the city and the Temple in excruciating detail, and they move on to explore three potential healers, none of whom can heal the city or the people because the Lord has done what he purposed (verse 17).

We were discussing the way Kenneth Bailey thinks that Mark deliberately echoes this section of Lamentations in Mark 15.29-30, which I find persuasive, and my friend Elly pointed out that it sounds like the parable of the Good Samaritan.

I’m not sure that Luke had Lamentations 2 in mind as he retold Jesus’ parable, but I think Elly is right that these texts can be read fruitfully together. Let me show you what I mean.

The parable

A man is travelling from Jerusalem to Jericho and he falls foul of a group of thieves and robbers. He’s left beaten and bloody on the roadside. We’re told he’s half dead, and without help he will be wholly dead before long.

His situation is not that different from the sort of language the poet in using in Lamentations’ second poem. Three people pass the traveller by. Three groups are presented as healers for Jerusalem, at least one of whom is said to pass by.

Firstly, in Lamentations we have the prophets, who are shown to be false (14), they cannot heal because their visions are untrue, and they refused to point out Judah’s sin. We can parallel this with Luke’s Priest—another ordained figure who should bring help but does not.

Secondly in Lamentations we have “all who pass along the way” (15) who rather than helping are derisive, clapping their hands and wagging their heads. For Luke a Levite a ‘passes by.’

At this stage the reading together isn’t particularly fruitful, but it’s the third one where it gets interesting. Thirdly for the lamenting poet, after the prophets haven’t helped, and random travellers on the road haven’t helped, we turn to our last port of call: an enemy (16). But, as you would expect, Jerusalem’s enemies are delighted in her state, hissing and gnashing their teeth at their victory.

Then for Luke, thirdly, an enemy passes by too. One we would not expect to help. We have so associated the word Samaritan with helping those in need that we cannot feel the shock of the parable, but it is the same escalation that the poet follows in Lamentations. We move from “must help” who doesn’t to “might help” who doesn’t to “won’t help” who of course won’t.

And then, in Jesus’ story, the enemy helps. The Samaritan is the one who takes the man to an inn and washes his wounds and helps him.

Reading the parable Christologically

This reading helps us see the shock, and perhaps helps us see that the readers will expect the pattern and then be surprised by the reversal. It also helps in the reading.

This traveller is, to some extent, a prototypical Jewish man. He’s an everyman. He’s Israel. He is exactly where the lamenting Judahites are after the exile. The priests and levites and prophets and passers by cannot help.

So, who can? An enemy. An outsider.

Lamentations describes Yahweh in the language of enemies time and time again, and goes back-and-forth with the appropriateness of this designation. It asks us difficult questions about whether God did this terrible thing to them, and even though it’s clear that it’s deserved, it questions whether it’s gratuitous and causes us to wonder what we think of a God who wounds his people.

Yet it’s an enemy in Jesus’ words who can heal the man broken by the roadside.

Who is the Samaritan in the parable? We rush to it being us, but I think that’s an application a step beyond our first interpretation. The Samaritan is Jesus the Christ: the one we made our enemy in our sin, who nevertheless stoops to pick us up and tend our wounds.

When reading Lamentations and caught in the midst of its difficult and painful grappling with what has happened to them as a result of their sin, there is something of a breath of air to this. God has cursed them, justly. No one can heal them, answering the question of verse 13.

Except, later in Luke we see that the only one who can heal is the true ‘enemy,’ the one we offended who justly cursed us, the one we opposed all the way to his own execution.

The only question is whether or not he is willing.

Dear friends, he is.

Photo by Kyle Glenn on Unsplash

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