Ever thought of parables as jokes?
Answer: probably not. Yet many parables were meant to surprise, even to shock - just like the punchline of a good joke. It’s the surprise twist that catches us out. With a joke, no surprise equals no laugh reaction. For parables, no surprise means … well, what does it mean? Try the following.
When their car broke down, a family of four was stranded in a lonely country road. The two under-five children were already fractious because the day was hot and they had been cooped up in safety seats for a couple of hours. The unmarried couple had half expected their beaten up old banger to conk out, but the journey was essential as they were moving in the hope of finding better work prospects.
Jack - the man - tried all he knew to fix the car, but nothing would coax the engine back to life. All he did was get himself filthy - not that he’d been that clean to start with. The whole family wore clothes that would have been rejected by a charity shop. Finally giving up, Jack reluctantly took the family’s skip-rescued suitcases from the boot while Betty - his partner - extracted the kids, both of whom instantly began crying.
After a long time waiting, a car came into view - a big car more than capable of taking them all. Both Betty and Jack thumbed frantically and the driver clearly saw them. He was a bishop on route to an important function and really didn’t want to stop. Somebody else will be along soon, he told himself. I’m the guest of honour. I can’t be late and let down all the other important guests. So he drove on.
It was an hour before another car came and, by this time, the family was getting desperate with the children highly agitated. A woman was driving. She was a leading light in the local church - on the governing and several other important committees. But that was only part of it. She took active roles in everything from Bible reading to fund raising. Many people told her that the church couldn’t do without her. She saw the father and mother at the roadside, both anxiously thumbing. After slowing and looking over the parents and upset children, she rechecked her mirrors and the road ahead. There was no one in sight - no one to impress. She too drove on.
After another hour, a third car came along. The male driver was an outspoken atheist. He was often in the media telling believers that they were either poor saps lost in fairyland or out and out hypocrites. When he saw the family, he immediately pulled over. He listened to Jack before squeezing everyone and the suitcases into his car. Along the way, Jack said that the breakdown was a real problem as he’d been hoping to find work in the area. The atheist didn’t say much but took them to a local motel. Once there, he paid for a week’s lodging and gave Betty money for food and fresh clothing. He then arranged and paid for a hire car to be brought so Jack could begin his search for work. Before he left, the atheist said that he’d check back in a few days to see how things were going.
Of course, this updated version of the Good Samaritan can never be a complete surprise because it is so well known. We could guess what was coming as soon as the bishop failed to stop. Maybe, though, this version gives us a better taste of the parable’s impact on Jesus’ first hearers. Naturally, we don’t hate atheists, but many Jews did hate Samaritans. To have had a Samaritan made hero and Jewish religious leaders derided as hypocrites was both shocking and offensive. So how do we feel now the story commends an atheist and exposes the spectre of blatant Christian hypocrisy?