“Signs, signs, everywhere signs.”
I grew up listening to music that dated from the nineteen thirties to the seventies and eighties of my childhood. Because I was born in the early seventies, I was privy to a lot of leftover music of sixties. I heard Motown and the Beatles but the stuff that resonated with me, especially as I have gotten older is the protest music of the late sixties and early seventies. One those songs, Signs, was an anthem about people tiered of other people trying to define life for them without their consent. The song used the idea of signs to represent the oppression felt by those who being limited by the establishment. The chorus was,
“Sign, sign, everywhere a sign
Blockin’ out the scenery, breakin’ my mind
Do this, don’t do that, can’t you read the sign?”
Now, this morning will not be a look back into the counter-culture movement of the baby boomer generation but the idea of signs, especially the idea behind the power that signs can have over us, is good springboard into the message and our Lenten series, Signs of Lent.
As human beings, we have an amazing ability, to communicate in multiple ways, across a wide array of media. Think of all the ways that you can choose to express the emotions and thoughts you feel or think: language, art, music, song, and the list continues from there. Each of these means, these media are a symbolic representation of what is going on in our minds and how we might choose to express it.
With the development of language, the most means of communication is storytelling, where the stories we tell have symbolic meaning or act as signs for ideas bigger than we may be able to process. Stories, words, even individual letters are symbols for these ideas. For instance, the letter “I”, depending on how its written and used, can be a designation for “me, myself” or a symbol meaning “look here for information” or even the Roman numeral one. Phrases can create word pictures that bring back a host of ideas and thoughts such as “getting your ducks in a row”. All of this goes to say that we are people of symbols and these symbols speak to us in ways that are conscious and unconscious.
The bible is a book filled with symbolic language, allegory, metaphor, and parable. The major themes and ideas of the ancient were best conveyed to the masses by these short, simple stories that gave people lenses to understand and interpret the world around them. Augustine speaks of this symbolic language in terms of signs when he says, “…nobody uses words except in order to signify something. From this, it may be understood what I mean by signs: those things which are employed to signify something.” Augustine spends a great deal of the second part of his work On Christian Doctrine speaking of proper interpretation of these signs, something we should consider ourselves when dealing with a symbolic text like the bible.
Understanding this, I would like to try to present the text today, the Good Samaritan, as a symbol whose meaning we might try and tease from the story. This would not be a farfetched idea since the text is a parable, a story told with the intent of being symbolic. There are many things we could look for as signs but for the sake of time and clarity (I can hope), I would like to look at the story and see what symbolic understanding we get from these characters: the injured man, the Pharisee, the scribe, and the Samaritan.
The Sacred and the Symbolic
When we look at symbols, we understand them as the sign (signifier), what the sign points or refers to (signified), and what the sign means.
Interpretation doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Everything we know and have experienced we bring with us to process. Good interpretation happens when we understand something of the author, something of their place in time as they wrote, and something of their intent. If we tried only to look at the text, we would miss the meaning behind the symbols because we would not see the symbols as they were meant to be seen. So, let’s have a look.
The Injured Man – As with any symbol, this one can have multiple meanings and layers of meaning. From the story, we know nothing of the man, who he was, what he did professionally, what he looked like, other than he was traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho, a journey of about fifteen miles or one day. We know that he was robbed, stripped of his clothing, beaten, and left for dead. He is a physically broken man, left to the mercy of the road and anyone on it.
Like all signs, the injured man points to something beyond himself. Depending on your interpretation, you could see him several ways. Perhaps, we can take what I think is the most common interpretation, that he is the representation of those around us who stand in need. This story told by Jesus to a man asking “who is my neighbor?”, is one of a man who supposedly wants ‘clarification’ on what neighbors are to be loved. We could also see the man as ourselves, we could step into the story and see ourselves.
After defining the sign and what it points to, we come to meaning or better understood, the meaning we give to the injured man. Whether we see him as those around us in need who are forgotten and left by the wayside or we see him as ourselves in need or some other interpretation, we can see the sign of the injured man is one that speaks to need. There is, in the man, need that is being presented for someone to respond.
The Pharisee and Scribe – Our next two symbols go together in that they both act the same way in our story, albeit from differing perspectives. The fact that there are two of them is symbolic as we will see momentarily. The Pharisee and the Scribe are members of the Jewish religious order that came into being around the time of Maccabean revolt around two hundred years before Jesus ministry. Pharisees are most often vilified in the New Testament and the church as well, but the intent of Pharisaical thought was to prioritize the practice of the law and focus on the intention behind that practice. Scribes often worked alongside Pharisees as those who copied the Torah.
“Scribes were called upon to copy the Torah and record many of its historical interpretations, they became legal scholars to a great extent. They were not required to believe in the interpretations put forth by the Pharisees, but they acted in a pseudo-Pharisaical role of explicating the Law to others. Additionally, because many scribes were Torah copyists, they were bound by ritual codes that regulated their fitness to produce appropriately kosher (fit) Torah scrolls. Consequently, they became very strict in their observance of the smallest details of ritual purity. This meant following purity laws (commandments) previously required only of the priestly caste, which again associated them with the Pharisaical proposition that complete ritual purity should be observed by all Jews.”
Knowing these basic things about Pharisees and Scribes, we can begin to look at what they might point to as signs. In the story, both walk around the man and go on their way. Often, we think of this as a slight, with the two men thinking they are too good to aid someone in need. But us we understand that both the scribe and the Pharisee are bound to strict laws of religious cleanliness and rigorous spiritual discipline. With this little bit of knowledge, we see that they might point not at an individual preforming the act but at the system behind the individuals that has limited them. The issue is not that the men are bad men but that the system that defines them is imperfect, leading them to imperfect actions.
The meaning for these two men could then become that they are part of a bigger issue in Jesus’ day, one tied to the Pharisaical interpretation of the Law and how that law should be lived out. It speaks to the idea that holiness is no excuse for failing to help those in need during their time of need.
The Samaritan – Our last sign is that of the Samaritan. In our time, the idea of the Samaritan is synonymous with the story we are reading today. Many businesses, charities, and hospitals take the name of Samaritan because it carries a connotation from this story and the classical interpretation of it. But what gives the idea of ‘Samaritan’ this positive influence and symbolic stature?
If we define Samaritan as they were understood in Jesus day at the time of the writing of Luke (80-90 CE), we are speaking of a truly vilified people. Samaritans were the ‘leftovers’ of the northern kingdom after the Assyrians took that part of Israel into captivity. They are the result of intermarriage between northern Jews and those Gentile tribes that lived in the area after the Assyrians left. The Samaritans were also distinct from Jews because of their beliefs. If you remember the story of Jesus and the woman at the well, that story highlights the difference of where they worship: The Temple Mount in Jerusalem for Jews and Mount Gerazim for Samaritans.
“Additionally, they believed only in the Written Torah (Pentateuch), every word of which they believed to have been written by Moses himself, whom they revered even more than the Judeans did. This rejection of the Oral Tradition likened them to the Sadducees, but unlike the Sadducees, the Samaritans also believed in an afterlife. These religious differences put them at odds with most other groups of Jews, and combined with their mixed heritage, resulted in their portrayal as an inherently lower order of Jew.”
In short, Samaritans were looked at as half-blood, disgraced, pretenders to the faith.
In the parable, however, Jesus uses the sign of the Samaritan to point to a different understanding of the person. As someone outside the purity traditions shared by the Pharisee and Scribe (and for that matter the legal expert Jesus is speaking to), the Samaritan can act out of true compassion and concern for the individual without regard to duty or obligation to any law. He acts as though the need of the man is greater than the need for following religious laws and traditions that get in the way of caring for those who are hurting.
This creates many layers of meaning for the Samaritan. He becomes a symbol for charity, compassion, mercy, and grace. He also becomes a symbol against the idea of religious laws and practices that get in the way of or supersede the true basis for such laws. The practice of the Samaritan reaches beyond “to prioritize the practice of the law and focus on the intention behind that practice” in a way that the Pharisee and Scribe have failed to do, even in their own understanding and practice.
What does this mean for us?
The semiotician or philosopher of signs and symbols Marcel Danesi writes, “…there is no such thing as absolute meaning, for the simple reason that meaning cannot be separated from culture.” While I can offer meaning from the perspective of my personal education and experiences, I cannot tell you that there is one singular meaning to the story.
I can say I believe the story is one of a need presented, the need refused, and the need met. I can tell you I believe Jesus used the culture of his time to illustrate a point about what it means to truly show love to neighbor, that love should go beyond the bounds of all other things including practices and laws of religion that are defined by man in his quest for holiness and orthodoxy. I can say I believe that we as followers of Jesus should seek to love beyond the trappings of religion as followers of Jesus. But that is my understanding, my truth, my reading of the signs. I encourage you to dive into the story, dive into your relationship with God and your understanding of these things and live them as good followers after the Way of Jesus, amen.
 (Band 1971)
 (Augustine 2008), p.9
 (Segal 1996), p. 48
 (Segal 1996), p.46
 (Segal 1996), p.48
 (Danesi 2008), p.24