Lee A. Carter
The Good Samaritan: Institutional Learning and Human Flourishing
The organizations that order society are the institutionalized expressions of our most deeply held values and ideals. Businesses, governments, churches, social organizations, and nonprofits provide embodied structures for the visions of human flourishing that motivate us. Our institutions are not merely secular agencies that order daily life for penultimate aims. Rather, according to Gordon T. Smith, they are the “communal spaces and social structures” that serve as the daily venues of our spiritual development. He argues that participation in organizations “provides us with a range of opportunities, stress points, learnings, and challenges that become for us the very place and means by which we grow in faith, hope, and love.” They are subsumed under God’s cultural mandate of Genesis 1:28 given to the humans he created to “be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it” (New International Version). Institutions are the culture-making organisms that inhabit specific contexts and transform them into places of human flourishing that extend the reign of God over the entire world.
Institutions combine and leverage a rich variety of inherent resources, including financial, human, and organizational resources, to progress toward a common purpose. Indeed, without an institutional structure to provide an architecture for a mission, the organization’s purposes remain abstract and unrealizable. Organizational learning is the generative quality that transforms those resources into capabilities that construct cultural developments and advance organizations toward their visions. Peter M. Senge defines a learning organization as one that is “continually expanding its capacity to create its future.” Tragically, organizations cease to learn when their visions lose poignancy especially for their daily operations. They begin to regard their resources as limited and expendable. Consequently, their strategies and activities aim to protect resources rather than invest them creatively into resource-generative enterprises of human flourishing.
In Luke 10:25-37, Jesus converses with an expert in the law, a member of the preeminent religious institution that, within the book of Luke, represents the primary antagonist of Jesus. Jesus derides this institution in Luke 11:46-52 as those who “load people down with burdens they can hardly carry” and have “taken away the key to knowledge.” Within the story-arch of Luke, the lawyers conflicted consistently with Jesus over his interpretation and practice of the Law. They epitomized an institution with a learning disability that resulted in a floundering vision of human flourishing. Rather than cultivating in their context the good reign of God as his image-bearers (Genesis 1:26), they sought to justify their privileged status before God to the exclusion of others and for the protection of their status through rigid interpretations of the Mosaic Law.
To challenge and transform the encultured myopia of this religious elite, Jesus tells a parable about a despised Samaritan. Samaritans were an ethnic group that were the hated and sworn enemies of the Jews due to a long and complicated political and religious history. They were the “heretical outcasts in Jewish society not to be associated with,” according to Ernest van Eck. Yet, in Jesus’s parable, the Samaritan is the hero who shows gratuitous mercy toward the victim and serves as the example of a neighbor who embodies an ethic of mercy toward others. This is the Kingdom ethic that Jesus wants his listeners to understand as the outward embodiment of the Law when understood from the interpretive lens of loving God with heart, soul, mind, and strength, and loving others as oneself (Luke 10:27). So, Jesus shifts his listeners’ point-of-view from “whom you should consider as a neighbor you are obligated to love” to “who loves as a neighbor,” from “who is included or excluded from my neighborhood” to “how do I act as a neighbor to others no matter who they are.” Jesus challenges their institutional learning disability. In so doing, he reinstates the Genesis vision of human flourishing for the community of God’s people. Wherever God’s people are located, living, and working, this Genesis vision is their raison d’être. This includes their ethos within the organizations of which they are affiliated.
Jesus is a countercultural teacher who sets Kingdom of God ethics for his people as an alternative body politic in this world. He invites his people to be set apart from the pervasive institutional mental models that hinder productive learning and culture creation that cultivates and maintains God’s goodness in our organization contexts. Miroslav Volf and Matthew Croasmun argue that theology’s central concern is the “flourishing of human beings and all God’s creatures in the presence of God” and “is God’s foremost concern for creation.” The primary theological concern of Luke 10:25-37 regards those who constitute God’s people. Is it those who have God’s Law or those who show God’s mercy? The story of the Good Samaritan demonstrates that these are not mutually exclusive. The story upends unexamined institutional mental models that impair human creativity and agency in order to recapture the lost Genesis vision for God’s people, a vision of human flourishing as their foremost cultural imperative.
Who Are the People of God?
Jesus’s parable is prompted by the social challenge of the lawyer’s question to Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Luke 10:27). Within the historical-social context of this conversion, Judaism’s overriding concern was the redemption of Israel according to God’s covenantal promises to Israel. According to N. T. Wright, the lawyer was not interested in a “timeless system of salvation, whether of works-righteousness or anything else.” His question stirred up an ongoing theological conflict between Jesus and the religious leaders about the proper interpretation of the Mosaic Law, the Torah. The religious leaders prided themselves in the Torah as proof of their favored position as God’s chosen people over and against all other peoples and nations. The Law was, for them, the boundary marker between who was part of the covenant community and rightful partakers of all the privileges that that status, and who was not.
However, Luke’s Gospel presents a common theme of the universal scope of the gospel as the fulfillment, and not the failure, of God’s covenantal faithfulness to Israel. So, in Luke 10:25, the lawyer “stood up to test Jesus.” Colin M. Ambrose notes that the verb “to test” is “powerfully negative, with its only other use in Luke-Acts being found in the account of Satan’s testing of Jesus.” The lawyer attempted to dishonor Jesus publicly and discredit his teaching within a typical social interaction called “challenge and response.” This is not a sweetly innocent exchange in which Jesus tells a disarming and rather charming story about exemplary virtuous behavior! Rather, the dialogue unfolds as a tense and highly controversial moment where Jesus reclaims the true nature of God’s people from its exclusionist and elitist shackles. He responds to the lawyer’s challenge, not by answering the lawyer’s question directly, but by questioning the lawyer’s own understanding of the Law. Then he tells a story that returns the challenge by confronting the lawyer’s own abstract and disembodied understanding of the Law that requires people to “‘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 10:27). The Parable of the Good Samaritan forces the lawyer to reinterpret the Law, perhaps begrudgingly, into concrete and practical terms: not about who to love, but about how God’s people ought to love.
Jesus draws out the lawyer’s own position regarding Law’s explicit requirement for eternal life: “What is written in the Law? he replied. How do you read it?” (Luke 10:26). According to Joshua Strahan, by pointing to the Law, Jesus affirms that the Law is, indeed, a source of life-giving learning. Loving God and loving others is the core of image-bearing and the motivation for creative activity that cultivates God’s goodness in and through our relationships with God and with others.
However, the lawyer fails to grasp this significant implication. He simply quotes by rote what is written in the Law (in Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18). But he cannot offer any interpretation of what that Law looks like in practice for God’s people. He sees it merely as a separator between who is a neighbor and who is not. Jesus’s questions expose the inadequacy of the religious elite’s understanding of the telos of the Law, what the Law ultimately accomplishes in the community of God’s people who are meant to be a light for the nations. The lawyer understood the technical requirements of the Law but failed to realize its implications for practicing life-giving theology within God’s covenant that went all the way back to his promises to Abraham that he would be the father of many nations (Gen. 17:4).
Jesus connects eternal life with a proper interpretation of the Law that leads to life-giving action: “Do this and you will live” (Luke 10:28). The verb “do” is used three times in the passage (Luke 10:25, 28, 37). The lawyer’s failure to answer Jesus’s question of how he interprets the Law reveals the inadequacy of established institutional mental models to generate new learning. In effect, Jesus’s response to the lawyer in Luke 10:28 is a sharp and dismissive retort that shames the lawyer’s knowledge of the Law as essentially useless. Its impact within the narrative makes foolish the arrogant presumption of those who boast in a favored position due to knowledge that does not lead to life-giving action.
In contrast to that useless knowledge of the Law, Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan to challenge the established mental models of his listeners and offer a counter-wisdom intended to transform their encultured consciousness. Stephen B. Spear argues that Jesus uses the parable to help his listeners comprehend that God’s people are those who put into practice the deeper life-giving concerns of the Law aimed a human flourishing within God’s presence. The story of the Good Samaritan is introduced by the lawyer’s self-justifying question, “And who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29). By telling a story in response, Jesus invites his hearers to participate in making sense of the Law in fresh and new ways that give eternal life rather than in bounded, life-destroying ways that displace others outside of God’s hospitable welcome of all peoples into the covenant community.
As a noted teacher of wisdom, Jesus employed a common triadic form of storytelling typically structured around a priest, a Levite, and an Israelite layman. But to their shock and dismay, rather than presenting the Israelite layman as his listeners would have expected, Jesus introduces a hated Samaritan into the story as the third party, an ethnicity Jesus’s hearers would have reviled as genealogical “outsiders” to the covenant community of God.
Generally, the third character of the triadic narrative was the hero of the story, the one by which listeners were taught to emulate in their lives. However, Jesus presents a Samaritan as the hero his listeners should imitate! The Samaritan demonstrates extravagant compassion upon the victim of violence and disgrace where the Israelite insiders, the Levite and the priest, did not. Throughout Luke’s Gospel, compassion is a characteristic typically ascribed to God. Ironically, then, the unlikely hero of the story, the God-figure that demonstrates rich mercy, is a hated and excluded Samaritan. Essentially, Jesus precludes cultural arrogance by inviting his audience to identify with the character in need of mercy rather than the one who shows mercy.
Furthermore, according to the social rules of patronage in the ancient world, the lavish mercy of the Samaritan would have established for the victim a reciprocal relationship of indebtedness to his Samaritan benefactor. This was a scandalous notion to Jesus’s listeners. The Samaritan and the victim were now bound together by the Law’s obligation of neighborly love that sought the mutual blessing and welfare of one another.
The narrative of Luke 10:25-37 poignantly reconstitutes the people of God as those who reflect the character of God by practicing life-giving mercy, even to those marginalized, excluded, and even hated. Through his dialogic and storytelling approach to teaching, Jesus challenged existing mental models and invited his hearers to embrace their vocation as image-bearers of the God who shows mercy and creates cultures that cultivate his life-giving reign over the entire world.
Lessons for Contemporary Organization Learning
The story of the Good Samaritan reclaims the higher-order purpose of human institutions as cultural bodies whose purpose is ultimately the human flourishing that cultivates the good reign of the merciful God over all he has made. The methods that Jesus used to recast this vision in the parable are instructive for organizational learning for today’s institutions.
First, Jesus used dialogue to help his audience to surface their existing mental models that they unquestioningly believed to be right, but, in effect, limited their understanding of their true human purpose. Senge defines mental models are the “deeply ingrained assumptions, generalizations, or even pictures or images that influence how we understand the world and how we take action.” Mental models often limit an individual’s or a group’s ability to perceive and appreciate new insights because they conflict with familiar and prescribed ways of thinking and acting. The lawyer was an expert in the Law who was well acquainted with its explicit commands and instructions. Yet, he failed to understand the underlying telos of the Law. His knowledge of the encoded words “Love the Lord your God…” and “Love your neighbor…” (Luke 10:27) failed to animate life-generating action that extended the mercy of God toward his neighbors in practical terms.
Mark Proctor explains that Jesus used dialogue and storytelling to help his listeners connect eternal life with the mercy-showing demands of the Law through a self-interpretive, meaning-generating process. People make sense of reality through relational processes, according to Wilfred Drath. People construct new realities when they tell stories, challenge beliefs, offer intuitions and perspectives, and question assumptions through continuous interaction. Organizations that encourage and facilitate such dialogue allow people to learn, create, and promote new and fresh mental models that give meaning and life to the organization’s purpose as ultimately cultivating good cultures of human flourishing.
Second, when faced with a public challenge intended to discredit his teaching, Jesus engaged the conflict constructively rather than defensively. Such conflict is healthy and productive for organizational learning. Dorothy Leonard defines creative abrasion as “energy generated by the conflict…channeled into creating rather than destroying, into synthesis rather than fragmentation.” Differentiation caused by cognitive diversity, which is the different ways of perceiving, learning, and approaching tasks among organizational members, fosters learning that enhances problem-solving and innovation. Divergent views spark creative tensions within a team and provoke team members to seek resolution through generative dialogue. Creative abrasion prevents members from remaining complacent or comfortable with conventional wisdom. Instead, it pushes them to seek valid solutions that advance their purposes of human flourishing onto significant breakthroughs. Roger Martin explains that the goal of validity-thinking is to “produce outcomes that meet a desired objective.” But validity-thinking only occurs through the creative abrasion prompted by holding vision and reality in constant tension. Mental models become learning disabilities when vision is lost. But dialogic processes that surface, test, and improve mental models against the organization’s active and operative vision of human flourishing is vital for breakthroughs in organizational learning.
Go and Do Likewise
Jesus did not resolve the tension at the end of the story of the Good Samaritan. Having challenged the prevailing mental models of the established religious institution, he leaves his listeners to consider its implications for their lives and practices. Our institutions, as human organisms, find their true vocation as God’s image-bearers when they cultivate cultures of goodness as expression of God’s reign of mercy in their contexts through practices that advance human flourishing. An organization’s learning is fostered by the creative abrasion that challenges its existing mental models and pushes its knowledge toward new generative realities for the world it inhabits.
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