In narrative form, irony functions disruptively, overturning the applecart of our anticipations, upsetting our usual understandings of situations, characters in a story and world views.
Numerous instances of irony emerge in the New Testament. “For those who want to save their life will lose it.” (Luke 9:24) “So the last will be first.” (Matthew 20:16) “The stone that was rejected by … the builders … has become the cornerstone.” (Acts 4:11) Through such ironic declarations, new worlds of possibilities are opened to those with ears (and hearts) to receive them.
While the famous parable of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) may seem to current sensibilities like a moral directive – “Go and do likewise” – its greater power is found in its irony. The lawyer whose questions would test Jesus is himself tested by Jesus. Those who might seek to trap Jesus are themselves cornered into recognizing that a new master teacher has come to town.
Jesus answers the lawyer’s question about loving one’s neighbor by telling a story about a man who falls among robbers along the Jericho road. No one helps the man except a Samaritan who is moved by compassion.
Jesus’ original hearers would not have expected a hated enemy like a Samaritan to arise as a hero of any tale. They would have been hard-pressed to ever put the words “good” and “Samaritan” together in one descriptive phrase. Through such tension, however, the parable functions to reshape how we expect neighbors to act and be.
A larger question for religious practitioners today is this: If the parable in Luke 10 were contemporized for our times, which surprising character or group would we be hard-pressed to call “good”?
As relayed in the Gospels, nothing seems to go the way it should for a man acclaimed to be a king. Yet here is a king who does everything he is called to do (overthrow the reign of an enemy, usher his people into freedom, ascend to glory) and yet does it in such a way that it is so easy to miss.
The lead-up to this moment suggests that this man who has healed and performed miracles will ride into Jerusalem and establish himself as king. It is summarized most fittingly in Pontius Pilate’s placement of a “Jesus Christ, King of the Jews” sign atop the cross.
Jesus Christ is king yet nearly unrecognizable in the moment. He is robed briefly in a purple cloak, but only with the intention to mock him. He is crowned, but with thorns. He mounts a throne and is elevated above the masses, but on two beams of wood to which he is nailed. He does liberate his people from the throes of the enemy, yet in a way that transcends momentary preoccupations for a freedom that is eternal.
The irony of the crucifixion and the events surrounding it is that the Christ, the king, is treated as anything but a king.
Yet through the eyes of faith, Christ the king accomplishes his mission and is triumphant in a manner contrary to what was expected.