The Good Samaritan is one of the most familiar parables of Jesus. But familiarity and understanding are not always the same. The vast majority of people hear the parable as a simple admonition to help out people in need. While such actions are always a good thing, there is something else going on in the words of Jesus.
The Parable’s Setting
The parable comes shortly after Jesus turns his attention toward Jerusalem. He sets off to pick a fight with the oppressive systems of his day. This includes both the Temple and Roman leadership. So it should not go unnoticed that it is an expert in the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, who approaches Jesus and starts the conversation that includes the parable.
It is most logical that the religious leadership is out to clarify Jesus’ intentions. After all, he is nothing more than another itinerant teacher from some backwater town who has yet to establish himself in a major city, let alone Jerusalem. At the same time, he is drawing larger and larger crowds and there is building anticipation and expectation associated with his ministry. So the legal expert comes to test the waters and find out just what Jesus is teaching.
The Opening Question
The opening question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” affirms this approach. After all, there were two main schools of thought. The first, which is more in tune with the biblical narrative, is that you cannot do anything to inherit anything. An inheritance is a gift of love. The second, which fits more with the popular rabbinic interpretation of the day, focuses on the detailed practices outlined in the non-narrative parts of the Torah. Jesus’ answer, “What does the law of Moses [the Torah] say? How do you read it?” creates an opportunity to go down either path.
Not surprisingly, the legal expert takes the second but offers the unexpected summary of loving God and neighbor. While the rabbinic tradition offers more of a clear checklist of things to do and not to do, his response creates space for far more subjectivity but is also more in line with reports of Jesus’ teaching. Could it be that the response sets up the actual test and aims to learn how this teacher, who seems to have no interest in keeping the Law, understands the Torah?
Jesus and the Torah
Jesus began his ministry by proclaiming himself the arrival of Jubilee, an economic reset that was supposed to take place in Israel every fifty years. In doing so, he declared his oneness with the ostracized masses, who the religious establishment viewed as less holy. Then he turned around and spent time in the presence of unclean people, be they sick or possessed, including lepers. He even picked grain and healed people on the Sabbath. If all that was not enough, he had several women in his company. How can someone with such a blatant disregard for the Law be a teacher of the Law?
Jesus affirms his response with words that the Semitic mind hears as, “Keep doing this and you are living eternal life.” In other words, by loving both God and neighbor, you bring heaven to earth.
Who Is My Neighbor?
Wanting to delve further into Jesus’ understanding of the Torah, the legal expert follows up, “And who is my neighbor?” For the religious leaders, this is a key question as their teaching only required generosity towards fellow Jews. Some would even limit love to only righteous Jews, as shown in the Jewish ethical teachings of Sirach:
If you do a good turn, know for whom you are doing it,Sirach 12:1-7
and your good deeds will not go to waste.
Do good to a devout man, and you will receive a reward,
if not from him, then certainly from the Most High
Give to a devout man,
do not go to the help of a sinner,
Do good to a humble man,
give nothing to a godless one.
Refuse him bread, do not give him any,
it might make him stronger than you are;
then you would be repaid evil twice over
for all the good you had done him.
For the Most High himself detests sinners,
and will repay the wicked with a vengeance.
Give to the good man,
and do not go to the help of a sinner.
Just like the original question, Jesus responds with a question of his own, but first, he offers the parable of the Good Samaritan to frame his question.
In the parable, a traveler is attacked by bandits, beaten, stripped naked, robbed, and left for dead on the side of the road. Because he was both naked and unconscious there was no way of identifying through clothing or his accent whether he was a Jew, a Gentile, or even worse, a Samaritan.
As part of the religious upper class, the priest most certainly rode a donkey down the road, making it easy to transport the man to a place where he could be cared for. However, if the man was not a Jew or was dead, getting within a few feet would make the priest ceremonially unclean and unable to fulfill his priestly duties. Therefore he gives the body a wide birth.
The Levite, who assisted in the Temple, had more freedom on cleanliness laws so he approached the man, and could have rendered first aid. But he chose not to, most likely because from a distance, he saw the priest pass the man and who is he to even inadvertently do something that would make the priest look bad? So he too passes by.
Then, unexpectedly, Jesus introduces a Samaritan, an ethnic group that formed from former Jews who remained in the land after the Assyrian conquest 700 years earlier. Because the Samaritans, who continued to embrace the Torah, did not worship in Jerusalem, Jews viewed them as idolatrous half-breeds who were worse than Gentiles.
However, because they saw themselves as faithful descendants, Samaritans like Jews sought to obey the Torah. The Samaritan used the same religious texts as the priest and the Levite. But unlike the priest and Levite, he has no reason to believe that the beaten man, who was coming down from Jerusalem and heading further away from the Samaritan homelands, was a fellow Samaritan.
He knows that if he helps a Jew, he faces social ostracism if anyone finds out, after all, Samaritans hated Jews as much as Jews hate Samaritans. On top of that, he risked retaliation from the Jewish community for making the man unclean or leaving a Jew indebted to a Samaritan. It is even possible that some might accuse him of being the initial assailant.
The Good Samaritan
Yet, knowing all this, he has deep compassion for the man. This is not the kind of token compassion that prompts thoughts and prayers, but the kind of compassion that demands action no matter the cost. Jesus describes what happens next in overtones of the opening verses of Hosea 6, a call to repentance that promises God’s salvation.
All of this makes the Good Samaritan not only the hero of the story, but someone doing the work of God. The Good Samaritan lives in eternal life and brings eternal life to the wounded man. They are both inheriting the Kingdom. This is pure hostility on the part of Jesus, an open assault on the faith of the religious leadership in Jerusalem.
At the same time, as he closes the parable and asks who acted like a neighbor, he leaves the legal expert with no choice but to declare the Samaritan the neighbor. Then, just as he did with the answer to the original question, Jesus tells him to go and do likewise.
God views you with the same compassion as the Samaritan viewed the beaten man, and once your wounds are bound and you find yourself on the mend, you are called to ask, “To whom must I become a neighbor?”
Living that way is the new ground game that the church needs.