You know the story, right? A man is robbed and beaten up, lying half-dead. A nice person called a Samaritan seeing the man in distress goes to help him. He does the right thing. So we should also do the right thing and help strangers in need. That’s it. A nice moral story.
Um, no. Not even half of it. The parable of the good Samaritan that Jesus tells is deeply provocative. It should be equally challenging for us today but the irony is that we’ve sanitised the uncomfortable challenge this little story provokes. How? Because we’ve ignored some important context and historical facts that deepen the meaning of the story.
Here’s the surprising truth about the most known, yet often underestimated of Jesus’ parables. I’m writing about it because I believe the parable of the good Samaritan is a parable, especially for our time. We must hear it, comprehend its challenge, and live it.
The good Samaritan is a story within a story
If it’s been a little while since you’ve heard the story or are vaguely familiar with the text, we should remind ourselves that the story is told in response to a challenge to Jesus.
On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” “What is written in the law?” he replied. “How do you read it?” He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’” “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.” But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbour?” Luke 10: 25-29.
The religious lawyer knew all the inside outs of how to understand and live the Law of Moses. By putting forward such a question to Jesus he may have wanted to trick him on a point of interpretation or to demonstrate to the crowd his bona fide credentials as a good man, a righteous man, an observant Jewish man belonging to the chosen people (unlike the pagan Romans and all the rest). He must have felt pretty good about himself. And what could be a better justification than to get the approval of this new and much talked about rabbi, Jesus? He almost got it too, until that last question. The question that would open a can of worms in his mind.
“And who is my neighbour?”
We hear the rest of the story, the heart of the story within the story. We could rephrase this passage as the ‘Story of the Religious Lawyer’ but it wouldn’t be half as memorable.
The setting of the good Samaritan is intriguing
The location of the parable is a really intriguing detail. It helps to know it. Talking about the road to Jericho would have brought all sorts of horrors to the minds of those who first heard the parable. The setting of this story is a 17-mile journey from Jerusalem to Jericho was the most dangerous road in ancient Israel. It was firstly a challenge to walk due to its steep drop from 3000ft to 200ft below sea level, to the level of the Dead Sea.
Secondly, the audience would also be gripped by the story of what happens, because that road was notorious for violent assaults and robbery. It was essentially a 17-mile dark alley with plenty of nooks and crannies for robbers to hide and escape among the caves and rocky terrain. No surprise then it was known as ‘the Way of Blood’.
Hearing of a man lying on the roadside, possibly dead, would’ve been an all too familiar story and reality for many who traveled the route. And it’s here that Jesus throws his first challenge:
In reply, Jesus said: “ A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. Luke 10: 30-33.
Who’s really the star of the good Samaritan story?
If I was to give you the phrase ‘religious establishment’, what sorts of personas might that bring to mind? Perhaps wealthy, out of touch clerics such as bishops or priests who are self-important in their position? Perhaps its a pastor enjoying a little too much the trappings of his ‘ministry’ and affording too many luxuries? In the parable, Jesus mentions a Priest and a Levite. Who exactly are these people? They were the privileged religious establishment of the time. The priest was from the aristocracy that ran the Jewish temple in Jerusalem. He had an important function as he would offer the animal sacrifices of the people to atone for their sins. He may well have avoided having to touch the body on the side of the road to avoid becoming ritually unclean in case the man was dead. Here religion and its rules trump the chance to practice compassion. Not good. As for the Levite, he also had an important role in the daily running of the temple. They were from the tribe of Levi, so they too were a part of the religious privilege of the day. His reasons for avoiding the man could’ve been more self-preservation. He may well have assumed it was a trap. It must have happened; criminals playing dead to lead their unsuspecting victims into an ambush. He was looking after himself. Not so good, given there could well be a dying man at his feet and he’s his last chance.
Jesus, in choosing these characters is clearly making a point. Actually, he’s doing more than that, he’s taking it to the establishment and it’s starting to get pretty provocative for the audience. And what would the religious lawyer be thinking now? Get ready, it gets a whole lot hotter.
The parable of the good Samaritan challenges religious tribalism.
He (the Samaritan) went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii [a couple month’s wages] and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him’, he said, and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’
Nice guy this Samaritan fellow, isn’t he? Pity he’s a religious heretic. Yes, that’s right because the Samaritan sect was sworn enemies of mainstream Judaism at the time. They were beyond the pale. The history is this, the Samaritans were descended from Jews who remained in Israel during the Babylonian exile centuries before. They worship God in a different place (not the temple in Jerusalem) and consider themselves the true heirs of the Jewish tradition. Yep, and they prayed to God facing in a different direction too. Sounds familiar doesn’t it? If you think something like Christian, Muslim relations are messy, this was messier.
But what of this particular, Samaritan? He was compassionate and his pity for a stranger, a fellow traveler like him, meant he took a risk. It could easily have been an ambush but he practiced love for another. He loved someone, not like himself. He loved an enemy.
To have the sworn enemy, the heretic, now the hero is nothing less than inflammatory in such a combustible religious climate as Jesus’ time.
The parable of the good Samaritan is a provocative genius by Jesus.
Which brings us back to the opening discussion between Jesus and the religious lawyer. In this verbal battle of wits, it’s check-mate to Jesus.
“Which of these three do you think was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.” Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”
He has discerned the true character of the lawyer and the parable forces him into answering in the way he least expected. The reason being was because understanding and applying the Jewish law was getting more complicated when the whole the point of it was simply this: to ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your strength and with all your mind and ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’.
The lawyer had misunderstood the law, he wanted to use to apply a boundary, to know who it was ok to associate with. The lawyer wanted to limit his responsibility by defining the in and the out crowd. Jesus told him the complete opposite; there are no boundaries to who you are to be a neighbour to. Not even heretics, unbelievers, pagans or any other people that Jews and now us Christians could associate and act toward. And that’s just the point. Is someone defined by their religion first, or their humanity? Jesus tells us unambiguously, it’s their humanity.
The good Samaritan parable challenges us still
The people of Israel in Jesus’ time were patriots ruled by a foreign enemy, Rome. Maintaining a strong, nationalist identity was ironically proving to undermine the very identity that formed them, the righteousness of the law of Moses. Correcting this was deeply unsettling for all who heard it and it’s not the only time Jesus lays down such a challenge in his ministry. But what has all this to say to us today? Plenty.
The parable of the good Samaritan and the refugee crisis
When many countries around the world undertake harsh treatments and exclude those most vulnerable and suffering such as refugees, they are choosing to walk on the other side of the road. Just like the religious priest and Levite. How ironic then that it’s some religious people who support a ban on refugees from Muslim majority countries. If Christians are silent on this issue, we are clearly disobeying the moral example that Christ teaches and this is extremely serious. Why? Because we start to sound like the religious lawyer, trying to define who is the right kind of human being to associate with and who isn’t.
The result is that Christians harden their hearts and shrink in moral stature and authority to the world around them. We fail to be Christ’s light and witness in the world and denigrate his name. It is serious. We need to be constantly awake to the profound question of ‘who is my neighbour’? And to those who suggest that letting in people who are different to us could endanger our lives and security, the answer is clear. The Samaritan risked his life to do the right thing, shouldn’t we take a significantly lesser risk to do the right thing? Just how weak and morally spineless have we become?
The parable of the Good Samaritan is the shock we need to learn and live today and to truly fulfill God’s commands to ‘love your neighbour as yourself.’ We have no option but to ‘go and do likewise.’
© Not Only Sundays, February 2017.
Scripture quoted from the NIV translation. Images https://www.flickr.com/photos/10647023@N04/ Tutincommon https://www.flickr.com/photos/ian-w-scott/ https://www.flickr.com/photos/damiavos/ on a https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/ Other images sourced on www.pixabay.com image under a creative commons licence CC.