The Parable of the Good Samaritan, found in the Luke 10:25-37, is one of the most popular stories in the New Testament. I would venture a guess and say that even most non-religious folks are familiar with the concept of a “good Samaritan,” someone who goes out of their way to help a stranger in need. For most of us in the twenty-first century, the words “good” and “Samaritan” belong together as much as “hot” and “chocolate” or “cheese” and “burger.” For Jesus’ Jewish audience in the first century, however, the idea of a “good Samaritan” would have been as unthinkable and oxymoronic as an honest liar or, well, a suffering Messiah.
You see, the Samaritans and the Jews didn’t get along very well, to put it mildly. The gospel of John actually tells us that Jews had no dealings with Samaritans (John 4:9). Think Sharks and Jets, Democrats and Republicans, or New England Patriots fans and anyone else, and you get the picture. In other words, they didn’t do business together, they didn’t let their kids play with each other, they didn’t hang out on the weekends, and they DEFINITELY didn’t worship together. The Jews not only viewed the Samaritans as half-breeds, but also as religious and cultural compromisers who had corrupted and polluted the true faith. This is the cultural backdrop behind the famous parable. With that in mind, let’s take a closer look at the parable itself.
Luke tells us that on a certain occasion an expert in the law approached Jesus and asked him what he needed to do in order to inherit eternal life. Luke seems to indicate that the lawyer’s question was less sincere and more an attempt to test or to trap Jesus. Jesus, skilled communicator that he was, responded to the lawyer with his own question, “What is in written in the law? How do you read it?” (Luke 10:26). The expert in the law, being an expert in the law, responds with the right answer by quoting from the Hebrew Bible, our Old Testament: “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). Jesus responds by telling the lawyer, “You have answered correctly. Do this and you will live” (Luke 10:28). In other words, the lawyer gave the textbook answer and Jesus told him that if he would put it into practice he would inherit eternal life. It’s what happens next that’s so very interesting.
Luke tells us that the lawyer “wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’” (Luke 10:29). The lawyer was looking for a loophole. He was looking for Jesus to give him an answer that would let him off the hook. He was looking for the bare minimum of neighborly love he was obligated to provide and still find eternal life. Perhaps he was hoping Jesus would say something like, “Your neighbor is whoever, looks like you, thinks like you, worships like you.” Perhaps he was hoping Jesus would say, “Your neighbor is anyone who lives in your own neighborhood, city, or country.” He wanted to know exactly who he was obligated to love and who he could safely ignore. We’ve probably all been guilty of that at one time or another. Jesus’ response was nothing short of genius.
Instead of providing the lawyer with a laundry list of people deserving of neighborly love, Jesus begins to tell a story. Here’s how he begins the story, “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” (Luke 10:30). For Jesus’ Jewish audience, this would have been a very plausible story. Travel on ancient roads was dangerous. People being robbed on the roads was probably a recurring story on the nightly news.
Jesus continued the story, stating that a priest and a Levite each happened to pass by the wounded man, and, instead of stopping to help or even check on the guy, each “passed by on the other side of the road” (Luke 10:31-32). Now Jesus’ choice of characters here is important. Priests and Levites represented the religious establishment; they were the ones responsible for overseeing Jewish worship, the would have been viewed as God’s representatives among the people. If anyone was going to do the right thing, it would have been them. Instead of helping this man, these religious experts chose to pass by on the other side. And here’s the thing, they may have had solid excuses for doing so. Jewish law was pretty specific about the kinds of things that made a person unclean, and touching dead or otherwise unclean bodies was one of them. Perhaps they were concerned that if they became unclean trying to help them they wouldn’t be able to perform their religious duties in the temple later that day. Or, perhaps they thought the guy was just a decoy, someone pretending to be hurt in order to lure in an unsuspecting do-gooder so that the robbers around the corner could rob the helper. Such things were not uncommon. Perhaps the priest and Levite regarded it as too great a personal risk. We can sympathize with that, can’t we? We want to help others, but only if we can do safely without any personal risk.
At this point, I imagine the lawyer was starting to feel pretty good about himself. Maybe he was thinking, “Well if a priest and a Levite didn’t help out a stranger on the side of the road, then I guess I don’t either.” Maybe he thought he was off the hook after all. Until. Until the next three words came out of Jesus’ mouth.
“But a Samaritan…”
At this point I imagine the lawyer’s heart sank, along with the hearts of all the other Jews in the audience. “No! Not a Samaritan!” they may have thought. Remember, the Samaritans were half-breed religious and cultural compromisers. Surely it won’t be a Samaritan that Jesus makes the hero of this story, right? Right?!
"But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He 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 [two days wage] 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.'" (Luke 10:33-35)
The Samaritan, upon seeing someone in need, took it upon himself to do something about it. He didn’t ask if the guy had insurance. He didn’t blame him for being stupid enough to travel alone. He didn’t stop to question his nationality or religion. He didn’t do a background check or a drug test to make sure he “deserved” the help. He just helped him, at great personal risk and personal cost.
As Jesus finished his story, he looked right at the lawyer and asked him a question, “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” (Luke 10:36). The lawyer, trapped by his own question, was forced to admit that the true neighbor was “the one who had mercy on him,” to which Jesus responded, “Go and do likewise” (Luke 10:37)
It’s easy for those of us 2000 years removed from the original setting of this story to miss the point here. We tend to think the moral of the story is, “Help those in need.” And while that’s true, it’s deeper than that. The story demonstrates that it wasn’t the religious experts or the religious establishment who got it right, even though they are the very ones who should have. The point of the story is that Jesus used the compassion and generosity of the perceived religious and cultural compromiser to shame the religious establishment.
That is the reason why I said that “in many ways liberalism, even secular liberalism, is the Good Samaritan to the priests and Levites of the Religious Right.” When we look at the polices and platforms of each we see that it is liberals, the ones generally regarded as religious and cultural compromisers, who are the ones with more compassion and generosity toward those in need. The platform of the Religious Right, the ones who are supposed to take the Bible the most seriously, is demonstrably harmful to our society’s and our world’s most vulnerable groups of people: the sick, the poor, minorities, immigrants and refugees, women, and children.
Now, before any of you fill my inbox with angry comments, I know that there are many Christians who are politically conservative but who are still very concerned about these vulnerable groups and who are extremely kind, compassionate, and generous in their private lives. I thank God for those people. I believe that is still a naïve, misguided political position that still passes injured travelers by on the other side, but it’s definitely better than nothing, and that’s for another blog post. There are, however, a great number of politically conservative professing Christians who are just as content to pass by wounded strangers privately as they are politically. The compassion and generosity of so many of liberal friends, religious and non-religious, stands in judgment over them.
Since we are talking about neighborly love, I think it is only appropriate to close with a quote from everyone’s favorite neighbor, Mr. Fred Rogers. Read it, and then go and do likewise.