What do you remember about the Good Samaritan story? What would you say the moral of the story is from what you remember?
This Sunday’s Gospel from Luke is one of the better known gospel stories: the parable of the Good Samaritan. In fact, we even use the description “good Samaritan” in our contemporary language to describe someone who generously helps others who are in distress. This story may be so familiar to us that it has lost its radical flavor. We may think that its meaning begins and ends with the fact that we are called to help others in need. But it is a much more interesting story than this when we read the entire passage in which the parable is included and when we know a little bit more about how Samaritans were viewed at the time of Jesus.
The parable of the good Samaritan is told by Jesus in response to a question asked to him my a lawyer. The lawyer begins by asking Jesus, “What must I do to inherit everlasting life?” It is likely not too hard to understand why the lawyer asked this question to Jesus; many of us, at one point or another, have wanted to know what we must do to really be happy in life or to make sure that we are saved in the eyes of God. Like the lawyer, we want some practical guidance as to what exactly we are supposed to do to make sure we are living a good life.
Jesus’ first response to the lawyer is to ask him what is written in the law. By “the law,” Jesus is referring to the law of the Torah as written in the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament, of which the Ten Commandments are central. This lawyer would certainly have known the Jewish law well, for that was his job. His response is to quote Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.” It is important to note here that the idea of loving the neighbor as yourself was not an idea original to Jesus, but rather part of the Jewish law. As we will see, however, Jesus puts a radical spin on this idea in this parable.
At hearing this, Jesus tells the lawyer that he has answered correctly and that if he does this, he shall live. We are told then that the lawyer wishes to “justify himself.” Maybe he felt a bit sheepish that he actually knew what seems like the relatively straight-forward answer to his question. Maybe he was looking for more specific direction in terms of exactly what he had to do to gain eternal life. (And so that he could know what he could get away with!) Whatever the reason, the lawyer then asks, “Who is my neighbor?” and in response, Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan.
Now it is instructive that Jesus tells a parable to answer the man’s question about who counts as his neighbor. Jesus does not just start listing people the man needs to love as his neighbor; rather, he tells a story. And in this story, a man gets beaten up and is left by the side of the road, half-dead. A priest and a Levite (a member of the Hebrew tribe of Levi) both pass by this injured person, see his pain, but continue on their journey without stopping to help. Jesus’ audiences would have known that the priest and the Levite were good Jewish men, men who would have been expected to follow the rules of God, particularly, loving the neighbor as the self. And then the Samaritan passes by and is moved to pity by the sight of this ailing man. Not only does the Samaritan dress the man’s wounds, he also carries him on his own animal to an inn, where he pays for the man’s treatment there.
To understand this surprise ending to the parable, we have to know a little bit about the Samaritans at the time of Jesus. They were a marginalized people, a people despised by Jews and non-Jews alike. The majority culture would have held prejudices against them and believed that nothing good could come from Samaria. For those listening to Jesus’ parable, it would have been shocking to hear that one of these despised Samaritans, someone barely even seen as a person, someone with whom a Jewish person would not be caught dead eating a meal or conversing, would be the one to show compassion.
In telling this story, Jesus demanded that his audience expand their imaginations in a radical way. For the story is just as much about the lawyer as it is about the Samaritan. In telling this story, Jesus informs the lawyer that our neighbor is defined by the needs of others we encounter, even, or perhaps especially if, that person is need is someone we despise the most. In the end, this story is not just a call to help those who need it. It is the message at the heart of Jesus’ mission: that to be happy, whole, saved we must love God by loving our neighbors, even those we do not understand, even those we do not like, even those who do things that we find hateful.
Having read a little bit more about the Good Samaritan parable, how would you now state its meaning in your own words?
Who are the Samaritans in your life? That is, who are the people from whom you do not expect any good to come?