Commentary on the Parable of the Good Samaritan. Luke 10:25-37

Most people, even the non-religious, are aware of the plot line of the parable of the good Samaritan:

A man get's attached by robbers and is left dieing in a ditch. Along come both a priest and a Levite who don't stop to help him. Finally a Samaritan comes to his aid.

Although this is the basic plot line, this misses the main points of the passage, which are in the details.

The Setting of the telling of the Parable of the Good Samaritan

First, Jesus is speaking to a group of Hebrew religious scholars and tells the story as a way to answer a question one of the scholars asks about what God means when he says that we must "love our neighbors as ourselves." The scholar's specific question is "What does God mean by the word 'neighbor'?" Rephrased, the question is essentially "I know that to obey the Torah I have to love my neighbor, but who is that? Who is included in the word, and conversely, who is not included?" In response Jesus tells the story; so the parable of the good Samaritan somehow defines who Jesus' audience is required to love.

Defining the term "Samaritan"

It's also important to note that to many of us the word "Samaritan" has been so equated with this parable that we can think of no other instance of the word, but to Jesus' audience the word "Samaritan" was a dirty word. To claim someone was a Samaritan was to state that their bloodline was unknown and to insinuate that their parents were not faithful to both the Jewish nation as a whole and the religious and national laws, which prevented intermarriage with non-Jews. Furthermore, being that they had been excluded from much of the temple, many Samaritan's had either abandon Judaism altogether or began to practice Judaism in non-authorized ways not connected with the Temple. Many devout Jews considered this their most grievous sin, equating them with trying to change, even pervert, Judaism itself. So in summary, to any Jew at this time, a Samaritan would have been a presumed godless, half-breed, half-foreigner -- a child of an immoral relationship equated with treason, adultery, and apostasy.

As a historical footnote, in the Old Testament people of unknown ethnicity living in Israel were referred to as "people of the land." By Jesus' day, Jewish society had so ostracized the "people of the land" that the had gathered into their own community. "Samaritans," the current word for "people of the land," got their new name from the place in which they collectively settled -- Samaria. Much of this ostracization occurred because one of main tenants of Pharisaic theology had gone mainstream, namely the doctrine that Israel's current oppression was caused because God was punishing all of Israel because Israel tolerated sin. The most grievous of these sins: drunkenness, adultery, and intermarriage with non-Jews.

The Plot Thickens - Who is Jesus telling the parable?

Being that the hero of the story is this half-breed, presumably godless Samaritan and that the villains are religious professionals who do nothing, and thus become guilty bystanders, lends itself quickly to the conclusion that this parable is meant to offend.

The teachers of the law, Jesus' audience for this parable, undoubtedly were angered, but not just for being cast as the "bad guys." They saw Jesus as reversing all morality for crafting the villains as dutiful, religious leaders.

And dutiful they were; the priest and Levite did everything they were commanded. Beyond them, even those who were not Levites or priests would have been offended, as many teachers of the law kept the priestly and Levitical codes as well. (Many of the records of genealogies used to determine who were priests and Levites had been lost in the Babylonian captivity, so many conservatives kept these additional regulations to be on the safe side. After all, if a Jew lost the records of his family line, who's to say he was not a priest or Levite?) The Pharisees, the most conservative and largest group of the teachers, regarded all aspects of the priestly regulations as being necessary to fulfill the prophesy: "all Israel shall become a nation of priests." They claimed that when this prophesy was fulfilled (by all Israel becoming as morally and ritually pure as both the priests and Levites), Israel would be finally restored in her sovereignty, shaking off the burden of Rome's slavery.

What's the meaning of the parable of the Good Samaritan?

Despite its later use in "Good Samaritan" laws, this parable is not primarily about the necessity of coming to the aid of an injured traveler (although that is certainly a good thing), but instead the Parable of the Good Samaritan is about the intertwining of nationalistic hopes and religious obligations.

Let's start with discussing why Jesus' audience would have seen this parable in terms of discussing religious obligations.

What Happens when Mercy and Obedience are in Conflict?

Jesus' audience, especially being that they were so knowledgeable of the law, would not miss the shocking allegation Jesus makes at the heart of this parable. Our culture often does, so let's dive into it: In both Numbers and Leviticus (those verses are reproduced on the bar to the right), Levites and priests are commanded that they must never touch a dead body or anything that excited the bodily, such as blood. To help this man, will require them to break the commands of God.

Breaking these commands may not seem to us as being of large importance, as most Christians see these obligations as purely ritualistic, but to understand the parable one must enter the mind of Jesus' hearers. Despite the cleansing ceremonies and moral repercussions being in our eyes minor, for these devout ultra-conservatives, any disobedience was a grave threat that left one invalidated for the Lord's work. For to break the law -- even the smallest portion of the law -- was to transgress it in its entirety. Even more urgent, they thought that to transgress the priestly laws was to prevent the coming rest and redemption from foreign enslavement. Breaking this law, they thought, was one of the very reasons that Israel was enslaved.

Yet, Jesus goes to great lengths to make sure that his audience knows that to help this man would require the Levite and the priest to break those laws -- and in the eyes of his audience keep Israel mired in the sin that was causing her oppression. Jesus says that the man who had been robbed by thieves looks dead -- and insinuates that he may die at any moment. Jesus' exact words are telling: he says this man was semi-dead. Furthermore, he includes the detail that this man was bleeding in a ditch, leaving no doubt that there would be no way to help this man without touching a bodily fluid and potentially a dead body.

Jesus' tale, which goes to such great lengths to pit obedience to the law and mercy to their fellow Israelite, greatly offends his listeners. The teachers of the law see this, undoubtedly, as a direct affront on the word of God and Moses' law. It is obvious from the parable that Jesus faults the Levite and the priest precisely for not disobeying.

This tale will become one of the chief complaints in Jesus trial, and his accusers will claim that he proclaimed himself as greater than Moses, and as having made man the measure of the law.

And, in sense, he does make man the measure.

In this parable, man is the measure of the law -- but not in the way that his accusers mean. His accusers use Jesus' parable of the Good Samaritan to claim that he believes mankind can choose when to set aside the law. But Jesus uses it to say that the law to love your neighbor is more important than the purity laws. Jesus forces his followers to not mindlessly follow a strict moral code but to also ask themselves "How does my obedience affect my fellow man?" and lay aside their moral code when it does not serve it's designed purpose. In this way, your neighbor (a man) is the measure of the law.

Thus, we see how Jesus applies the statement "I desire mercy not sacrifice" into a real world situation where mercy and obedience are in conflict. Had they understood this position, the priest and Levite would not have been faced with the paralyzing choice between obedience and mercy, for they would have understood that to love ones neighbor is to fulfill the law.

Translated into our modern world, the middle of Parable of the Good Samaritan comes down to this "When the morally right thing harms your neighbor, it is no longer the morally right thing."

Issues of Nationalism and Racism in the Parable of the Good Samaritan

Now that we have examine the meaning for the middle of the parable, let's return to the motivation for why many teachers of the law considered keeping the priestly and Levitical laws so important: they believed that doing so, God would release them of their current state of enslavement by the Roman government. With that brought into focus, this parable is just oozing with racial and nationalist overtones.

For example, the parable was brought up because the teachers of the law wanted to know how Jesus defined the word "Neighbor" which was a hotly debated term in Jesus time. One Rabbinical schools of thought considered it to mean "those in your direct family who lived near you" and which another school considered to mean "all Israelites." Obviously, the way that one defines the word neighbor has great implications to how one reads the great commandment: "Love your neighbor as yourself."

Jesus, weighs in on this debate with the most unusual answer, your neighbor is a person in a nearby country or in another part of the world. Put another way: your neighbor is someone that is not like you. Samaritan's were (or, at least, assumed to be) ethnically different than Jews, moral failures, national traitors, and practiced Juddaism in a profoundly different way (even to the point that most Jews considered them to not be practicing their religion at all). Again, put into our modern vernacular, Your neighbors are the people who are ethnically, religiously, morally, and nationally different than you are. And these are the very people God says we must all love as ourselves.

Secondly, the story works because Jesus' listeners would have assumed that it was a Samaritan that was the thief because the Jew was attacked between Jerusalem and Jericho -- right in the heart of Samaritan country. The Samaritan was the assumed villain in the story -- not the hero -- not the one who we are to emulate. The story would work much in the same way for us today if we could tell a tale of two prominent American politicians who rush past a soon to be dead soldier in the middle east, who was the victim of a roadside bomb, and then being told a Palestinian had come to his aid!

As a historical note, Samaritans is the historical name for the people of mixed blood who lived east of Jerusalem, so the cultural translation of Palestinian is more right than we first may perceive. (A Palestinian is a person of unknown ethnicity who resides in Palestine, despite the preconceived notion of Muslim faith or Arab ethnicity; Palestinians are simply the modern word for both "people of the land" and "Samaritan.").

But the story doesn't end with just breaking down presuppositions, like many of our modern tales. Jesus finishes the parable with the poignant question: "which one of these people was the Israelite's neighbor? (someone who Jesus' listeners are required to love to the same depth as they love themselves.)"

The teacher responds without even bringing himself to say the dirty word: "Samaritan."

The second point of the parable is that national differences are irrelevant in the kingdom of God, and that we are to treat people who are as irreconcilable to us as Palestinians are (or Samaritans were) to Jews, the very way that we would wish to be treated.

Or put another way, Jews and Palestinians are, in fact, neighbors who must love each other.

If God declares that these two people groups, with their history of animosity, are in fact neighbors who are commanded to love each other, isn't everyone in the neighborhood?