“Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”
— Luke 10:36-37 NRSV
There are many Bible stories that we can honestly say we have heard over and over on Sunday mornings. It sometimes happens that we become so familiar with a story that we don’t “get it” anymore. We may know it off by heart, but not in our hearts. I believe this is the case with the famous story of the Good Samaritan.
We are told that a lawyer stood up to test Jesus, asking Him what he must do to inherit eternal life. This man was not remotely interested in hearing the real answer, but in tripping up Jesus with some minor point of the Law. Jesus must have sighed as He asked the man what the law said on this matter. “What is written in the law? What do you read there?”
The man, being a man of the law, answered from Leviticus 19:18 and in Deuteronomy 6:5, that we must love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul and mind, and that we must love our neighbor as we love ourselves. He quite likely felt he had answered perfectly, displaying his knowledge of the Scriptures for even Jesus to see. Jesus commends him on the reply, telling him “Do this and you will do well.”
But the ever-inquisitive lawyer asks, “Who is my neighbor?”
This is the moment Jesus chooses to deliver his story of the Good Samaritan. When Jesus used this illustration of the true neighbor, the term “good Samaritan” would have been an oxymoron. Once again, our Lord was ruffling more than a few pharisaic feathers. He did this a lot, but this was a big one.
In Biblical times, the Samaritans were absolutely despised by the Jewish nations. They were seen as a mixed-blood race resulting from the inter-marriages between northern kingdom exiles and the Gentiles that had been brought into the land by the Assyrians in 2 Kings 17:24. The Jews seriously believed that they were the only “pure-blooded,” truly chosen people of God, and considered their Samaritan relatives as second-class citizens, at best.
More disturbing, the Samaritans were seen as spiritual half-breeds, something to be reviled. Their Bible consisted of the five books of Moses (the Pentateuch) only, and they believed that Mount Gerizim was the mountain on which Moses had commanded that an altar be built (Deuteronomy 27:4-6). The Samaritans had in fact constructed a temple on Mount Gerizim (where both Abraham and Isaac had built altars according to Genesis 12:7: 33:20) in approximately 400 BC, which the Jews destroyed in 128. This did not help to bring peace between the two groups, serving rather to increase hostility.
Devout Jews on their way from Galilee to religious festivals in Jerusalem (a three-day journey by reliable estimate) often elected to travel down the East Side of the Jordan River, rather than to risk passing through the region of Samaria. So intense was the antipathy between the two groups that Samaritans refused to even provide overnight shelter for the weary pilgrims. They would rather hurl epithets and rocks at one another than share a meal or part of land with their “enemies.”
Is there anything more heinous and displeasing to God than hatred and prejudice created and carried out in His Name?
So now we have Jesus of Nazareth, Joseph the carpenter’s son, a Jew, using a Samaritan of all things, as an example of what brotherly love is all about! Those listening to Jesus that day were certainly aghast at His choice of “those people” in His story, but I would hazard a guess that this started a few of them rethinking their preconceived notions of what, and who, constituted their neighbor! They kept their distance from them and it made it easy to hate what they did not truly know or understand. Jesus was trying once again to bridge the gap between hatred and understanding.
In this parable, Jesus tells the tale of a man traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho. Robbers, who beat him and leave him for dead on the side of the road, taking all of his money, ambush him on the road to Jericho. The poor man is left without even the clothes on his back, for the robbers have taken even that. So there he is, naked and bleeding on the side of the road. It so happened that a Priest came walking by. Finally, someone who would help him, a man of God! But alas, when the Priest saw him, he moved to the other side of the road and continued on his way. After all, he was a servant of God, and it wouldn’t do to make himself unclean helping this bloodstained stranger. Who knows how many hours passed with the hot sun beating down on our victim, before the next traveler came along? Finally, a Levite (teacher of the Law) walked by and his eyes fell upon the gruesome scene at the roadside. Maybe now our injured friend would find salvation. Not so, for the Levite carefully skirted the body and kept a safe distance from the puddle of blood dangerously close to his own sandals. He was gone very quickly.
The next traveler was a Samaritan. When he looks upon the half-dead man in the ditch at the side of the road, he is moved with compassion. Troubled greatly by the condition of his brother, he crouches over him, seeing that he is still alive. The Samaritan wastes no time in pouring oil and wine on the wounds, then bandaging them to the best of his ability. He then puts the wounded pilgrim on his own pack animal and leads him to an inn where he cared for him. When he had to leave, the Samaritan gave the innkeeper two denarii (1 denarius was the equivalent of a days wages for a laborer) and said “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.” What a compassionate man this Good Samaritan was!
At the end of this story, Jesus asks the lawyer, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”
How else could the lawyer reply, but that the man who shown mercy to the wounded man was the neighbor. That was the Samaritan!
A simple story, told by Jesus was often worth many lessons in a synagogue, and so it is with the story of the Good Samaritan. This must have frustrated those listening that day, because as much as they wanted to shout out that no Samaritan was good, they could not argue with the fact that, in this example, the Samaritan was good. He had demonstrated true compassion and love for his fellow man when even the Priest and the Levite had looked the other way when faced with the body in the ditch. Two groups the Jewish people held in high regard had been willing to let the victim die rather than to “waste time” on him, or worse yet become “ceremonially unclean” by rescuing him. They didn’t know him, why bother? Yet the hated Samaritan had not hesitated even a moment, rushing to the man’s aid and doing as much as he was able to restore this unfortunate man to good health.
Now, I am absolutely not making a blanket statement that all religious leaders or teachers of theology are bad people. I don’t believe that was Jesus’ intent either. He was, to put it simply, telling His listeners not to “judge a book by its cover.” My words, not His. (Though I would not be surprised to find a new paraphrase that puts it in exactly those words.) Just as one priest who is a jerk does not mean that all religious leaders are jerks, neither does an individual Samaritan of questionable character mean that all Samaritans are evil.
The Jesus I have heard preached and talked about was not the kind of Man who would have enjoyed the national and religious bigotry between the Jews and the Samaritans. He never participated in any of the silly cliques of His day. Neither did He condemn everything others did, as some religious leaders took great joy in doing. (Ever noticed how close Pharisee sounds to “there-I-see?” I find that a rather handy reminder of their biggest sin: Going around constantly trying to catch people sinning, then pointing them and their “sin” out for all to witness.) Jesus never actively sought out opportunities to catch people doing wrong. He sought them out to ask them to join Him, or to learn from His example and His teachings.
In the case of the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus was attempting to illustrate to those around Him that being a Samaritan did not in and of itself make a person bad. They were every bit as capable of goodness, compassion, and uprightness before God as any Jewish man or woman was. Decency and humanitarianism knows no boundaries such as national or spiritual heritage. The most important commandments of God are, as the inquisitive lawyer stated, to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, and mind-and to love our neighbor as ourselves, and we don’t get to say who we would like to choose as our neighbor. Neither do we get a choice of enemies we get to torment and despise. This is the point that Jesus was striving to get across to that lawyer and his friends that day.
No, I do not think we have to throw our arms around people who hate us and tell them how much we love them, though wouldn’t that be a sight to behold next Valentine’s Day? You are going to need to love some people from a great distance, by praying for them and not going out of your way to harm them. Jesus Himself taught us (Matthew 5:43-47) to love our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us, pointing out that anyone can love and pray for a brother or sister in Christ who is good to us. The true test of our faith is to love and pray for those who are thorns in our sides, those who seem to pick us as their enemies.
No one goes through this life being loved by everyone. At some point in our lives, or many times, we are crushed to find out that someone we are acquainted with doesn’t like us. It is even worse if this is someone we have a lot of respect and admiration for. At these times, have you not found yourself saying, with tears stinging the back of your eyes, “But they don’t even know me? How can they hate me when I’ve never met them??” It doesn’t feel very good, does it? We want to plead our case, to make them like us. And we get angry, feeling we must defend ourselves.
Now imagine how it feels to be hated just because you are Native Canadian, Black, Hispanic, old, young, gay or straight? What if no one will befriend you simply because you are somehow disabled, or because you have a “funny” accent? How about if it’s because you are Catholic, or not Catholic? Maybe no one likes you because you are poor and can’t afford nice clothes or to chip in for pizza on movie night? Or because you are very wealthy and they are jealous, or they are poor and immediately assume that because you have money, you simply could never understand what they are going through. You aren’t human. It is so unfair, is it not? How dare they judge us like that, it isn’t right! Who do they think they are?
With the story of the Jews and Samaritans, where no one “side” was ever better or worth more in God’s eyes at any time, it is the same. The Jews hated the Samaritans. The Samaritans, feeling the heat of that dislike, hated back. Nationalistic hatred is something very hard to put a stop to. Add religion to that and it gets worse. Think of the ongoing wars in our time between the Protestants and Catholics in Ireland, with which we are well acquainted thanks to CNN and Canada’s Newsworld. That is so very much like the antipathy between Jews and Samaritans in the time of Christ. So many more similarities than differences, each claiming that their method of worship and belief system is the best, the one ordained by God.
Were Jesus delivering that parable today, it could just as easily be told to the Arabs as the story of the Good Israelite, or to people in Ireland as the Good Catholic. Different era, different players, same sad story.
I will conclude by saying that the message of the parable of the Good Samaritan is as timely today as it was two thousand years ago on the other side of the world. My brothers and sisters in Christ, we are all God’s children, all related to one another in His family. Like all families, we may not always like one another a whole lot, and time spent together may not always be a time of fellowship so much as a time of taking deep breaths and counting to ten an awful lot-but we are all still God’s children. We are no better and no worse than “they” are, whoever “they” may be. Keep in mind that we are someone else’s “they” and you might find that you see things a great deal differently than you did yesterday.
The same Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today and forever (Hebrews 13:8) has a simple question for you:
“Who is your neighbor?”