The Relevance of the Parable of the “Good” Samaritan for Today’s Racially Divided World
In the aftermath of so much racial division and hatred in our society, I was drawn once again to a consideration of the Parable of the “Good” Samaritan. I put the word “Good” Samaritan in quotes because, as you probably know, as far as the Jewish people in the first century were concerned there was no thing as a “good” Samaritan. They were hated and despised and avoided at all costs. Continue reading . . .
In the aftermath of so much racial division and hatred in our society, I was drawn once again to a consideration of the Parable of the “Good” Samaritan. I put the word “Good” Samaritan in quotes because, as you probably know, as far as the Jewish people in the first century were concerned there was no thing as a “good” Samaritan. They were hated and despised and avoided at all costs.
The details of this story are well known.
First, although Jesus doesn’t identify this man who was on a journey, he was most certainly a Jew. Were he not, the whole story loses its punch, its sting. He is robbed, beaten, and left half-dead, probably unconscious. The road from Jerusalem to Jericho, descending through the desert, is approximately 17 miles in length. This road was notorious in ancient times for being a stronghold for thieves and thugs, with numerous places for bandits to hide undetected.
It’s important to note that he was “stripped” and “half-dead” (Luke 10:30). In the first century, travelers were able to identify one another in two ways: either by talking to a person and taking note of their accent, or by observing their clothing. In the case of this man, they couldn’t do either one. He had been reduced to a mere human being, without ethnic indicators or markers to alert passers-by to his identity.
The first to approach him is a “priest”. Although it doesn’t say he was riding a donkey or a horse, we may assume that he was. After all, most priests were from the upper classes of society and would never have undertaken this length of journey on foot. The poor walk. Everyone else rides. Also, the parable is dependent on the assumption that what the Samaritan did, at least the priest could have done. The parable assumes that each man who came upon the victim had an equal opportunity to help him.
So here we have a priest, a religious leader, a man who is supposed to know God and thus to be loving and compassionate and caring, riding by, seeing the wounded man, and then steering his animal to the far side of the road and continuing on his way.
Some have tried to get the priest off the hook by saying that the reason he didn’t help the victim is that he didn’t want to incur ritual or ceremonial defilement by coming into contact with a dead body. Remember that according to OT law, you had to stay at least six feet away from a corpse or you became ceremonially defiled and were thus cut off the temple of God. This man was severely beaten, half-dead, and perhaps the priest feared he had already died.
However, the fact that the priest was traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho indicates that he was probably one of many priests who lived in Jericho and traveled to Jerusalem to serve for two weeks in the temple. If he is returning to Jericho after having served in the Temple, ritual defilement would not have been an issue with him.
Furthermore, Jews were required to bury a neglected corpse. Showing mercy and respect for the dead in this way was more important than avoiding ceremonial defilement. Whether or not the priest, and later the Levite, thought he was dead is irrelevant. They had an obligation to help, either to bury the man or to find someone who could help him.
Next, we read that a Levite likewise came along. Levites were religious officials whose responsibility was to police or guard the temple liturgy.
Now this is speculation, but not beyond reason. People who have actually walked this road today point out that one can see a considerable distance ahead. In other words, it is highly likely that this Levite knew that a Priest was ahead of him on the road and that he had ignored the wounded man. Perhaps he said to himself, “Hey, I’m just a Levite. I’m not as important or as holy as the Priest. So, if he felt justified in not rendering aid, surely I don’t have to!”
The bottom line is that we don’t know what motivated the Priest and the Levite to ignore the man and pass by on the other side. Maybe they were afraid that the robbers and thugs who had bushwhacked the man were still nearby and may come after them as well. We’ll never know. What we do know is that they were not justified in ignoring this man’s great need.
Now we come to the central figure in our story. We read that a Samaritan came along. That’s not what we are led to expect. The order would more normally be, first a Priest (a man from the upper class), then a Levite, an official of a slightly lower rank, and then perhaps an average Jew, a layman, an ordinary guy. But no! Along came a Samaritan, who proceeded to bind up his wounds and to take him to an inn where he paid someone to provide and care for his needs.
So what’s the point of the story? What relevance does it have for a racially-divided nation like ours?
First, the parable is not designed to tell us that our responsibility is to stand beside the road and wait for people who are in need so that we might help them. The parable is not designed to tell us whether or not we should pick up hitchhikers or whether or not you should give money to panhandlers!
Second, the parable is not an indictment of religious leadership or the Temple. Neither is it an indictment of the upper classes. Some priests were poor. And we don’t know if the Samaritan himself was rich or poor.
So, then, what is this parable ultimately about? What is Jesus saying to us?
Jesus tells a story that changes the question from “What kind of person is my neighbor?” to “What kind of person am I?” We shouldn’t be asking the question, “What sort of people are worthy of my love?” Rather, we should be asking, “How can I become the kind of person whose compassion pays no heed to status?”
The question about what kind of man is dying is not even in the story any more. The whole focus is now on the kind of people who are passing by. What kind of person are you? Are you the sort who first seeks to determine whether a person is the sort who is worthy of your love and compassion, or are you the sort who first seeks to cultivate a heart of compassion and kindness that you joyfully shower upon others regardless of their position in life and society?
In other words, Christian or Christ-like love does not permit us to choose whom we will or will not love. We are forbidden from putting people into categories in such a way that we are only responsible to love “our kind” or “our sort”.
This parable is also about the futility of a so-called “faith” that does not “work.” The priest and the Levite would faithfully recite the Shema twice daily (see Mark 12), but their lack of love shows that their faith and confession and “belief” are spurious.
This parable is a stinging, damning indictment of all forms of social, religious, and racial bigotry. It confronts head-on the sin of racism. It is a powerful attack on all forms of prejudice and feelings of superiority. The Samaritan didn’t pause and ask himself the question: “I wonder if this guy believes the same things I do?” He didn’t pause and say to himself, “I’m not about to help him, after all, he’s a Jew, and I’m a Samaritan, so he worships in Jerusalem and I worship on Mt. Gerizim.”
When an opportunity to show kindness and love comes along, are you deterred because by their clothing it is obvious they are Muslim? Are you put off because they are of a different skin color? Do you find an excuse not to help because they are clearly from the inner city?
This isn’t to say that the parable is telling us that what one believes isn’t important. Of course it is! It can prove to be the difference between heaven and hell. But the kindness of Christians must never be restricted to Christians, as if we are obligated to help and to love only those who share our faith.
So let me close simply by asking this pointed and painful question: To whom can you, to whom should you, be a neighbor today? Perhaps that annoying jerk who lives next door to you? Perhaps that co-worker who is a member of the other political party? Perhaps the hungry kid in the inner city? Perhaps the wealthy executive in the suburbs? Perhaps the man struggling with same-sex attraction? Or the woman who is attracted to women? Perhaps the divorced single mom?
Whatever the case, the issue isn’t about who they are or what they are like. The issue is about who you are and what you are like. The issue isn’t whether they qualify to be your neighbor. The issue is whether you will choose to be a neighbor to them.