The Story of The Good Samaritan

One day, a lawyer asked Jesus a question about the law.  Being a Pharisee, who believed in a resurrection, he wanted to know the legal requirements for admission to heaven.  “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

Rather than answering, Jesus asked the lawyer for his opinion, and the legal scholar quoted verses from Deuteronomy and Leviticus.  “You must love God with all your mind, heart, soul, and strength, and you must love your neighbor as yourself.”

The man had obviously heard Jesus before, because combining the two love commands was a unique aspect of his teaching.  The directive to love God is the basic creed of Judaism, and repeated daily, but the command to love your neighbor is part of the separate Holiness Code.  They were never seen in tandem, except in the thought of Jesus, where love for people cannot be separated from love for God.  Do both, he told the lawyer, and eternal life was his.

But the man, being a lawyer, asked a follow-up question concerning exceptions to the general rule.  The verse in Leviticus commanded the Hebrews not to exact vengeance or hold grudges against “the sons of their own people,” and so to love their neighbors, and that is exactly how the lawyer had always understood things.  We take care of our own; there are limits to love.  What did Jesus think?

Instead of getting into a debate, Jesus told a story.  A man was once walking from Jerusalem to Jericho when a couple bandits tried to take his belongings.  The man resisted, was beaten unconscious, stripped of his clothes, and left for dead in a ditch.

As he so often did in his parables, Jesus chose an example from the daily life of the listeners.  The lawyer would know the Jerusalem-to-Jericho road.  It was a seventeen mile rutted track notorious for bandits, and people often traveled in groups for protection.  What happened to the victim could happen to him.  He’d also know the victim’s clothes were worth more than any cash he might be carrying, and were probably why he put up a fight.

After the thieves fled, Jesus went on, the first person to happen along was a priest.  Priests belonged to the upper class, officiated in the temple, and were expected to keep themselves above mundane pollutions.  Touching dead men beside the road was specifically forbidden by priestly regulation.  Accordingly, the dutiful priest saw the bleeding man in the ditch, assumed he was dead, and kept on walking.

The next traveler was a Levite.  Levites were the tribe from which all priests were chosen, so this is a sometime-priest who isn’t currently working.  He didn’t stop, either, although why is unclear.  He wasn’t bound by the same regulations.  Perhaps he was on his way to the temple, and couldn’t arrive polluted.  Perhaps he figured there was nothing he could do, that it might be a trap.  Whatever the reason, he kept on going.

At this point, the listeners would expect the third person down the road to be the hero of the story.  Somebody was going to show up the priestly-types for being the snobs they were, probably a poor widow, who finds the dying man, takes him back to her place, and nurses him to health.  Jesus had used poor widows as examples before.

Instead, Jesus shocked his audience.  The next traveler down the road, he said, was a Samaritan.  And, seeing the bleeding guy in a ditch, the Samaritan stopped, treated his wounds, bound them with bandages torn from his own tunic, laid him across his donkey, and took him to the nearest inn, where he promised to cover all the costs.

It’s hard to overstate the bombshell Jesus dropped.  Samaritans were despised by the Judeans and considered political enemies.  About twenty five years before, Samaritan vandals desecrated the Jerusalem temple by strewing pig bones around the place.  Simply walking in Samaritan territory could make a Judean unclean.  To the Jews, Samaritans were half-breeds, with a bastardized religion, and the Samaritans returned the loathing.  By providing care, the Samaritan was actually loving his enemy, and treating him far better than the victim’s own compatriots.

When Jesus finished his story, he asked the lawyer, “Which of these three do you think acted like a neighbor to the guy who was robbed?”  It was a loaded question, because the answer was an uncomfortable one.  It would be like saying the most loving traveler was a member of Al Qaeda.

But the lawyer admits the true neighbor was the man who showed mercy.  What else could he say?  In response, Jesus tells the lawyer to go and do the same himself.

Jesus cleverly turned the question away from defining the meaning of neighbor, to one of how we make ourselves neighborly.  Love is not concerned with the object of its compassion; a love for some is no love at all.  Seeking to define the term is seeking to reduce our responsibility, and that is the opposite of love.

Since there are no limits to who deserves compassion—even our enemies require love—the only issue is whether we prove to be merciful.  There are no political, religious, racial, economic, or personal borders in the neighborhood.  There are no excuses; there is only how we act.  Love is always a matter of what we do.  Love does not exist as an abstract ideal that we aspire to achieve.  The idealizations are how we justify falling short.

According to Jesus, the Samaritan personifies the way that leads to life.  We can apply the personal meaning as we like.

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About Bucky Dann

I teach religion, sociology, and psychology at Southwestern Community College in the Smoky Mountains. I have worked in the United Methodist ministry and in the substance abuse field. I possess a Masters of Divinity, a Masters of Philosophy, and a PhD in the sociology of knowledge.

9 Responses to “The Story of The Good Samaritan”

  1. “The idealizations are how we justify falling short.”

    Wonderful.

  2. PASTOR DAVIS/MASTER TEACHER Reply May 2, 2012 at 4:20 pm

    This is truly some really great work you have here. Thanks for sharing and may God’s mercy and grace be yours to enjoy each moment of each day. Peace be with you on your journey to higher grounds.

  3. That was good ! I didn’t realize you wrote it till the end !

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