So one day an expert in the Jewish law asks Jesus what he should do to inherit eternal life. This is a question that Jesus keeps getting asked by people with ulterior motives, and so this time it leads to one of the most famous stories in the Bible. But because The Good Samaritan is such a well-known parable, it probably doesn’t hurt to revisit it…
To recap: a lone traveller is walking down the treacherous, dangerous road between Jerusalem and Jericho when he’s attacked by robbers. Left for dead, a priest and then a Levite walk past him without offering any help. Then along comes a Samaritan who saves the guy’s life. The moral we normally take from this is that the most unexpected one of the three is the one who everyone thought would turn out to be the bad guy, and therefore we should show love even to those we’d consider enemies. And that’s a legitimate way to approach life, but there’s more going on behind the scenes of this story.
For a start, we immediately consider it to represent a conflict between two groups who loathed each other – it’s fair to say that Jews and Samaritans hated each others’ guts. But here’s the thing – where does it say that the traveller was Jewish?
It doesn’t. For all we know, the traveller could have been a Samaritan himself. Or Roman. Or Inuit. We don’t know – he was left unconscious and stripped of his clothing, so there’s no external way of knowing anything about him. Sure, we assume he was Jewish, but this is a story where it’s dangerous to assume anything. Effectively, Jesus leaves us with a blank slate onto which we can project our assumptions and prejudices, because he’s waiting to pull the rug from under us.
So along comes a priest. And of course we all expect the priest to help the man, but instead he passes by on the other side. Why does he do this?
Well, it’s possible he’s on his way home with his share of the sacred offering that had been given at the Temple. This was his meal, the guy needs to eat. Fair enough, but Leviticus 22 has a bunch of rules he had to observe first – after all, this isn’t a Happy Meal. One of the rules is that he can’t eat the offering if he’s been made unclean by coming into contact with a corpse or bodily fluids.
And so we can probably expect the poor traveller to be bleeding. The priest may be making yet another of the story’s assumptions by figuring that the traveller was already dead. He makes a snap decision – I’m not going to help, because I’ll end up making myself unclean and I’ll go hungry tonight. And, to a degree, that’s a legitimate call to make under the law of Leviticus.
(Remember who Jesus was telling this story to, by the way.)
But wait – the priest isn’t really in a position to do this. Because Leviticus 19 includes other laws such as “Do not do anything that endangers your neighbour’s life” and “When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt.” So which law takes priority? Given the emphasis on compassion throughout the Bible, I’d imagine that the priest’s attitude was holding to the letter of some specific laws whilst ignoring its overall spirit. And maybe this was a case of Jesus using a fictional character to reflect the expert in the law’s attitude back at him. After all, the next character to walk along the road was a Levite, leading to similar questions.
And so the Samaritan comes along and helps the traveller – extravagantly so. “Who was a neighbour to that poor traveller?” Jesus asks the expert in the law. “The one who helped him,” comes the reluctant reply. Because here’s the thing, this expert in the law has to admit that the spirit of God’s law is embodied more effectively by a hated Samaritan than it is…
Than it is the expert in the law himself.
After all, this is a parable, a story, the priest and the Levite are just useful stereotypes. It’s not an attack on the Temple or the Law, it’s an attack on the expert’s attempt to find a loophole, to limit his obligations to his fellow human beings. Sure, the law expects respect for religious practice, but it also demands compassion for those in need. The expert wanted to inherit great things with a minimum of effort – Jesus wouldn’t allow him that option.
And so yes, the Good Samaritan is about showing compassion for all, even those we we’d consider enemies. But it’s even more challenging than that – it’s about the ways in which we seek to avoid showing God’s love because it’s difficult or offends our sensibilities or because it’s too costly. This is one of the most famous stories in the Bible, yes, and there’s a good reason for that; it’s one of the most important.