Wednesday, March 10, 1999

The Good Samaritan


Luke 10:25-37

A lawyer came to Jesus and asked the question, "What must I do to inherit eternal life?" Typically when Jesus was asked a question, he asked a question in return. "What is written in the law? What do you read there?" The lawyer's answer was a surprising one for someone well acquainted with the myriad rules and regulations of Jewish law. "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself." In Mark 12:28-34 Jesus had summarized the law in the same way. Jesus answered, "You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live."

The lawyer seems to have expected just such an answer. He was really more interested in the answer to his next question. (This question seems to imply that he already knew how to love God.) And so he asks, "And who is my neighbor?"

There was a running debate as to who was one's neighbor. The lawyer might have wanted to force Jesus to take a side, and he was ready to dispute any answer Jesus gave. Or he might have asked the question because he wanted Jesus to confirm his view that the lawyer's neighbor was a fellow Pharisee. Perhaps he had qualms about making limited boundaries when his love was directed to the one God who was the God of people he did not consider his neighbors. Perhaps he wondered how it was possible to simultaneously love God and even people he didn't know?

The question, "Who is my neighbor?" was a timely one. The Pharisees excluded non-Pharisees who were not strict or careful about laws concerning purification, the Essenes (Dead Sea Sectarians) considered themselves the children of light and all others children of darkness, and the Jews excluded everyone else, particularly Samaritans. (The question, "Who is my neighbor will receive further consideration later on in this chapter.)

Jesus answered the question by telling a story about travelers on the
notorious Jericho road. Violence and robbery were commonplace. Jerome called it the "bloody way." The wise traveler made arrangements for protection, and at a later time there was a small garrison stationed there to protect travelers.

Apparently one such violent incident had recently taken place. (Perhaps it was the questioner who had failed to aid a Samaritan who lay on the road half dead.) As Jesus told the story, a Jew had been attacked and left for dead. A priest and then a Levite saw the man but did not risk their lives by stopping and offering aid. Both "passed by on the other side". Along come first a priest and then a Levite.

At this point in the story, the lawyer might have expected a Jewish layman to come to the rescue, thereby exposing the inhumanity and hypocrisy of the Jewish leadership that was critical of Jesus and enable Jesus to identify himself with the common folk who were his followers. Imagine the lawyer's surprise and shock when the hero turned out to be a hated Samaritan. Why did Jesus select a Samaritan to be the one that risked his life by stopping to bind up the Jewish traveler's wounds, pouring on oil and wine, placing him on his own beast, taking him to an inn, and leaving money for the traveler's extended care? This question will be considered a bit later.

When he ended the story, Jesus asked the lawyer a question, "Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell in the hands of the robbers?" Since the lawyer had asked the question, "Who is my neighbor?" the expected question would be, "Who then is your neighbor?" But that was not the question Jesus asked. Critics have pointed out that in the lawyer's question, "neighbor" is understood in a passive sense as the one to be helped. However Jesus defined "neighbor" in an active sense as the one who offers help.

The impact of this story can be lost in three ways. The first is by an allegorizing interpretation that likens the injured man to sinful humanity whom the devil has stripped of original righteousness. In this interpretation, the priest is the Law of the Jews and the Levite is the Jewish sacrificial system. Both are powerless to help. The Samaritan is Jesus Christ who pours on the wine, the blood of his sacrifice, the oil, the anointing of the Holy Spirit, and the inn is the church where souls are saved. This interpretation wrenches the story from its context and dramatically diminishes its original impact.

The second way the impact of the story can be lost is when we do not fully sense the intense hostility that existed between the Jews and the Samaritans. The Jews despised the Samaritans and the Samaritans responded in kind. In John 8:48 Jesus' opponents slandered him by saying, "Are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan and have a demon?" Jews avoided Samaria by going through the inconvenience of crossing the Jordan and then recrossing it to go from Galilee to Judea.

Why did this intense hostility exist?
  1. After the defeat by Assyria, 8th century BC, the few Israelites who remained in Samaria intermarried with Gentiles and were considered half-breeds.
  2. After the Jews returned from captivity, the Samaritans offered to help in rebuilding the temple, but their offer of help was rejected. As a result the Samaritans did all they could to undermine the Jews in this effort.
  3. The Samaritans then built their own temple on Mt. Gerizim, but John Hyrcanus, a Jewish leader, destroyed this temple in 128 BC.
  4. Sometime between AD six and nine at midnight during Passover, certain Samaritans scattered the bones of dead men throughout the court of the Temple and defiled it. 1
These events led to bitter hatred between Jews and Samaritans. Jews cursed the Samaritans publicly in the synagogue and prayed that they would have no share in eternal life. Jews would not accept service from a Samaritan or believe his testimony in court.

The third way the parable would lose its impact is if we forget that this story was told to a Jewish audience. By making the Samaritan the hero, Jesus shocked his audience. In our day the force of the parable might be lost because we associate the word, Samaritans, with a kind, loving merciful, compassionate people who care for others. Consequently we identify with the Samaritans and not the Jews. It is as if Jesus was telling this story to Samaritans to further denigrate the Jews.

A. C. Forrest writes, "An American pastor in the Middle East told me once that he had often preached from this parable to American congregations, but he had never had the courage to do it in the Middle East. It was too relevant. It could be too relevant in South Africa, Northern Ireland, and many other parts of our modern world, too." 2

Hunter makes the application in South African terms with the victim the Afrikaner, the priest and Levite two ministers of the Dutch Reformed Church, and the Good Samaritan a Bantu. 3 This story could be told with similar effect to audiences in the United States composed of malpractice attorneys and doctors, Alaskan developers and environmentalists, lumbermen and ecoterrorists, right-to-life advocates and abortion doctors.

The overwhelming hostility that existed between Jew and Samaritan provides the backdrop for a further discussion of the two questions promised earlier in the chapter: "Why was the hero of the story a Samaritan?" and "Who is my neighbor?"

If Jesus wanted to make the point that anyone who needs our help is our neighbor, a Samaritan hero was not necessary. By using a Samaritan Jesus shattered the comfortable concept of the homogeneous "neighborhood". By making the Samaritan a heroic protagonist, he shattered all the carefully defined parameters that defined "neighbor" in Jewish culture. By using a Samaritan, Jesus implied that no one could be excluded from the "neighborhood". He was saying that your "neighbor" could be your worst enemy.

Using the Samaritan allows Jesus to shift the focus from the one who needs help to the one who offers help. All the audience's attention now shifts from the victim to the Samaritan. In this way Jesus demonstrates that in fulfilling the command to love one's neighbor, the "neighbor" is the one who helps rather than the one who is helped. Instead of attempting to define "neighbor", we should be more concerned about being a neighbor.

The Greek word for neighbor comes from the word "near" or "close" by. It has two meanings: it refers to the one you are close to, the object, and the one close to another, the subject. It is in this latter sense that Jesus is using the word. The command is directed to you, the subject, as neighbor who is close to another. In this parable, the implementation of the command is up to you as neighbor to others.

When Jesus asks the question, "Which of these three, do you think was neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?" he wanted the lawyer to understand that you should not spend your time drawing up qualifications or disqualifications for those you are commanded to love. We should concern ourselves with being good neighbors, in learning how to love everyone. "Whereas he [the lawyer] was concerned with who qualified as a recipient of his love, Jesus' understanding of the great commandment was to be concerned with qualifying as a lover!" 4 The issue is not "Who is to be loved?" or "Who is my neighbor?" but rather "What does it mean for me to love?"; "What does it mean for me to be a neighbor?" Since Christian love is spontaneous, freely given, and boundless, determining who is my neighbor is not a crucial or even significant concern.

The emphasis of the commandment is not, "You shall love YOUR NEIGHBOR," but "YOU SHALL LOVE your neighbor." We should not be concerned about who our neighbor is but with being a good neighbor. If we are good neighbors, we demonstrate genuine love. Genuine love sets no boundaries on our "neighborhood". If we concentrate on neighbor as object and delimit its meaning, it weakens and emasculates the meaning of love.

The lawyer's question demonstrated that he did not understand the commandment, did not understand the meaning of love, and, therefore, did not understand the meaning of neighbor. That is why Jesus does not answer his question, "Who is my neighbor?" but rather asks the real question, "Who is the neighbor?"

The context of the lawyer's question must not be forgotten. He asked, "What must I do to have eternal life?" In a world where hate dominates, and barriers are raised on every hand, where the meaning of neighbor has been contracted to mean our kind, our friends, our ethnic group, we as Christians must show the world that love has no boundaries or limits. This parable reminds us that the world is our neighborhood.

1. Stein, pp. 76-77.
2. A. C. Forrest, The Parables of Jesus (Belfast, Dublin, Ottawa: Christian Journals Ltd., 1079), p. 111.
3. Hunter, p. 111.
4. Steiin, p. 74.

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