Note: This is the first of two posts about this topic. This one addresses the story on an individual basis, and the next shows how it applies in our world on a larger scale.
We all know the parable of the Good Samaritan. It’s one of those stories that we learn in Sunday School, VeggieTales, or even just as a brief religious example of a non-religious truth: love your neighbor.
But I think we need a few reminders that are often sidetracked within the story. First, how the parable is introduced. You see, it doesn’t start with a hypothetical man going from Jerusalem to Jericho. It starts with an actual man asking Jesus a question.
On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life.” “What is written in the Law?” [Jesus] replied. “How do you read it?” [The man] answered: “‘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, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” -Luke 10:25-27
First things first, the man is testing Jesus. It’s not an authentic question. Let’s continue:
“You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.” But [the man] wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” -Luke 10:28-29
The man wants to justify himself. He’s not really looking for “eternal life” or anything beyond praise for being such an awesome guy who is already doing what Jesus is telling people to do: love God and love others. But this is where Jesus goes into the parable, undermining the man’s superior self-image by revealing his hypocrisy.
It’s problematic how well we know this story, and how often we sanitize the term “Good Samaritan.” Anytime we pass someone we don’t know in need of assistance and offer the most minimal of aid, we consider ourselves Good Samaritans. That’s not what Jesus described.
To summarize the text (Luke 10:30-32), the traveler is traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho, a journey that was historically extremely dangerous due to the presence of thieves and robbers. Sure enough, he is stripped, beaten, and left half-dead on the street. Then two people pass by, and these are the two people you’d most expect to help: a priest and a Levite. Levites served alongside priests with special duties to assist them.
If anyone would represent the love of God to care for this poor man, it should be one of them. Instead, the priest notices and passes by. The Levite actually takes a morbid curiosity and comes to check out the victim before also passing by. In the VeggieTales version, the two actually speak to the poor victim (portrayed by Larry the Cucumber) and devote several minutes to singing a song all about how they’re too busy to possibly take a minute to help him. That’s the level of hypocrisy we’re dealing with.
Finally, a Samaritan comes. Again, we’ve sanitized the word so people hear “Samaritan” and think random stranger. In fact, in today’s usage I don’t think anyone references “Samaritan” without the “Good” coming first, meaning people assume the best about Samaritans and equate them with kind strangers. And this is where lose track of context. You have to remember that Jesus was talking in a specific time to specific people. So let’s go a bit deeper into how we can really understand the sentiment he intended.
Samaria was a nation, hence a Samaritan is someone from that nation. And the Samaritans were the people most despised by Jews. So let’s take a moment and think of the defining trait that you hate most about people, whether it’s actual national/regional affiliation (just a few examples: Mexican, Central American, Middle Eastern), religious affiliation (example: Muslim), lifestyle (example: gay), political affiliation (example: democrat), legal status (example: documented/undocumented immigrant). Once you’ve thought of a hypothetical person you would detest more than anyone, you’re ready to move forward and replace the word “Samaritan” in the text with your example.
But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, took him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper. “Look after him,” he said, “and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.” -Luke 10:33-35
This person was likely a long way from home (he was a Samaritan so likely would have been traveling further than either Jerusalem or Jericho), and he, too, was exposed to the dangers on the path. But he stopped. And not only that, but he sacrificed his own provisions to care for the injured man, placed the man on his donkey and walked alongside, and then provided financially for his well-being. Even further, he pledged to return with extra money to ensure the man was taken care of.
Jesus wraps up the story with a question and a command. He asks the expert in the law which of the three was the victim’s neighbor. When the man replies that it was the one who had mercy on him, Jesus responds with simply, “Go and do likewise.”
When Jesus told his followers to love their neighbor and pray for those who persecute them (Matthew 5:44), you have to then consider this parable at the same time. According to this parable, everyone is our neighbor, even the people we most despise.
I believe we desperately need to be reminded of this in today’s culture. It is terrifying what despicable acts humanity is capable of carrying out against groups we dehumanize. We’ve seen that both in our history (the Holocaust being one of the most horrifying examples, but also the ways we undermine the humanity of other cultures and people in times of war) and in studies (the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment).
Every time we catch ourselves falling into a trap of dehumanizing a group of people, we need to reflect back on this. Replace that group with the face of someone you know; it’s infinitely harder to sweep away tragedy when it personally touches you. The next time there is a shooting in a public space (especially a place for people different from you: a gay club, synagogue, music festival, etc.), consciously try to place yourself there and imagine one of the victims not as a stranger but as someone you know intimately: your spouse, friend, or child. Because every one of those victims is someone’s spouse, friend, or child. Imagine the pain and terror at navigating the rest of your life without that person, and then carry those feelings into an empathetic worldview for those who really were impacted.
Whether you adhere to a Christian faith and care about the question of eternal life or just want to have a positive life here on earth, heed the words of Jesus in this story. He asks what is written in the law: love God and love your neighbor (which is the actual expression of loving God). He then makes explicitly clear that everyone is your neighbor, regardless of any differences you may have. Now that it’s clear who is your neighbor, he gives us one final command: go and do it.