The Parable of the Good Samaritan is one of the most familiar and beloved parables told by Jesus. Yet the danger in knowing the story too well is that we have often understood the story apart from its original social context, leading us to miss the shock the parable had on its first audience. While the parable can stand on its own as a good story about one person showing compassion to another, hearing it as the first hearers did opens to us the real sting of the tale.
Luke, the only evangelist to tell the parable, narrates that a man approached Jesus asking, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Underlying the man’s inquiry is an attitude of self-service, for it appears that his question sounds more like, “What is the least I have to do to ensure that I have eternal life?” The man’s motivation appears not to be a desire to love God or others, but rather a need to satisfy his own eternal security.
In response to the man’s query, Jesus invites him to answer his own question by asking, “What is written in the law?” The man replies with theological accuracy, quoting what every Hebrew knew from childhood, that the law is summed up as a dual command to love God and to love one’s neighbor. In response to the man’s answer, Jesus affirms his orthodox statement and assures the man that if he does this he will indeed have eternal life.
The man’s next question, “Who is my neighbor?” seems innocent at first, but since Luke tells us that the man was seeking to justify himself, we might presume that in asking the question, the man desired to limit his neighborly community. In other words, the man’s real question might be, “Who am I required to love in order to gain eternal life?” It is this question that prompts Jesus to tell his shocking parable.
The tale begins with a man traveling on the treacherous road from Jerusalem to Jericho, where he is attacked by robbers and left for dead. By chance, a priest passes by the man without helping. Likewise, a Levite sidesteps the victim. The man who questioned Jesus is probably elated that neither of these religious officials stopped to help, for he himself is not a priest nor a Levite; he is a lawyer and not a temple official.
Yet, the man knows that to resolve the story there must appear a third character and perhaps he thinks that this third character in the story should be a person like himself; the one that would stop and help his fellow Judean. Yet, to the dismay of the man, the third character is a Samaritan. Why does Jesus choose a Samaritan, and how does this shock the audience?
The Samaritans were considered by most Judeans as an inferior race. They were believed to be descended from Israelites who had intermarried with other nations after being exiled to Assyria in 722 B.C.E. While Samaritans claimed the Torah as their law, Judeans did not view them any better than they viewed Gentiles. In the minds of Judeans, Samaritans were half-breeds.
The shock and offensiveness of Jesus’ parable, then, is that the unlikely hero of the story is not a racially pure Hebrew, but a member of a people believed to be lesser and impure. Indeed, the man is so shocked by this turn of events that in response to Jesus’ question, “Which of these three do you think proved to be a neighbor to the man?” the man cannot even utter the word Samaritan, but simply replies, “The one who showed him compassion.”
In response to the man’s answer, Jesus commands, “Go and do likewise.” Jesus is telling the man, “This Samaritan has set for you the example of what it is to be a neighbor to others, for he has widened his neighborly community to include someone who hates him and someone he has been taught to despise.” If the lawyer truly desires to have eternal life, he must become like the Samaritan he loathes.
What the Samaritan’s action teaches us is that there are no limits to our neighborly community. Yes, the story has been used to speak about how we are to show compassion towards others. But this interpretation only serves to reinforce our assumptions that if we do acts of service towards others, we are living out the moral of the parable. But this is only partly true.
In showing compassion to someone from a race that despised his own, and one which I am sure he had been taught to hate, the Samaritan put away those prejudices that may have caused him to pass by like the priest and the Levite, and he widened his own conception of who was his neighbor. His generous act was more than a one-time act of compassion. His good deed reflected a deeper understanding of who he believed was a neighbor in his community.
Drew Smith, an ordained Baptist minister, is director of international programs at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, Ark. He blogs at Wilderness Preacher.