Cultural Context 15th Sunday of Ordinary Time
July 10, 2016
John J. Pilch
The Good Samaritan
In the Mediterranean
world questions are rarely perceived as requests for information.
They are almost always viewed with suspicion as a challenge
to personal honor. The hope is that the person who is asked
a question will not know the answer and be shamed by ignorance.
Lest the reader miss the point, Luke explicitly states that
the lawyer’s intent was to “test” Jesus.
In this seven-scene parable, the Samaritan stands at the center:
strip their victim and leave him half dead (Gospel). Now, no one can identify the
victim’s ethnicity by his garments or his accent, two very common
ways of identifying a stranger in antiquity. Helping him carries a risk.
The priest, riding a donkey in accord with his elite status,
notices the victim and ponders. If the victim is dead or
is a non-Judean, the priest would be defiled
by touching him and have to return to Jerusalem for purification. Those who
just saw him gloriously fulfilling his priestly role would
now see him returning in
shame for purification. The risk is too great. Recalling Sirach 12:1-7, the
priest rides on.
The Levite may have come even closer to examine the victim. Even though the road is not straight, the Levite
very likely saw the priest’s response to
the victim from afar. If the priest did not give first aid, why should the
Levite? That would be a challenge to the priest, an insult.
Moreover, if this victim
is one of those who live in Shechem (i.e., a Samaritan), Sirach 50:25-26 reports
what God thinks of such. The Levite, too, passes on.
The Samaritan is a shocking third character in this story.
Listeners would have expected “a Judean layperson.” But
this hated enemy is the first to
feel compassion! The Hebrew word, related to womb, describes an
He offers the first aid (wine, oil, and bandages), which
the Levite could have done but neglected to do. The
Samaritan’s risk is that this victim
might hate him upon re-gaining consciousness. Samaritan wine and oil were considered
impure and would have made the (very likely) Judean victim impure too! In a
certain sense, the Samaritan in this story line will be “damned
if he does, and
damned if he doesn’t.”
The Samaritan then does what the priest might have done
but didn’t: he places the victim on his animal, takes him
to an inn, and continues to care for him.
Finally, the Samaritan, in contrast to the robbers, promises
to return and pay any additional expenses. This is
perhaps the most foolish part of
this story. If the victim should die, his family, who will not be able to find
the robbers, may kill his benefactor instead. Or if the victim survives, he
may rage at this Samaritan for making him impure with Samaritan
wine and oil. It
is impossible to underestimate the importance of purity, that is, the determination
to “be holy as the Lord is holy” (Lev 11:44 and elsewhere).
The thrust of the
parable is not lost on the lawyer. Now Jesus thrusts the final shaming question:
“Which of the three became a neighbor to the victim?”
The astute lawyer immediately recognizes this new, impending
shame. The lawyer’s question was: “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus’
question is: “To whom
must you become a neighbor?” The lawyer realizes that one must become a
neighbor to anyone and everyone in need. One must reach out with compassion
to all people, even to one’s enemies.
Too often this parable has been read as a pleasant moral
lesson of kindness and neighborliness. Fleshing out all the
characters in their Mediterranean cultural
characteristics gives the parable a fresh look. A hated outsider extends compassionate
love to his enemy. What a masterful attack on communal prejudice!
J. Pilch is a biblical scholar and
facilitator of parish renewals.Liturgical Press has published
fourteen books by Pilch exploring the
“cultural world” of the Bible.
Go to http://www.litpress.org/ to
find out more.
The complete text of the
above article can be found in:
The Cultural World of Jesus, Sunday by Sunday, Cycle C
John J. Pilch. The Liturgical Press. 1996. pp. 109-111.
Martin Erspamer, O.S.B.
from Religious Clip Art for the
Liturgical Year (A, B, and C).
Used by permission of Liturgy Training
Publications. This art may be reproduced
only by parishes who purchase the
collection in book or CD-ROM form. For
more information go to: http://www.ltp.org/