To Jesus’ fellow Jews, a Samaritan was a despicable creature. We tend to miss that important fact. Because we have monumentalized the hero of Jesus' road-rescue story by naming hospitals and laws after the Good Samaritan, we have lost touch with the fact that the relationships between first-century Jews and Samaritans were generally characterized by that special hostility found among close relatives who feel themselves betrayed by the other. Missing that note, we also miss much of the punch of the parable.
Luke had already alluded to that animosity in chapter nine when he wrote that the Samaritans “would not receive him” as Jesus and his disciples headed south through Samaritan territory to Jerusalem. Any Samaritan knew that the proper place for authentic Israelite worship was Mount Gerizim and that Galilean Jews on pilgrimage to Jerusalem were heretics busy doing the wrong thing—people out of place. A parallel with our experience of gangs and “turf” is not out of place here.
In his typical way, Luke provides a specific occasion for the telling of the parable. A teacher of Torah, bent on testing Jesus, asks the Big Question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus questions the questioner by asking what the teacher reads in his Torah. The lawyer responds with a nice summary of Jesus’ own Torah-linked teaching, joining love of God (Dt 6) with love of neighbor (Lev 19:18). Embarrassed that Jesus has exposed him as knowing the answer to his own question, this teacher, in true forensic fashion, asks Jesus to define “neighbor.” The implication is that once you define “neighbor,” you know the designated “neighborhood,” and then you also know whom you can hate, or at least neglect.
Instead of responding with the requested definition, Jesus tells a story with details carefully chosen. A man is assaulted and robbed in a setting that would have been familiar and plausible to first-century Palestinians. The road from Jerusalem to Jericho—desolate and full of twists and turns—is still a likely place for highway robbery. Stripped and unconscious, the victim becomes a kind of “common denominator” of humanity. Without the cues of clothing and speech, there is no way to place him by race or class; it is not even clear whether he is living or dead.
When we hear about those who pass by without helping the victim, we easily dismiss them as heartless religious officials. The response of Jesus' original audience may well have been more nuanced. The victim—naked, motionless, and mute—would look to a casual glance like a corpse. Among the purity regulations that constrained the lives of Temple officials (priests and Levites) was a rule saying that touching (even coming within four cubits of) a corpse rendered one unclean. The narrative, then, allows us to understand the by-passers’ behavior as “playing it safe” in the presence of what seemed to be a corpse rather than cold neglect of a robbery victim. The original listeners would not have been surprised.
By contrast, the action of the Samaritan traveler is astounding. This man has every excuse in the world to mind his own business and to keep on moving. A Samaritan in Judea, on the wrong “turf,” he is himself an automatic target for hostility. If he is caught near the victim, he would be considered a likely suspect in the aggression. Yet he is “moved with compassion at the sight” and proceeds to place himself at risk by administering first aid and taking the victim to an inn to see that he is properly cared for.
In answer to the lawyer's quest for a self-serving definition of neighbor, Jesus has provided this stunning narrative image, as if to say, “You ask for an exclusive definition of ‘neighbor’; I say: be neighbor to any human being in need.”
At a time when our tribal hostilities tear at national and even ecclesial unity, this parable of Jesus challenges us to take our membership in the human family with utmost seriousness.