In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 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, brought him to an inn and took care of him.Luke 10:30-34 (NIV) (read verses 25-37)
We all know the parable of the Good Samaritan. Perhaps we even know it so well that it’s lost its punch a little bit. I’m sure you could recite it roughly, if asked! Some guy gets hurt, two people pass by and ignore him, the third stops to help. Person number three was the one who acted like a “neighbor” – and, so the moral goes, so should we.
The title of this famous parable has become part of our lexicon. “What a Good Samaritan!” we say. Shortened even to, “oh, she’s such a Samaritan!” The word has ceased to refer to a people group, as it once did. Now it often just means “a good guy”, someone charitable and helpful.
But who were these Samaritans, really?
Who were the Samaritans?
The Samaritans were ancestrally closely related to the Jews. They followed a religion that was similar to Judaism in many respects, but still different enough for Jews to see them as heathens. Their main disagreement was about location – the location of the Holy Place of Israel. Samaritans had built their own temple at Mount Gerizim, roughly 25 miles north of Jerusalem, and they believed this was the true Holy Place, not the temple in Jerusalem.1
About a century before the birth of Jesus, the Jews supposedly destroyed the Samaritan temple and the surrounding territory. Years later, closer to the time of Jesus’ birth, a group of Samaritans took their own revenge for this destruction. They desecrated the Jerusalem Temple by scattering the bones of dead people around the sanctuary.2
To put it simply, the Jews and Samaritans had very little respect for each other. There was ongoing violence and enmity between the two groups. The low opinion that the Jewish people had for the Samaritans during this time was the background of this parable.
“Holy” and “righteous” – but not necessarily loving
When we go back and read the story with fresh eyes, now we can see some surprising implications for these first-century listeners. In describing what it means to do the work of God, surely we would expect Jesus to choose one of the first two passers-by as the neighborly character in this story – the priest, or the Levite. These first two men, after all, were the “holy people” of Jewish culture. They were righteous and well-respected; the kind of people you expected to do the right thing. People that you counted on to do the right thing.
But in fact, by virtue of who they were, showing kindness in this situation actually put them at greater risk of doing wrong in the eyes of the Law. You see, priests and Levites weren’t meant to come into contact with dead bodies. This made them ritually unclean, something they had to avoid at all costs. If the injured man were to die while they were helping him, they would have to go through a strict ritual of purification before resuming their duties.
Being holy made it all too difficult – it got in the way of them actually being loving.
Who might these two respected, “righteous” people be, do you think, if the story were rewritten for today’s audiences?
Can you think of situations today where religion gets in the way of loving? Or can you think of situations when you might have turned away from someone who was in need of help, because you were concerned with the appearance of righteousness?
Meeting Christ in the outsider
It’s after the priest and Levite have passed by that we get the real shock of the story.
Jesus tells his listeners that it’s someone outside of their religion – someone who believes all the wrong things about God! – who is actually the one doing God’s will.
What? Scandal! Outrage!
The Samaritan – the one classed by this first-century Jewish audience as outsider, heathen, impure, barbaric. This is the person is doing good, demonstrating love, acting like a neighbor. Against all expectations, and in spite of their background and beliefs, this is the person that Jesus holds up and praises as an example.
This would have been a hard message to swallow for these people who had been taught to hate the Samaritans, to believe they had no redeeming qualities whatsoever, and to see themselves as unquestionably superior.
Who is the Samaritan today – and who are you?
Think again about how this story might sound if Jesus were telling it today. Who would this third character be, do you think? Who are today’s ‘Samaritans’ to those who count themselves as insiders to the Christian church?
Let’s bring it even closer to home. Let’s do the tough work of examining our own hearts, here. What kind of people are ‘Samaritans’ to you, personally?
Are there people whose good deeds you have ignored, or rejected, or belittled, or simply felt uncomfortable acknowledging – because they didn’t come from the ‘right’ sort of person?
How often do we say things like, “it doesn’t matter so much what people do, it’s their heart that matters” – when what we really judge as “heart” is whether they look right, or dress right, or worship in the right way?
But actions are what really reveal someone’s heart, aren’t they? Jesus knew that. So do we, deep down, but sometimes maybe we don’t want to admit it. Sometimes we’d rather believe the easy, comfortable lie that the state of our heart is justified by the tribe we’ve aligned ourselves with.
The truth is tougher to swallow. But it’s the truth that will set us free.
Are there individuals or people groups that you’ve dismissed in your life, that Jesus is calling you either to be a neighbor to, or to acknowledge that they have been a neighbor to you?