The parable of the “good Samaritan” is a very familiar story. The term “Good Samaritan” has even become a part of our culture and language. The story is so familiar, in fact, that its original impact is probably lost on us. Jesus intended this parable to portray the same combination of humor and pathos, along with a surprise ending, that is central to Mark Twain’s “The Prince and the Pauper.”
You are familiar with Twain’s story. A young prince who felt his freedom restricted by his royal status enlisted the help of a poor boy from the streets who looked like him. The prince and the homeless boy traded clothing. In doing so, they traded identities. Confusion, and ultimately a change of heart, ensued because of the exchange of identities.
In Jesus’ parable the fact that the mugging victim had his clothes stolen creates suspense in the story; clothing acted as an identifying mark as to ethnicity and status. Lacking clothes, it was impossible to determine whether this man was a Jew or a Gentile, a local or a foreigner, friend or enemy. Those who came across the unidentified man had nothing upon which to make a judgment about him. As a result, he posed both a conundrum and a danger.
We tend to judge harshly the priest and the Levite for passing the victim and offering no help, but they had compelling reasons for their choices. If this man was dead the priest would have been defiled, and shamed, by touching a dead body. This would have rendered him incapable of performing his priestly duties. The same would have been true if the victim was a gentile. In order to preserve necessary purity he avoided the victim; he made the prudent choice.
If the Levite had helped the man, he would have shamed the priest by doing what the priest did not. He avoided getting involved because of understandable social pressures. The Samaritan, likewise, could have incurred serious liability as a result of his compassion. If the victim died, the victim’s family would have sought a life for a life. He could have been kidnapped, or killed, in retribution for being associated with the man’s death. Even under the best of circumstances the Samaritan would have had no expectation of being repaid, or even thanked, for his kindness.
Jesus set up a situation in the parable in which all parties had compelling reasons to avoid the man. Jesus’ original audience would have placed their sympathies with the passers-by rather than the victim. At the point that Jesus’ audience was feeling comfortable about making careful and prudent judgments as to who is an appropriate recipient of neighborliness, he changed the topic of discussion. He did not address the lawyer’s question, “Who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29) Rather, he asked, “Which of the three became a neighbor to the victim?”
This parable is most often interpreted as teaching about the virtue of mercy, and appropriately enough. The Samaritan became the unlikely hero of the story because of his compassion. It is important to keep in mind, however, that Jesus’ teaching is never primarily about moral matters; it is always, first and foremost, about matters of faith. To understand the parable’s instruction about faith we have to read it in the light of the question that occasioned the parable.
The lawyer asked Jesus, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Luke 10:25) Jesus responded that inheriting eternal life is the result of following the teaching of Moses and the prophets, that is, the Scriptures. Then he told the parable to illustrate his response to the lawyer’s question. Jesus’ teaching about holiness of life was probably very surprising to his hearers, and probably equally surprising to us. Jesus said that holiness of life does not result from fastidious religious observance or social acceptability or moral prudence. Rather, he said that holiness of life results from being non-judgmental and generous.
The priest was concerned to maintain his religious purity in order that he might render fitting service when he performed the sacrificial offerings prescribed for Temple worship in Jerusalem. The Levite was concerned with not embarrassing or upstaging the priest, and thereby giving what we would call a “holier than thou” appearance. These two were trying to lead good lives, but their definition of a good life rested on making complicated judgments about self and others.
The Samaritan lacked religious purity; Samaritans were considered as unrighteous as gentiles because, although they used the Books of Moses as their Scriptures, their religious practice differed from the religious practice of Jews. The Samaritan in the parable, however, possessed something that both the priest and the Levite lacked. He had the capacity to look past the religious and social dangers presented by a stranger, and see an obligation to put into practice the teaching of the Scriptures.
The Samaritan was non-judgmental and generous in the same way that God is described as non-judgmental and generous in the Scriptures. He knew not only the words of Scripture, but the meaning of the Scriptures, that is, the spirit of the words. Jesus told the lawyer, “Go and do likewise.” (Luke 10:37)
The parable is teaching about holiness, not just about kindness. The Samaritan acted toward the stranger in the way that God acts toward all creation. God offers all people God’s mercy, regardless of ethnicity, status or personal merit. The priest and the Levite acted in the sensible, normal way that most people tend to choose. The priest was satisfied with the ritual, public and admirable qualities of religion. The Levite was satisfied with maintaining the social status quo. They worshiped the gods of prudence and propriety. Jesus confronted the lawyer with the One, True God who is not swayed by opinion and who does not bow to social pressure.
An ancient Christian writer, Origen of Alexandria, read this parable as an allegory. In the allegory, the crime victim was human nature, beaten, bruised and abandoned by sin. The Samaritan was Jesus, who carried fallen humanity on his own body, and tended to our wounds. If we are to put into practice Jesus’ command to “Go and do likewise” (Luke 10:37), we should be prepared to carry the burden of humanity’s fallenness with the same equanimity that marked the life of Jesus. On some days, that will mean being non-judgmental about the moral and religious failings of those around us. On other days, it will mean being generous toward those who will not repay our kindness. Eternally, it will mean walking side by side with God.