To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.
But whether or not one could accurately retell this parable, the concept of the "Good Samaritan" is familiar enough to everyone. We name hospitals, churches, institutions of mercy, even legislation in his honor. Several years ago, seventy-five million of us watched the last episode of Seinfeld. The focus of that show was that the four cast regulars, having been stopped accidentally in a small town, happened to observe a significantly overweight man being carjacked. Rather than doing anything to help, they stand there and make jokes. Remember? When the police arrive moments later, they arrest the Seinfeld group under the town's new "Good Samaritan" law which said that failure to render assistance when appropriate is a crime. The rest of the show is their trial in which, one after another, all the people they have offended over the preceding nine years on the air come back to testify against them for being insensitive, uncaring creeps. Guilty! Jerry gives his closing monologue from prison. Yes, people KNOW a Good Samaritan when they see one...Mother Teresa, Albert Schweitzer, the anonymous trucker who stops to change a lady's flat tire on the interstate...people KNOW them, even if they could not relate the details of the story.
Surprise! The details are important. There is more here than a simple reminder about our ethical obligation to assist people in need.
The story. Immediately we are introduced to a lawyer. He poses a question to Jesus as a "test" - "Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?"
In the typical fashion of the rabbis then and now, Jesus answers the question with one of his own. "What is written in the Law? How do you read it?"
The answer comes back, "'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind'; and, 'Love your neighbor as yourself.'" Good answer. And Jesus agrees. But now the lawyer does something that all of us do from time to time - in good lawyer-ly fashion, he looks for a loophole. "And who is my neighbor?" In other words, "OK, Jesus, I understand I am supposed to CARE, but what are the limits of my caring? When can I quit?" And here Jesus tells his famous story.
The first person to whom we are introduced is the poor traveler. He had taken the road from Jerusalem to Jericho which was notoriously dangerous. It descended nearly 3,300 feet in 17 miles, running through narrow passes at points. The terrain offered easy hiding for the bandits who terrorized travelers.(2) This unfortunate fellow had been stripped, beaten, and left for dead. A first century mugging. One more random victim in a randomly violent world. Jesus' audience that day knew how easily it could happen. For that matter, with a quick glance at the newspaper or TV, his audience TODAY knows just as well. While hearers then and now would sympathize with the poor fellow, we are not forced to identify with him because in a story that begins with a tragedy, helpers are sure to arrive. If we will identify with anyone, we will wait for our helper/hero.
Hallelujah! Who comes along but a priest. If anyone could be expected to stop and help it would be a priest. But wait. The priest is not only not coming over to help; he is passing by on the other side. No reason is given. Some have suggested that, as a priest, he could fear ritual defilement with a corpse, but truth is if a priest on a journey found a corpse, he had a duty to bury it.(3) Perhaps it was fear. Those who beat the man in the ditch might be lying in wait to beat him as well. Perhaps it was simple revulsion. Have you ever come upon someone after a bloody accident? Ugly. Whatever. "He passed by on the other side." Some hero!
No matter. Here comes a Levite...an "assistant" priest. The first one was an aberration. THIS one will come through. Right. As the text has it, "he came to the place and saw him, [and] passed by on the other side." Another hero!
Now what? By normal storytelling conventions, we can expect we are about to meet a third character who will break the pattern created by the first two. In the context of our current parable, the expected sequence would be a priest, a Levite, and then...TA DAH!...our hero will be an ordinary Israelite who will come to the rescue even when the high muckety-mucks of the Temple fail to do so. The story would have an anti-clerical edge to it along with the reminder that love of God AND NEIGHBOR are commanded, but a shot at the Holy Joe's would not be any big shock considering the difficulty Jesus regularly has with the religious establishment.
Enter character number three - a Samaritan. The GOOD Samaritan! HA! Nowhere in the Bible will we find the words "Good" and "Samaritan" next to each other. For those folks who first heard this story, the phrase "Good Samaritan" would have been an oxymoron anyway - the only GOOD Samaritan would have been a DEAD Samaritan. No hero here.
Why such depth of feeling? This Hatfield-McCoy hostility between Jews and Samaritans was hundreds of years old. It went back to the time of the division of the nation into the Northern and Southern kingdoms - Samaria came to be identified with the North,(4) Judea, the South. Following the Northern Kingdom's fall to Assyria in 721 BC, exiles from many nations settled Samaria(5) creating something of a melting pot, no longer purely Jewish. Move forward a hundred years or so. Now it is the turn of the Southern Kingdom to fall - this time the conqueror was Babylon, and, as was the custom of the day, the people were carried off into exile to prevent any uprisings in the occupied territory. The few Jews left in Samaria were considered no threat in that regard, so they were left in Palestine. Seventy years passed, and the exiles were allowed to return. The Samaritans were ready to welcome them back, but the returnees would have none of it - they had intermarried with gentiles making them "half-breeds." They had perverted the race. They had also perverted the religion. They looked to Mt. Gerizim in their own land as the place to worship God, not Jerusalem. They interpreted the Torah differently than the southern Jews. By the time of Jesus, the animosity toward Samaritans was so great that some Jews would go miles out of their way to avoid even walking on Samaritan soil. The hatred between Jew and Samaritan in Jesus' day was at least as deep as the feeling Jews and Arabs have toward each other today.
Enough history. But necessary. After all, if Jesus were just trying to say we should help the helpless, supply the needs of the needy, he could have talked about the first and second men who passed by and the third one who stopped and cared for the half-dead guy in the ditch. If Jesus were also making a gibe against religious establishment, we would expect the third man to be a layman - an ordinary Israelite - in contrast to the professional clergy. If Jesus were illustrating the need to love our enemies, then the man in the ditch would have been a Samaritan who is cared for by a loving Israelite. Of course, that is NOT the way the story goes. We will deal with WHY A SAMARITAN? in just a minute.
The story. Just as the priest and the Levite, the Samaritan sees the man, but instead of distancing himself, he comes closer. As the text has it, "when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine [oil to keep them soft, wine to sterilize]. Then he put the man on his own donkey, took him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two silver coins [two days wages] and gave them to the innkeeper. 'Look after him,' he said, 'and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.'" Not an insignificant amount, not lavish either, but enough to do the job.
The story is over. Jesus has responded to the lawyer's question about the limits of neighborliness with his story and now turns the question back to the lawyer: "Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?"
And the answer, "The one who had mercy on him." Amazing, isn't it? The concept of a GOOD Samaritan is so distasteful that the lawyer cannot bring himself to even speak the name.
Perhaps the answer to that question we raised earlier, "Why a Samaritan?", is that Jesus did not want his hearers to identify with this generous care-giver. As attractive and winsome is the behavior of this man, as much of a helper/hero as he obviously was, that WOULD be the temptation. But no good Jew could do that. He would not want to be like the Priest or Levite either, so the only character left with which to identify would be the man in the ditch. Hmm.
Now Jesus concludes, "Go and do likewise." What? Be the guy in the ditch?
Perhaps that is not so far-fetched as we might think. We never hear if this poor victim recovers, but my assumption is that he does. That being the case, what would the effect have been on him that he had been rescued by a Samaritan? One would presume that it would forever color his view of Samaritans. For that matter, one would presume that it would forever color his view of the world's victims. There would be less callousness, less inclination to lay blame for getting into such a fix in the first place, less temptation to "pass by on the other side." If Jesus' story had gone on any longer, I would bet that this poor fellow, from that day forward, became a better neighbor to the rest of his world than he would have ever dreamed possible.
In Robert Fulghum's little book, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten,(6) he recounts the story of V. P. Menon, one of the significant political figures in India during that nation's struggle for independence from Britain. Unlike most of the leaders in the Independence movement, Menon was a self-made man. He was the oldest of twelve children, had quit school at 13 and worked as a laborer, a coal miner, factory hand, merchant and school teacher. He talked his way into a job as a clerk in the Indian administration which began a meteoric rise - largely because of his integrity and brilliant skills in working with both Indian and British officials in a productive way.
In addition to his reputation as an efficient administrator, Menon was widely known for his personal charity. After he died, his daughter explained that when her father "arrived in Delhi to seek a job in government, all his possessions (including his money and ID) were stolen at the railroad station. He would have to return home on foot, defeated. In desperation he turned to an elderly Sikh, explained his troubles, and asked for a temporary loan of 15 rupees to tide him over until he could get a job. The Sikh gave him the money. When Menon asked for his address so that he could repay the man, the Sikh said that Menon owed the debt to any stranger who came to him in need, as long as he lived. The help came from a stranger and had to be repaid to a stranger.
"Menon never forgot that debt. Neither the gift of trust nor the fifteen rupees. His daughter said that the day before Menon died, a beggar came to the family home in Bangalore asking for help to buy new sandals, for his feet were covered with sores. Menon asked his daughter to take fifteen rupees out of his wallet to give to the man. It was Menon's last conscious act."
Fulghum continues, "On several occasions when I have thought about the story of the Good Samaritan, I have wondered about the rest of the story. What effect did the charity have on the man who was robbed and beaten and taken care of...Did he remember the cruelty of the robbers and shape his life with that memory? Or did he remember the nameless generosity of the Samaritan and shape his life with that debt? What did he pass on to the strangers in his life, those in need he met?"
Has anyone ever helped you? Has anyone ever helped you?
1. Robert Wuthnow, Acts of Compassion: Caring for Others and Helping Ourselves, (Princeton: Princeton University Press), 1991, p. 161
2. New Interpreters Bible, electronic edition, (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996)
4. II Kings 17:29
5. Ezra 4:9-10
6. New York, Villard Books, 1989, pp. 153-155