In the spirit of the “Desanitizing Christmas” and “Misused Scripture” series, we’re looking to start a new series of articles here at CRN.Info, dealing with Jesus’ parables – particularly in light of the out-of-context beating they seem to have taken by some commenters of late…
To kick us off, I’d first like to take a look at the parable of The Good Samaritan. Normally, this parable is used in conjunction with teaching that we should have compassion upon the weak, sick and wounded – an excellent teaching supported by Scripture, but not the point of this particular parable.
So, to get at the context of this parable, let us first examine what question Jesus was trying to answer with it:
On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
“What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”
He answered: ” ‘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.’”
“You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”
But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
So – the question at hand is “Who is my neighbor?” Contextually, it should also be noted that the man was ‘testing’ Jesus – which does not automatically confer that this was an adversarial relationship. Rather, the man was honestly seeking an answer – and his ‘testing’ was to find the Scriptural basis of Jesus’ answer.
One other piece of information that is quite useful in examining this parable is in the relationship between religious Jews and the Samaritans.
From Josephus and other first-century contemporaries, we know that the Samaritans and Jews were bitter enemies. Traditionally, Samaritans were seen as the peoples who lived in Judea during the Babylonian exile, who built a Temple for God upon Mount Gerezim, worshiping him there, and not at the Temple on Mount Zion. Both the Jews and Samaritans viewed the Torah as their holy Scriptures, and both worshiped the same God – but each viewed the others as apostate.
Josephus records a number of transgressions made by the Samaritans against the Jews, including spreading human bones in the courts of the Temple, defiling it. While he doesn’t mention similar offenses against the Samaritans, there is enough other evidence to suggest that the antagonism was not a one-way street.
Against this backdrop of religious/racial hatred, there was a good deal of rabbinic debate, primarily between the House of Hillel and the House of Shammai. All schools of thought agreed that God calls them to love their neighbors, but there was intense debate as to who your neighbor was.
The followers of Shammai believed that one’s neighbor was only a religious Jew. Thus, one need only love other religious Jews. The Hillel-followers believe that all people – except Samaritans, who were apostates – were legitimately your neighbor, and must be loved. The other rabbinic schools fell somewhere between these two vastly-different interpretations.
Thus, the real question being asked of Jesus was not “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”, but rather “who is my neighbor?” Jesus was being asked a politically-charged question on the order of (in modern parlance) “Which is correct – free will or predestination?”
Jesus responded to “Who is my neighbor?” with the most famous of parables – The Good Samaritan:
“A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into the hands of 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, took him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two silver coins 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.’
Now, for a little bit of context -
First off, the road from Jerusalem to Jericho (having read first-century descriptions and seen it first-hand) is about three-to-five feet wide in most places, sometimes narrower. On one side of the ‘road’ is a drop-off of a hundred or more feet. On the other side is a steep wall. So, for someone to be left in the road meant that the road would be blocked by the body. “Passing by on the other side” is a bit of humor used by Jesus, since it would actually require being contfronted with stepping over the body.
Next, it is important to note that the man was left ‘half-dead’. According to cleanliness law, it was forbidden for priests to touch dead bodies (even of close relatives), and this was extended to include the bodies of people ‘half-dead’, who were about to die. If the ‘half-dead’ person were to die soon, after being touched by a priest, the priest would be considered “unclean”.
However, according to the Oral Torah, this could be excused if one were trying to save the life of the dying person. Per the Oral Torah, the sanctity of life was more important than all Torah regulations with the exception of blasphemy, sexual sin and murder. There was also intense debate on this topic, as the Sadducee party (which contained a number of Shammai’s followers) believed that only the Torah (first five books of the OT) was required for Jews, and the Oral Torah was useless. The Pharisee party (which was more in line with Hillel) followed the full TaNaKh and the Oral Torah. So, Jesus was also making a pronouncement in this debate, as well, by telling this story.
The Three Passers-By
So, first a priest came by. His holy book was the Torah, and if he touched the body, he would become unclean and be unable to serve in the Temple when he arrived in Jerusalem. So, he chose to obey the ceremonial law of cleanliness, rather than the Oral Torah of caring for a dying man. According to Brad Young and other scholarly experts on Jesus’ parables, it is likely that Jesus’ listeners would not have seen the priest’s “passing by” as a callous act, but rather one that would have torn him up inside to be unable to help. He believed he was doing God’s will, unallowed to help the dying man.
The Levite would have been in the same position as the priest, except that his service in the Temple was more integral to worship there, and was scheduled years in advance. So, to become unclean might result in losing one of his only chances of ever serving in the inner courts of the Temple. He, too, chose to follow the ceremonial law, rather than helping the half-dead man.
Finally, the Samaritan came by. His holy Scripture was also the Torah, so touching the half-dead body might make him unclean, just like the previous two travelers. Additionally, Samaritans did not consider the Oral Torah to be binding, so he was going out on a limb, because if the man died, he would become unclean. However, he stopped and helped the man – reversing the actions taken against the wounded traveler.
By bringing the Samaritan into the picture, Jesus probably shocked his audience. The normal structure of such a story would have had a Pharisee as the third traveler, the one showing ‘correct’ behavior (see this article for some background on Jesus and the Pharisees). By bringing in the Samaritan, Jesus was prepared to make a ruling on “neighbors” beyond what any of his contemporary rabbinic schools taught.
So, having told the parable, Jesus answered the man’s question “who is my neighbor?” in the fashion of his contemporary rabbis – with a question of his own:
“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”
Remembering that the answer to the rabbi’s question would also be the answer to his own question, the man’s answer should have been “the Samaritan” – but he couldn’t even bring himself to say the word. Instead, he answered:
The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”
So, the answer to “Who is my neighbor?” is “the Samaritan”. Scandalous! And Jesus’ response?
Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”
So while, yes, it is important for us to have compassion on the hurt, bleeding and broken, the key teaching here is to show true love to our greatest of enemies.
So, in parlance of modern Christianity, if Jesus were to tell a similar story today, the three main characters would likely be a Lutheran, a Presbyterian and a Catholic, and we would call this story “The Good Catholic”. The parallels, in a number of ways are stark – The bolus of Catholicism and Protestantism see the other ’side’ as apostate. Both have the same holy book. Both are often antagonistic toward one another. Both often tend to be nicer to unbelievers than one another.
Granted, I’m sure we could call it “The Good Emergent”, or “The Good Calvinist” (for Rick Frueh), or “The Good Armchair Discernmentalist”, as well… Each would be scandalous in its own right.
So – choose that group which most personifies your intra-church prejudice and insert them into the story as the “Samaritan”, and then ask “who is my neighbor?” and follow the advice of Rabbi Yeshua -
“Go and do likewise…”