Sacred and the Strange: The Good Samaritan in Context

By Kate Daley-Bailey

The Parable of the Good Samaritan (the Gospel of Luke 10:25-37) is probably one of the best- known parables from the Christian New Testament.  In the U.S. the phrase ‘good Samaritan’ is commonly understood to describe someone who has gone out of their way to help another.  This phrase has been thoroughly secularized and one need not be a Christian to know its meaning.  You voluntarily carry your elderly neighbor’s groceries… you are a ‘good Samaritan.’ You clean up someone else’s litter on the side walk… you are a ‘good Samaritan.’

In the second grade, I was recognized as the most conscientious student in the class… and you guessed it… I was awarded a certificate for being a ‘good Samaritan.’ But wait… who exactly are the Samaritans and why did my second grade teacher think I was a particularly ‘good’ one?

Who are the Samaritans?

Stephen L. Harris in his text, The New Testament: A Student’s Introduction, describes the Samaritans of first century Roman occupied Judea as a sect of Jewish people who “recognized only the Mosaic Torah, but not the prophets or other biblical writings, as binding Scripture (67).”  

According to Harris, there was a great deal of animosity between the Samaritans and other Jewish groups due to the Samaritan’s acceptance of only the first five books of the Hebrew Bible as scripture.  Not only did the Samaritan scripture differ from that of the standard Jewish version but the Samaritans also embraced Mount Gerizim, rather than Mount Zion, as God’s holy place.  

During Jesus’ time, the Samaritan Jewish identity was hotly contested… so much so that “Jews in Judea regarded the Samaritans as an alien people who practiced a false version of the Jewish religion (67).”  Harris also notes that according to some biblical verses (such as 2 Kings 17) the Samaritans were viewed as the descendants of “Mesopotamians whom Assyrian conquerors settled in the area during the eight century B.C.E.- and therefore not ‘authentic’ Jews (67).”  Harris states that this description of the Samaritans’ origin, although historically inaccurate, was a widely held belief among the various Jewish sects in Judea during the first century CE. 

Jesus and His Historical Context:

Historically speaking, Jesus was a Jew.  He had Jewish parents, went to the Jerusalem Temple, knew Jewish scripture and often quoted from them, and celebrated Jewish holidays such as Passover.  The name Jesus is actually the Greek version of his Hebrew name—a variation on the name Joshua.  The majority of Jesus’ followers, according to the four gospels of the New Testament, are patently Jewish.  I am illustrating this point because there is a tendency among some Christians to see Jesus as outside of his Jewish context and thereby miss the impact that many of his actions and sayings would have had on his primarily Jewish audience.

The Parable:

According to the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is approached by a Torah scholar (a man very learned in Jewish law) and asked what he must do to inherent eternal life.  Jesus returns his question with another question: “What is written in the law?  What do you read there?”  The scholar quotes from the written Torah: “You shall 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 your neighbor as yourself.”  Jesus affirms the man’s answer but before he leaves he wants Jesus to clarify who his neighbor is… who does this category include?  Instead of directly answering the man, Jesus tells him a parable, a common didactic literary tool used by Jewish teachers to have listeners work through their own questions.  The parable illustrated is the Parable of the Good Samaritan, which reads as follows:

30 Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.  32 So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.  33 But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity.  34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them.  Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him.  35 The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’

After telling the parable, Jesus turns back to the man and asks “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”  37 He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”  (New Revised Standard Version, 1989)

Unpacking the Parable:

The road from Jerusalem to Jericho, in Jesus’ time, was a notoriously dangerous stretch of road.  Particularly hazardous because bandits would often lie in wait for travelers.  The unfortunate man in Jesus’ parable fell victim to a band of robbers and they striped him, beat him and went away leaving him half-dead.  The injured man is anonymous. The parable presents three new characters: a priest, a Levite, and finally a Samaritan.  According to Brad Young’s book The Parables: Jewish Tradition and Christian Interpretation, the priest and Levite both “serve religious functions in the temple” and did not “follow the oral interpretation of the Torah” which means they were probably associated with a particular group of Jews in the first century known as the Sadducees (106).  These Sadducees were very concerned with ritual purity and followed the written Torah injunction (Lev. 21:1) that they not touch a dead body which was understood as ritually contaminating.  The priest and Levite’s actions were dictated by their strict interpretation of ritual purity laws.  If the man is dead, then they risk ritual contamination by touching a corpse.

Relationship to the Law

According to the Law, what is one required to do?  Some Jewish groups like the Sadducees accepted only the written Law and read these texts literally.  The Samaritans, who as we previously discussed, were often viewed as enemies of the Jews, ironically shared one characteristic with the Sadducees… they too only accepted the written Law.  Both groups rejected the oral Law.  According to Harris, the Pharisees “accepted not only the written Law contained in the Mosaic Torah but also a parallel oral law (65).  Harris explains this oral law as “intended to extend the laws of Temple purity to virtually every aspect of life” (65).  So this parable not only suggests that Jesus viewed even one’s enemies as one’s neighbors but also shows his affinity with the Pharisee’s reverence for both the written and oral Law.  The oral law, accepted by the Pharisees, prioritized the preservation of life over ritual purity.  Therefore, if there had been a Pharisee in this parable, we can guess what, given his view of Jewish law, he would have done in this circumstance… he would have done as the Samaritan did.

What is so shocking about this parable?

The audience listening to Jesus were Jews, as he himself was, and the man to whom Jesus was speaking directly was not only a Jew but he was very well versed in Jewish law.  It is likely that Jesus’ audience had heard a teaching like this before and were merely waiting for Jesus to fill in the details.  This might have been akin to hearing the opening lines of a joke you have told a number of times… only to find out that the person telling the joke had modified it.  The audience probably nodded their heads in agreement and gave each other knowing smiles as Jesus began the parable… of yes… the infamous road from Jerusalem to Jericho, the callousness of the priest and the Levite, and then the… what?  Jesus’ followers probably expected the champion of the story to be a Pharisee… after all… this group of Jews were required to follow the oral as well as the written law.  But Jesus changes the pattern and chooses a very unlikely candidate as his hero… a Samaritan.

Why did Jesus tell a Parable about a ‘Good’ Samaritan?

We have briefly touched on Jesus’ historical context and noted the significant historical tensions between Samaritans and other Jews living in Judea during Jesus’ time.  We might not be shocked to find Jesus, as a first century Jew in Judea, telling a story about a Samaritan to his predominately Jewish audience.  What is shocking is that Jesus makes the Samaritan the champion of his parable!  Not only were Samaritans seen as enemies of the Jews, they also followed the written Law (albeit a distinct version of it) and were not beholden to the oral Law. The Samaritan was not fulfilling a requirement placed on him by oral or written Law and given his status as outsider was probably risking his own life helping the anonymous man laying half-dead on the side of the road.

The Torah scholar to whom Jesus directs his parable is now asked which of the three characters in the parable “was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers” and the scholar responds knowingly to Jesus’ question… “the one who showed him mercy.”  Keep in mind that this Torah scholar knows both the written and oral Law and appears to be in line with the Pharisaic view of the law.  He too may have expected the hero in Jesus’ parable to be a Pharisee if not Pharisee like.  He might have expected the man to act due to his lawful obligation.  Here, in this instance, the Torah scholar is the champion because he understands the underlying meaning of the cryptic parable.  The Torah scholar did not answer Jesus’ question by saying ‘the Samaritan.’ He defines the man by his actions and not is social, cultural, or religious status.

After telling the parable, Jesus turns back to the man and asks “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” 37 He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

Filed Under: ChristianityCulture & ArtFeaturedJudaismKate Daley-BaileySacred and Strange

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